THIS year's Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesdays), delivered by the
Turner Prize-winning potter Grayson Perry, are producing a number
That this is the first time (we know of) that a cross-dresser
has been invited to contribute to this august tradition is probably
the least notable. For those who flinch at any sign of dumbing-down
by the BBC, of more importance will be the fact that this is surely
the first time a speaker has been greeted by an audience with
celebrity whoops and enthusiastic laughter; or the first time the
compère, Sue Lawley, has thanked the speaker with an exclamation of
None of these things warrants a rant on behalf of traditional
Reithian values in itself; nor can one blame the speaker for his
anecdotes that depict the art world as pretentious and élitist, but
also modish and greedy. Like all good sitcoms, we should give the
series a chance to bed down.
But it is the fate of many comedy series that they are ruined
for viewers or listeners at home by the over-boisterous laughter of
studio audiences. It is not just a feeling of exclusion from the
live "performance", but the sense of an audience congratulating
itself on its discipleship of a faintly subversive, faintly
counter-cultural celebrity. When Perry quotes from the guff that
accompanies Venice Biennale exhibits, or makes jokes about the
"academic élite", he hits at targets as soft as benefits cheats at
a Tory Party conference.
The irony of this lies in the fact that one of Perry's messages
in this first lecture was that what constitutes "good taste" in the
art world is validated by a self-reaffirming consensus of dealers,
curators, and commentators. This is hardly big news; yet, buoyed up
by the audience, there was no doubt that Perry enjoys a consensus
appeal which is itself self-affirming and indulgent.
Fortunately, some audience members were less sympathetic; and in
the Q & A afterwards, Perry started to come unstuck. Sir
Nicholas Serota gave a cogent defence of why he was prepared to buy
a Damien Hirst for several million pounds, as a result of which
Perry's lukewarm attitude to contemporary art in general, and the
Hirst in particular, sounded both confused and mean-spirited.
Nobody was ungracious enough to question whether he himself has
not risen to iconic status on the approbation of an élite; but one
lady did at least ask how much his work cost now - the answer to
which lies in six figures.
I would have liked to hear follow-ups to these questions, but
Lawley moved us on, and we were left with half-answers, referring
in one instance to the poor quality of the impressionist art that
now reaches the auction houses. The point being what? How the price
of art is inflated by its scarcity in the market?
It is understandable why the BBC should approach Perry to give
the lectures. He is an outstanding artist, and an entertaining
communicator. But, just as when Daniel Barenboim a few years ago
attempted a critique of his art and artistic environment, so Perry
looks to be struggling to critique a world in which he is not only
embedded, but in which he plays a splendid and intriguing part.