Grayson Perry: Engaged or estranged?

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To those interested in art and popular culture, the name Grayson Perry is not only familiar but unavoidable nowadays. Curating the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition this year, appearing on big-name television programmes such as The Graham Norton Show and This Morning, in recent times Perry has become a hybrid artist, a man whose interdisciplinary passions collide and condense together to create a persona that stretches beyond the realms of the gallery. Indeed, by branching out into the worlds of authorship, documentary creation and social commentary Perry is bringing his art into the wide public consciousness, which is unarguably a fantastic thing. Yet here lies the dangerous water that Perry is dipping his platform-clad toe into: by focusing his attention on industries other than art, the true Grayson Perry, the quirky, working-class Portsmouth Polytechnic graduate, is at risk of being lost in the world of media sensationalism at the sacrifice of his artistic career.

As a huge fan of Perry myself this argument is hard to grapple with, as I am never able to lose sight of his striking tapestry series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ (2013) and highly iconographic and symbolic vases, among his other pursuits. However, despite the love I have for his work, I (and, I hope, others too) am becoming gradually disenchanted with Perry’s growing exposure in other fields, as I feel it is detrimental to his artistic humility. Perry has become a production machine whose cogs have realigned to create a different output, one preoccupied with publishing novels for juggernauts like Penguin, and churning out series after series for Channel 4. I’m not saying that these endeavours are fruitless, as they allow the British audience to be made aware of different classes and cultures than their own, and are fundamentally engaging and entertaining. However, the rapid rate that they are being manufactured seems to outweigh Perry’s artistic output, which is arguably a contradictory prospect for a man who is a member of the RA, 2003 Turner Prize Winner, and is worth an estimated $5 million.

Perry has become a production machine whose cogs have realigned to create a different output

An idiosyncrasy of Grayson Perry is his overt transvestism, opting to step out for his media cameos adorned in layers of taffeta and outlandish make-up as his eccentric alter ego, Clare. This comes as no shock to Perry’s audience within the artistic world as it is a fundamental part of his personality that he contends with and discusses openly, most overtly in his Reith Lecture and book ‘Playing to the Gallery’ (2014). Yet, to Joe Bloggs who flicks on the television on the sofa with his after-dinner cuppa, the sight of a middle-aged man in a dress is far more memorable and impactful than the intricate art that he is discussing. Whilst Perry is obviously not the first to present himself in the media in this manner (spend a thought for comedy legend Eddie Izzard, the self-proclaimed ‘lesbian trapped in a man’s body’), his artification of himself can be cynically viewed to be for shock-factor alone.

With all of this in mind, I would argue that Perry, by sensationalising himself as a brand and business, runs the risk of making himself, and not his work, the key artefact that draws public attention, thus estranging himself from his work and engaging with the prospect of becoming a renowned cult icon. 

Image of Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009) by Nick Sarebi via Creative Commons

One thought on “Grayson Perry: Engaged or estranged?

  • Wasn’t that pivotal tapestry series: ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ actually created by Perry in a Channel 4 documentary he produced, about different classes of people and their different respective tastes? Arguable that his TV work, book-writing and general eccentricity is crucial to people becoming acquainted with work they would not have considered merit-worthy before?

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