In Defence of Grayson Perry

Culture Life

Image Description: A number of pots sculpted by Grayson Perry are exhibited in a gallery, with one in the foreground reading ‘This Artwork Will Regenerate the Local Economy’

It hardly needs to be said that the arts industry has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst many sectors, such as the hospitality industry, have been able to reopen over the summer, albeit with restrictions, the arts industry has been left in a state of limbo, with museums and art galleries struggling to keep afloat. Being the sector with the highest proportion of staff on furlough, the economic hardship that the industry is facing will only be exacerbated by the recently imposed second lockdown.

Amid this bleak backdrop, it is not surprising that Grayson Perry has come under fire following a recent interview with the Telegraph in which he argued that the pandemic will help to clear a bit of ‘dead wood’ in the arts. Sitting up in his ivory tower, buoyed by two decades of commercial success and international acclaim,  Perry’s comments seem at best out of touch and at worse entirely tone-deaf. Perry is a successful artist whose success has been unaffected by the pandemic, but there are hundreds of thousands of up-and-coming artists, curators, and museum staff whose livelihoods are being decimated by the pandemic. The arts industry has received next to nothing in terms of financial support. Oliver Dowden may have finally provided support for the arts industry after months of continual pressure to do so but these financial packages pale in comparison to the support offered in other European countries. The recent publication of the Fatima advert encapsulates the current government’s indifference towards the arts industry. At a time when the arts are being undervalued more than ever, many are right to level criticism at Perry for his ostensible disdain for certain artists whom he deems to be dispensable.

However, Perry has recently tweeted that his comments were taken entirely out of context, and a close reading of his Telegraph article is essential in order to understand what Perry actually said. In the interview, Perry is critiquing the elitism of the art world, and the “dead wood” that he is referring to is the artists who make art solely for their own small intellectual circle to reaffirm their sense of elitism. Perry actually talks at great length about the social and racial inequalities that have been amplified by the pandemic, and he argues that art would benefit from a wider range of artists. Perry himself is no stranger to feeling alienated by the art world, having always felt like an outsider. He worked for 20 years before winning the Turner Prize and even now, his work rarely appears in magazines or journals. Perry is clearly rejecting the elitism of art and calling for change, citing the pandemic as a catalyst for this shift.

If the pandemic helps to clear away this ‘dead wood’, there will be space for new artists from a variety of backgrounds who can bring more diversity into the industry.

It is wrong to suggest that Perry’s comments are an indictment of his lack of support for a struggling industry. Earlier this year Perry was one of the numerous artists who signed an open letter to the government warning that the deleterious effects of the coronavirus pandemic could turn the arts industry into a “cultural wasteland”. It is equally wrong to suggest that Perry has an elitist attitude towards art. During the first lockdown, Perry’s Channel 4 show Grayson’s Art Club was a hit and showcased an eclectic collection of art from both professionals and amateurs. An exhibition of this artwork was due to start on 25 November in Manchester but has been postponed by the second lockdown.

Now more than ever, people have the tendency to get angry at others without stopping to contemplate the nuances of other people’s opinions. Before jumping on the bandwagon of outrage, people should take the time to digest other people’s opinions fully before making a snap judgement. In the case of Grayson Perry, his words were entirely misconstrued; he has always been, and will most likely always be, a champion of the underdog.

Perry is entirely right in suggesting that elitism has no place in the art world. If the pandemic helps to clear away this ‘dead wood’, there will be space for new artists from a variety of backgrounds who can bring more diversity into the industry. This is surely something that should be celebrated wholeheartedly.

Image Credit: Mark Wathieu/Creative Commons