Book review: Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

A guide to contemporary art that doesn’t treat you like a dummy

I stole borrowed Playing to the Gallery from the book shelf at work. As I have a target for how many books I read a year, I also have a target for how many art exhibitions I go to a year. It’s a relatively new goal I’ve been setting myself – and I’ve learnt a lot – but I know that my academic understanding of art is pretty poor. Especially contemporary art – where I usually find myself wandering around a gallery, glancing curiously at the abstract paintings and sculptures or slightly disturbing performance art with little understanding of what is “good”. Thankfully the artist Grayson Perry wrote this book to help me make sense of it.

How to judge when a photo becomes art

It’s a small book that tackles the big questions about art. How do we judge what is good? Can anything be art? Is anything shocking anymore? What makes an artist? These could be seen as stupid questions that you’d be afraid to whisper in a gallery but the genius of this book is that it isn’t framed as contemporary art for dummies. 

Perry, a “fully paid up member of the art establishment”, treats these questions seriously, while not taking the art world seriously at all. None of the answers are cut and dry but, with the help of some witty illustrations, Perry gives a behind-the-scenes tour of “the art world”. From the questions that artists are asking themselves, to the shady commercial currents that run behind it, he gives ideas of what you should be thinking about when we look at contemporary art.

Perry explains the life cycle of art over time

It’s a fascinating insight into a peculiar world but my favourite parts are when you find out more about Perry himself. Perry’s frankness on the art industry (more like Kansas than Oz), how he sees himself (an Essex transvestite potter), down to his own creative process (drinking beer, watching X Factor, and getting his felt tips out) is as endearing as it is fascinating. While being brilliantly irreverent to contemporary art, and artists, he also manages to express his love for it. Often, all at the same time:

“…art’s primary role is not as an asset class and it’s not necessarily about being an urban regeneration catalyst. Its most important role is to make meaning.”

Basically, I really like Grayson Perry. I liked him when I saw him on The Graham Norton Show a few years ago, when I only had a vague idea of who he was. I like him even more now after reading this book. And now I plan to read all his others!

Did you enjoy this blog, the book that features on it, or have any good reading tips of your own? Please share on your social medium of choice! @Shoot_thePoets

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