Grayson Perry on contemporary art

This is from the Perry autobiography, when he’s been accepted at Portsmouth Poly to do an Art foundation course:

I thought I was OK as an artist. I knew I was able but I had no sense that I was especially gifted. I don’t think a gift is apparent at nineteen in a contemporary artist. Contemporary art demands a voice, though few artists have found their voice at nineteen. What is apparent in young work is the technical skill – Raphael drew like an angel at fifteen – as well as an aptitude for the more physical aspects of the work, but the voice and the emotional intelligence come later. I didn’t have that and my work was very derivative. I don’t think it was peculiar that nobody thought that I would do well in the art world and it was probably better for me than if I had been pumped up as a good artist. I was an average artist bumbling on.

I’d like to think that would be an interesting paragraph even to someone who disliked contemporary art. Perhaps that’s too optimistic.

Not that there necessarily has to be a choice between ‘technical skill’ and ‘voice’ and ’emotional intelligence’. There’s no doubt that artists like Velasquez, Rembrandt or [insert name here] had all three. But I think if people who were unsympathetic to contemporary art thought of it as art which favoured voice and emotional intelligence over displays of technical virtuosity, they might understand it better. They might still decide they didn’t like it, but at least they’d have tried to approach it on its own terms.

‘Rebels and Martyrs’ at the National Gallery

I went to Rebels and Martyrs at the National today. Note to curators: white writing on mid-grey walls is just fucking annoying. I started wishing I’d picked up one of the folders with large-print writing for the poorly sighted because I was having to squint to read the info next to the paintings.

Having vented that particular annoyance: I’m afraid I can’t get very excited about the exhibition itself, either. To quote the NG:

The artist as a rebel battling against society, a tortured and misunderstood genius, has a powerful hold on our collective imagination.

This exhibition traces the development of this idea, from the birth of Romanticism through to the early 20th century and the avant-garde.

Bringing together works by many of the great artists of the period, including Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Picasso and Schiele, it explores how they responded to Romantic ideas about creativity and deliberately cast themselves as outsiders and visionaries.

So it was basically a parade of artists portraying themselves and their friends as visionaries, tortured souls, bohemians, dandies, flâneurs, martyrs and prophets. The trouble with grouping together paintings whose common theme is the vanity and posturing of the artists is that all the pictures seem lessened by the context. There were some very fine pieces in the show, but somehow the theming discouraged you from seeing them as individual paintings; instead they all seemed like symptoms.

The portrayal of artists in C19th art should be an interesting and worthy subject for an exhibition, but it just felt like a focussing-in on an unattractive aspect of the artistic culture. Even though it was theoretically putting the individual works in a broader cultural context, somehow it just felt reductive.

On a more positive note, their next exhibition is Velasquez, which I’m really looking forward to. And since I’ve been on a Rembrandt kick lately, after looking at all those C19th poseurs, I popped round to see the NG’s Rembrandts again. Fuck me, they’re good.


It’s not that I think the artists were less admirable because they occasionally produced rather self-serving work. These [self]portraits are only a small part of their output, and not generally the most important part. That’s the problem with the exhibition; not that the observations it makes are untrue, but that the selectiveness is unfair on the artists as individuals. It demonstrates the ways in which the caricature is true without touching on all the ways that it is partial.


The caricature is at the expense of everything that makes the artists interesting. Perhaps it’s the antithesis of what makes them interesting.