RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Has this ever happened to you? You walk into an art gallery, stare at a particular work and think to yourself, I just don't get this. British artist Grayson Perry has written a new book meant to make art more accessible, or at least to answer some of the most basic questions about artistic expression that many of us may be too embarrassed to ask. The book is called "Playing To The Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art In Its Struggle To Be Understood." It's based on a popular lecture series Grayson Perry did for the BBC. Mr. Perry joins us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us.
GRAYSON PERRY: Hello.
MARTIN: So I painted this scenario at the top, this idea of walking into a museum or a gallery and kind of being perplexed by what you are beholding. Has this ever happened to you?
PERRY: I think when I was young, yeah. I think I was just as slightly annoyed as most people are, you know, that they didn't understand what was going on - and perhaps intimidated as well because it can be quite intimidating when you go, particularly into a commercial gallery with its chic architecture and its sort of humorless girl behind the desk who won't tell you how much things are worth. So I do sympathize with that. And it's been one of my big sort of campaigns throughout my career, really, is to sort of make art accessible but without dumbing it down. You know, art - the more you know about it, the more you enjoy it. And I'm trying to say to people - the big questions, like how do you know it's any good, or is it art, or what is the cutting edge - these sort of questions, very basic things. And I just wanted to explain, well, how the things that are in museums and galleries end up there.
MARTIN: So let's walk through some of these questions, starting with the big one that you just articulated, what makes something art.
PERRY: The art world would have you believe that anything can be art. But, of course, there's actually many things that aren't art. And we would all recognize it when it isn't. For instance, a lot of modern art is photography. And I asked a very well-known photographer, Martin Parr, how he would know if a photograph was art. And he said, well, it will be bigger than 2.5 meters square, and it'll cost more than $10,000. And that is art.
MARTIN: Was he serious?
PERRY: Yeah, he's one of the world's most successful photographers. And he was - of course, he's also got a very good sense of humor.
PERRY: But yeah, I'm afraid to say, I think he was being serious because that's a pretty harsh boundary he's putting down there. But I think it had a lot of truth in it.
MARTIN: In the book, you point to an important moment in art history that revolves around the artist Marcel Duchamp. Can you tell that story? What did he do that was such a big deal, so transformative?
PERRY: The story, it's quite a myth around it now. But about 1917, he was on a committee for a show where anybody could enter this exhibition if they paid a fee. So he thought he would tease some of his fellow jurors. And he went down to the hardware shop, and he bought a urinal. And he signed it, R.Mutt. And he paid his $10 under this pseudonym. And of course, it caused outrage 'cause normally, they would accept anything. But they actually voted not to accept this into the exhibition.
MARTIN: It's a toilet?
PERRY: Yeah, a toilet - it's basically a toilet. But he called it a fountain. He tipped it on its back and called it a fountain as a sort of joke. But the irony is that by the time Duchamp sort of hit the art world headlines, if you like, this particular brand of urinal wasn't made anymore. So they had to be hand-made by a potter, which...
MARTIN: That's artistic, yeah.
PERRY: Yeah, but it started a dialogue around whether anything could be art.
MARTIN: You write about art and shock value. And people are always trying to differentiate themselves by producing things that are more shocking or seem to have that kind of rebellious quality to it.
PERRY: Yeah, a lot - that's propagated by the media, I think, who often kind of preface their description of an artist as shocking. Of course, they want - you know, that's a kind of buzzword they use. But I think the art world on the whole is fairly un-shockable. I think where the cutting edge now is in different countries where it's unacceptable to talk about certain things. So that's why Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, has sort of been such a headliner. His work is sort of fairly bog standard conceptual art. But he's pitting himself against the most powerful country in the world, pretty much. So that's a big ask.
MARTIN: You also write in the book that if Michelangelo was around today, he wouldn't be painting ceilings; he'd be making CGI movies or developing 3-D printing. What does that mean for the art world? It sounds like you're saying that it's just not the crucible of the cutting-edge creativity of a culture anymore.
PERRY: For me, the sacrosanct thing about what I do is that I still work with objects. And you still have to go to the museum or the gallery to see the object. And I think that the digital age has made those sort of pilgrimages all the more resonant. But the actual thing that gets made - I mean, I use a lot of digital technology. My tapestries are woven on a computer-controlled loom. I design them on Photoshop. I recently did some digitally-routed woodcuts because I wanted the woodcut look, but I didn't want to get the chisels out.
PERRY: So I designed them and had them done at a special facility where it's all done by a computer-controlled machine. And you get a woodcut you'd never be able to cut by hand - or not unless you were, like, the ultimate expert. So, you know, you can still use your imagination. And someone still has to do the drawing. Drawing will never go out of date because, you know, you've still got to have the imaginative thought. You've got to react to the world in the present and do a drawing. You know, even Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons probably has to do a sketch at some point to tell people what he wants.
MARTIN: The book is called "Playing To The Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art In Its Struggle To Be Understood." It is written by the British artist Grayson Perry. Thanks so much for talking with us, Grayson.
PERRY: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.