Artist interview: Grayson Perry
As his successful show at the British Museum is extended to the end of the month, the potter and celebrity transvestite discusses why folk art is often better than fine art
The exhibition “Grayson Perry: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” at the British Museum has been such a success that it has been extended until 26 February. Perry spent over a year combing the collections of the museum for objects to put in the exhibition that intrigued and moved him, and then he made pieces of his own inspired by them. In an interview with Anna Somers Cocks he talks about what it is like being a celebrity transvestite and famous artist, what he thinks of much contemporary art and why folk art is often better than fine art. His exhibition was sponsored by the business consulting firm AlixParners with the designer Louis Vuitton and the catalogue, with his funny and shrewd comments, is published by the British Museum Press for £25.
The Art Newspaper: Why do you make ceramics and now also tapestries rather than what is usually considered fine art?
Grayson Perry: When I left college, a friend was going to pottery classes so I went too and got sucked into the tradition. I throw the pots, glaze and fire them myself. Artists should imprint their handwriting on the work, because if they give a piece to a fabrication studio, the craftsmen there may actually be too perfect; you don’t see the quirks that the artist would have developed. When you work with the material yourself, when something goes wrong, you often say, “Oh, I like this”, and then you make a feature of it. You would never have ended up with El Greco or something very stylised without that feed-back loop.
I like the idea of my art being a covetable object; I like preciousness. A lot of art seems to flaunt its throw-away character, German art in particular. But you have to sail out into the dangerous sea of fine art with these crafted works.
Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing.
Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?
What is your content about?
Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art—stuff like that.
Why folk art?
I’m interested in anything very creative outside the fine art tradition. Fine art is very arrogant; it likes to think it has the monopoly on refined visual culture, but there is lots of art out there. I also like Outsider art.
So you like art where the creator does not say, “I’m being an artist”.
One of the defining characteristics of being a fine artist is self-consciousness; you are aware of the implications of everything you are doing. This is inherent in the “white cube”; this is why so many artists get away with such trivial work because it has such reverberations within the white cube. But if you take it out of the white cube, it’s just a piece of tat. I enjoy art where the artist is unselfconscious.
Your art is often witty; not many artists are funny.
I’m just projecting myself. I can’t resist having a joke. Artists I like, such as Breughel, put jokes in their work. I think it’s part of reflecting human life. I also think that the English don’t like you to be earnest, so you have to put in a little signal to your tribe.
When you started appearing as Claire, was that brave or exhibitionist?
She started as a spontaneous welling up of my sexuality when I was about 13. At first, I just tried to look like a woman. I would go shopping and wander about town, and it was a bit boring. Then I had a damascene moment when I was about 40. I was having therapy and reconsidering everything, so I thought of wearing clothes that represented the extremes of femininity, and from that day on I indulged my fantasies. I also had the budget at that point to do so.
But now people are used to it. I’ve seen you at the British Museum’s annual dinner, all dolled up, surrounded by ambassadors and government ministers, and only the foreigners go “What?!”, while the Brits just say, “Oh, there’s Grayson”.
It’s brilliant the way society has embraced me, but it has taken some of the thrill out of dressing up. A side effect is that, in the past, when I dressed up and went out into the street, people would say, “Who’s that weird bloke?” while now I’m “Grayson Perry”, which means that I’m in danger of getting pestered.
The therapy, was that part of your artistic process?
It became the most influential factor in my art over the last 15 years. It gave me clarity. I always describe it as someone tidying up my tool shed so that I had everything easily to hand and wasn’t fumbling in the dark any more.
Do you worry about the fact that you are now “Grayson Perry” and people have firm ideas of what they expect from you? Do you think this was will prey on your creativity?
Part of being a successful artist is dealing with success. It’s the attention that is such a problem. It’s as though I have an internal amphitheatre now, with people wondering what I am up to. The other thing is that I have a weird Midas touch, which is why charities keep writing to me ask for work to auction.
The contemporary art world has become like the magic machine people have always wanted, where you crank a handle and out comes money.
I’m very aware of that as a contemporary artist.
You immortalised the curator Ian Jenkins of the British Museum on a pot. He was your guide around the collections for the two and a half years when you were selecting the objects for “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”. His subject is classical sculpture and he says that he couldn’t get you interested in it.
That’s because it’s a cliché. It’s like the Leonardo show [at the National Gallery], which I couldn’t be bothered to go and see: fuzzy portraits by that famous bloke. I think there is enough great art in the world without going over those trampled areas again and again. I can’t see classical sculpture without seeing all the bad connections to it over the centuries. It’s too familiar, really.
The veteran collector Charles Saatchi has said recently that the art world is dominated by vulgar people who are only interested in money. Do you think he has a point or is he just getting old?
I did begin to fear until about three years ago that the hedgefund/oligarch dollar would be the chief measure of quality. It tended to favour glitzy, blingy art. What has kept the art world interesting and alive has been its roots in serious academe, the art colleges and, of course, the artists themselves. I think he’s being a bit of a snob because he has been at it for a long time. But if these oligarchs stay at it as long as he, maybe they will become just as refined and curmudgeonly.