The Turner Prize winner delivers the annual Reith Lecture for BBC Radio 4 in Derry~Londonderry's Guildhall
The Reith Lectures, inaugurated in 1948, is a series of talks given annually by a figure of intellectual renown, invited by the BBC in a commemoration of its first Director-General, Sir John Reith.
Designed to encapsulate Reith’s brief for the BBC to inform, educate and entertain, the speaker is asked to present an original analysis that will encourage debate and develop understanding of his or her subject.
This year’s lectures are given by Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The third in the series of four, which BBC Radio 4 will begin to broadcast on Tuesday, October 15, is presented in Derry-Londonderry's newly restored Guildhall.
The umbrella title for the series, which considers art and its role in the 21st century, is Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery. In the Derry~Londonderry strand, 'Nice Rebellion: Welcome In', he considered art’s failing power – but still-insistent desire – to shock.
When Perry won the Turner Prize in 2003, he was asked whether he was a lovable character, or a serious artist. His reply was 'both', and these elements are both clearly on display at the Guildhall.
Dressed in a bright yellow frock – emblazoned with a felt teddy bear – red tights and bright orange shoes, the famous cross-dresser opens by declaring his desire to join Northern Ireland’s marching season with a parade of Armani and Prada.
He then proceeds to talk, with a light passion and real depth of knowledge, on the issues confronting art in 2013 and beyond. He talks well, casually and conversationally, moving around the stage, completely at ease, taking only occasional glances at his laptop screen.
Contemporary art, he says, was supposed to be 'avant-garde, cutting edge, revolutionary. Now.' The 20th century was full of 'isms', one supposedly giving way to the next as artists and schools competed to develop ideas and means of interpretation. Today, however, according to Perry, 'Art has reached its end state'.
Not that art will cease to be, of course, but it’s at the point where 'anything can be art'. The idea of revolution and rebellion is 'quaint. Art is jaded, and is often a matter of tweaking old ideas. Upheaval is no longer the defining idea of art.'
Since the 1960s, argues Perry, 'everyone has become an artist. Bohemianism and subversion have become normal.' (Only one taboo remains: 'Underarm hair is the last truly dangerous thing.')
The main thrust of this lecture is that nothing shocks anymore. Not necessarily because the work isn’t shocking, but because no-one wants to be caught out being shocked. That wouldn’t be cool. It would suggest a stuffiness and lack of understanding.
The right stance to take is one of detached irony, so that you can play both ends at once. And art is big business, of course. The 21st century artist is less likely to be found starving in a garret than negotiating in a boardroom.
When Perry was emerging as an artist in the 1970s, he felt cheated because, as he perceived it, the barriers had been knocked down and there was nothing left to rebel against. His only opportunity for rebellion was a mild one, through his chosen medium, and that was only because 'pottery was seen as a bit naff'.
The art world – and the business world – had adapted to co-opt rebellion and welcome it into the fold. Capitalism absorbs creativity because it offers new things to sell. 'Outrageous gestures become merchandise, accessories and outrage has become domesticated.'
Artists are used in other ways too, and have become guides for property developers, says Perry. 'They are the shock troops of gentrification.' They move into a rundown area, take over a warehouse or two, then the cafés and shops and designers follow, and prices rocket.
There is nothing ground-breaking here, but it is all delivered in an entertaining and committed fashion. Perry can rarely resist undercutting his statements with a touch of humour and cynicism, but there are serious, honest messages in what he says.
'The serious artist takes a sincere look at things, and needs to be protected from irony.' Realness may have a high currency, but character and identity are vital to the artist and are to be cherished, even though the corporate world desires those qualities and tries to subsume them.
A question and answer session follows the lecture, and it is here that Perry is at his most direct and sincere. 'The artist makes his or her own career, whether it be as philosopher, activist, or money-maker. And art – between you and me – can be beautiful. It doesn’t need to shock all the time. Self-consciousness bugs. The best artists have a good congruence with their feelings.'
He has an important message for Derry-Londonderry as the city seeks to emerge with a true legacy from its year as the inaugural UK City of Culture – the destination for the 2013 Turner Prize, no less.
'The creative economy is a difficult term,' Perry concludes. 'Art can be a godsend to a place that wants to attract more footfall, but don’t expect too much. An artistic hub doesn’t happen overnight. Play a long game. Let the place gain a reputation.' And in an impassioned demand to politicians and businesses and economic planners, 'Give the artists the money and just let it happen'.
The Reith Lectures are broadcast from October 15 on BBC Radio 4. The Turner Prize 2013 is on display in Ebrington, Derry~Londonderry from October 23 to January 5.