In conversation with | Grayson Perry

11 Mins read

Grayson Perry is holding a cuppa whilst sat on his sofa in his North-London studio. Grayson Perry isn’t Claire today, he’s slightly stubble-y, less made-up, wearing grubby blue trousers covered in paint, resting his feet on his table.

He describes himself as a “slightly scruffy teddy bear” and is probably equally recognised an artist, a broadcaster, a writer and transvestite, as well as being considered one of Britain’s most influential people in British culture.

As an artist he is best known for his ceramic vases and, more recently for tapestries. His work tackles subjects such as class, gender, sexuality, identity and religion.

In Perry’s early days, he made sculptures and short films, and was a part of an avant-garde group, the Neo-Naturists, who painted their bodies and exhibited themselves at nightclubs and galleries.

In 2003, he received the Turner Prize, and has also been awarded a CBE, and a BAFTA. He is also known for his Channel 4 documentaries exploring notions of identity and masculinity within Britain. He also plays a significant role within arts education as chancellor of the University of the Arts London (UAL).

Perry says his main role as chancellor is acting as an ambassador, or ‘mascot’ and media head. Perry has a close relationship with UAL – he has been a governor since 2010.

Second year Central Saint Martins BA Fashion students are responsible for Perry’s alter-ego, Claire’s, dresses, which they design every year. In 2013, he delivered the BBC Reith Lectures at CSM, called Playing to the gallery.

Perry was an art student himself, studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic. He applied to do a masters Chelsea College of Arts – but was rejected for being “too much of an artist”.

When I ask Grayson about how he feels about being rejected from a leading Arts and Design school, he confidently says, “Eric thinks it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”. Eric, his studio assistant, calls out, “ITS TRUE!”. Perry shouts out to Eric, “I would’ve been screwed over by it”, and they both laugh. Perry says he would’ve been an MA clone.

But is art school essential to become a successful artist? He looks at me, doubtfully, and says “It is possible, and there’s people like Francis Bacon who didn’t go to art school. But they’re a rarity…”

In his view what is important is that you absorb what you can at art school: specifically the sensibility and the relationships. You use what you learn from art school and apply it in the so-called “real” world of art, he says.

Perry’s experience at art school made him hate art – he says he remembers coming out of art school and thinking, “what have I learnt?  I’ve learnt to hate art because you can overturn it. You need to learn to not be precious about it.”

He argues that people who haven’t gone to art school, put art on a pedestal. He raises his hands, as if he is calling God – “Oh get over yourself!”.

Perry explains that if you want to study art, and you want to become an artist you need to think of it as your everyday job: it takes dedication. To be a successful artist he says, is to be disciplined and hard working.

Grayson Perry in his North-London Studio

Grayon Perry in his North-London Studio [Selim Korycki]

However, the real question is, is art school worth it – the debt, being an arts graduate meandering through London trying to find a job and the lack of affordability?

A few days before I met Perry, more than 15,000 students, including many from UAL, marched through central London protesting for free and accessible education. The National Union of Students (NUS) and Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) led the protest, demanding the government halt fee rises in the UK.

The Higher Education Bill includes plans that will allow British universities to increase fees above the current cap of £9,000. Students holding signs at the protest read, “No fees, no cuts, no debt”, “Mum, I’m still broke”.

Students’ concerns over debt raise the question of whether university is ‘worth it’. I ask Perry what he has to say to the students who protested, he replies, “none of these things are going to happen, unless someone pays for it. That’s the taxpayer’s job.”

I ask Perry how important originality is in being a successful artist. He shakes his head with disbelief – “you don’t start developing your own voice until your having to interact with the world, when your audience is the world.”

Art students worry about the concept of ‘originality’. They want to have a ‘different’ voice, and can become overpowered by pressure to create a brand identity.

However, Perry believes being original is not a concern. He argues that you don’t really start developing your own voice until you’re having to interact with the world and find your own place. “Just get on with it, I always say.”

Perry explains that the nature of contemporary art involves understanding the context of the work and a big part of that context is the backstory and identity of a person that’s making it.

An artist’s identity is inscribed into their work, he explains: “Everything in a contemporary art museum has a name attached to it, even if it’s a scrap of old toilet paper”.

The artist believes it’s important for art students to think about their identity as artists and as individuals and to project this to the world of art.

He cites artists such as Gavin Turk, who has made a whole career around the notion of identity. Perry believes that in the 21st century, branding, identity, having a name are important to being an artist in the contemporary art world.

“You can reject it or embrace it but you’ve got to know that it exists – that pressure. Being an artist comes from your life,” Perry says.

In a society that is obsessed with money, how do artists play a role in the world? Perry’s perhaps cynical answer is that art “is very good at regenerating run-down areas of a city, but that now has actually become a problem”.

He explains that people have become aware of the value of having creative people as a part of a mixed society. Artists are  “the shock troops of gentrification”, moving into an area and making it a ‘vibrant’ community, so that in turn, developers can come in and sell new flats in a ‘new, up-coming, creative quarter”.

However, Perry believes that this is now being perceived as a problem: “People are going to say uh oh, artists in the area…housing prices are going up”.

The lack of affordable housing and work places for young artists will mean that areas will become culturally moribund, “because no young start-up creative person can afford to live there anymore, so you end up with a a desert”.

Ironically, it is artists who have unwittingly played a part in creating this ‘cultural desert’, by increasing the attractiveness of an area and creating the space for money-making to take advantage of. “Our job is to make meaning… it’s to somehow make poetic sense of the mess of life”, believes Perry.

Grayson Perry in his North-London studio

Grayson Perry in his North-London studio [Selim Korycki]

Moving to wider political issues, Perry recently described the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit as “a big cry, it’s a big f*** you to us lot” – which doubtless includes artists, curators, galleries and those within the creative industries who were generally on Remain side of the debate.

The Creative Industries Federation, a membership organisation that represents the views of the UK creative industries, states that 96 per cent of its members support remaining in the EU.

After the referendum Perry tweeted: “Well that’s taught us peace loving, country running, money earning, forward looking, liberals a lesson.”

I ask him whether he thinks Brexit will have an immediate effect on the arts. He says that those who love a panic, will be thinking “Oh no, oh dear, I won’t be able to get my croissant!”. However, he says that Brexit may not have an immediate effect on the art world, arguing that the conflict it has caused may generate powerful creative energy.

Is art for the rich and privileged? Is class still the defining feature of university education in the UK? A survey conducted by Goldsmiths College revealed that the UK’s creative industries are dominated by the middle class.

The research disclosed that arts audiences are predominately white and middle class with a lack of people  from BAME and less affluent backgrounds. The survey found that white people working in the arts were less likely to acknowledge the barriers facing BAME people trying to get a foothold in the sector.

‘UAL so white’, a campaign supporting diversity, equity and equality within the university won ‘the best national campaign of the year’ award at the NUS Black Students conference.

It was launched to highlight the lack of BAME students and tutors at the university and the ‘attainment gap’ which means that BAME students at UAL are 21 per cent less likely to get a 1st or 2:1 compared to white students, while 45 per cent of International UAL students graduate with a 2:2 or 3rd.

I ask Perry how important it is to have diversity within an Arts college: “It is important that your tutors reflect yourself, so there’s an element of aspiration there and that there is unconscious bias in all these things that can come about.”

He adds that, “the fact that there is less diverse teachers is a reflection of a less diverse body of students and less opportunities for different people in the past.”

When Perry studied art at Portsmouth, he points out that “back then only 11 per cent of people went to university, and now its 48% – so that is the consequence of the demographic shift and that more people are middle class now.”

“’Oh, we’ve got to have some northerners!’ That was diversity”. Perry laughs, “That was what diversity was like back then … to have a balance of northerners and southerners.”

Perry says that a diverse body of students and tutors is important in art school. However he doesn’t believe that the middle class people at university are “better off”, than so-called working class people: rather it’s a matter of confidence and entitlement.

I ask how equality and diversity are reflected in the art world, as a whole. “Historically men dominate art history in the same way that they have dominated everything and that will change as well,” he says, and adds that female artists now have a better chance within the industry.

However, he believes that there is still an imbalance in terms of how many women are represented at the top end of the art world. He believes this will change, saying more and more women are running the art world, and eventually this will naturally progress.

In terms of gender politics within Britain, and the western world, he says “We’re lucky. I always joke that 50 Shades of Grey didn’t sell very well in Afghanistan. Suppression is a leisure activity for the modern woman in the West.”

The notion of gender and representation are subject areas Perry is continuously exploring. His recent publication, The Decent of a Man, explores modern masculinity and what it means to be a man.

He also presented a series exploring contemporary masculinity for Channel 4, All Man. “I’m trying to tell people that change is not loss, change is shedding”, says the artist.

The artist explains that modern masculinity is not going to be useful, “you won’t get a job, you’re not going to get a partner if you carry on like that”. The artist believes that women are going to be men’s employers, so to all men he says, “you need to shape up”.

Grayson Perry in his North-London studio

Grayson Perry in his North-London studio Image by: Selim Korycki

Perry makes it clear that he’s referring to the 21st century and the west, explaining that in different countries and cultures, they’ve got older and more traditional versions of masculinity.

Men are committing suicide twice as much as women, “and that is only the tip of the iceberg – this means men are twice as unhappy as women,” the artist says.

Naturally the conversation turns to the newly elected President of the United States. Perry says that when people ask him why he’s exploring masculinity, he answers “Trump”.

Perry’s immediate reaction to Trump’s overt masculinity and ‘pussy grabbing’ behaviour is that  “he is just awful, old fashioned, backward looking, power controlled, and just, preposterous!”

During a time when the world is reflecting on the crises of 2016, those who are entering the art world during this unstable and precarious world, I ask, what the future is for art, for those who are only just entering the world of art today.

“It’s about being creative and surprising and fresh and revelatory.” Perry questions whether buying art is the crucible of original creativity at the moment, “it has its moments. it floats about, and the butterfly of hopped bohemia, flutters about, but I wouldn’t say it’s sitting on fine art, right now,” he says.

The artist believes that now we have the internet, the real cutting edge art, “is probably in some Korean games lab, rather than a painter’s studio. A paint-y studio is as creative as a basket weaving workshop, it’s an old-fashioned medium that’s been exhausted”.

Technology and the internet is the biggest revolution of Perry’s life – “I had 35 years of my life before the internet came along. I was old enough to know what it was like without the internet but I’m young enough to have embraced it”.

Although Perry uses traditional methods and forms in his art, all aspects of technology are important too, not only in the creation of his work but in its communication.

He explains that the importance of technology in his practice, is that it’s accessible: “It brings things that only a factory would have access to, to an individual now.” So, for art students entering the art world, now, Perry believes that it’s more important for them to learn how to use a computer than it is to learn how to use a paintbrush.

Britain is known as a cultural producer, Perry tells us: “Our national character is part of our creativity”. For the future of the British art sector, the artist believes that Britain will have to capitalise on that, during this period of change. Britain’s natural resource, is “our people, so we have to keep that going and treasure and nurture that”, says Perry.

One of the things about British people is that they have a natural skepticism and a big part of it is a, “up yours!” attitude as well. Perry firmly believes that the creative spirit of art students, is something which you can apply to your life as an individual, as well as an artist.

He does not only make his art, but he applies it when making TV, when he’s writing, when he’s giving lectures – he uses it as a universal applicable skill, and this is what he thinks is important about practicing art: “You’ve got to be able to understand the nature of your own creativity so you can then laser-bleed, you can point it at something you want to do.” Being at art school, is not just learning how to paint, but it’s learning how to be a creative.

He explains that learning how to paint is a pathway for learning about other aspects of the world. Art students need to use their creative character to learn more than just their practice but learn how to apply it to their life in many forms: “their creative identity, that creative spirit that you start to understand about yourself,” is what art school is about.

The artist makes it clear that it is not “magic”, but the more you understand about it, the better you can learn to use it and optimise and nurture it.

I ask the artist what advice he can give to art students, who are in this transitional period of their lives, and he replies: “Learn what sort of you creative you are”. If you need a fag break every 10 minutes, or if your creative juices flow better at night, embrace “whatever it is that nurtures your creativity,” he recommends.

It’s a precarious world, Perry states. “It’s emotionally, spirituality and creatively it’s lovely”. He whispers, “but financially it might be a bit problematic.”

What do you want to say to the new generation of artists, I ask. “It’s a tricky biz – I’m alright, I’m lucky I can print money. You need to be prepared for the real world, because we all now that a part of being an artist is surviving.”

But, despite it being a precarious world, Perry’s message is: “You wont regret it. it’s a risk. But that’s who we are. That’s what creative people are – they’re risk takers”.



Featured image by Selim Korycki

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