Culture, conversation and character: discussing Perry’s Reith Lectures

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Huge thanks to the 12 students and staff who joined us for conversations based around Grayson Perry’s ‘Reith Lecture’: Nice Rebellion, Welcome in.

I love how the Research Room space transforms (with the help of Oliver Cameron-Swan) into a movie theatre at a moment’s notice. For this informal event we weren’t, strictly speaking, watching, but instead were listening to the 45 minute broadcast from 2013.

It’s worth mentioning that Perry is the first visual artist to have been invited as a Reith Lecturer, and also worth mentioning that his lectures, though meeting with wide popular acclaim, didn’t always please the critics. Richard Dorment in particular was scathing of the lectures. However, it’s safe to say that our particular audience agreed more with James Cahill’s comments that:
“His very desire to prick the art world’s unchallenged assumptions deserved praise”

However, as one would expect with a mixed group of musicians, M.A students, Crafts tutors and Fine Artists (plus a particularly lovely Governor who listened to the lectures first time around during a long commute) our discussion wasn’t limited to the ideas Perry presented.

We looked instead to wider ideas concerning the importance of ‘performance’ as a visual artist and the complex ways that Perry reaches his audience, both as an artist and a spokesperson. We all agreed that ‘opening out’ the ‘secrets’ of the art world with such humour was a real strength. His Reith Lectures are, undoubtedly, well-articulated and easy to listen to. We also felt that Perry’s was a consummate and complex performance, layered with the same kinds of multiple meanings that can be read into his artworks.

This isn’t particularly about his transvestism, but rather, the constant interplay between character and how it affects the meanings in the writing, broadcasts and visual pieces. Perry plays with our assumptions but also speaks to them, bringing the audience into a world that walks a tightrope between mockery and sincerity, whilst playing with ideas of narrator and audience.
There are perhaps no real ‘fixed points’ in any of his work, regardless of their insouciant humour. Always, there is a self-awareness of cultural context (including its various foibles and fallibilities) coupled with a pointed self-reflection which embodies a critical, but gentle commentary.

It was lovely to discuss this also in terms of the ideas presented and their relevance to the arts students in the room; looking at ideas of traditional validation (the work in the gallery or museum) as opposed to choosing contexts which hold more cultural value, perhaps – are more local rather than more formal settings that could be seen as disconnected and aloof.

We also considered ideas of ‘authenticity’; what meanings the word held and how that translates to the life and work of a busy MA student juggling the demands of a professional career with time in the studio.

The word also translates to Perry’s chosen medium of pottery, his self-reflections on choosing this medium as a rebellious act and how this relates to wider ideas of ‘art’ and ‘crafts’ as embodying different meanings in different contexts. I love that two of our group choose their ‘label’ according to the particular need and the contexts In which they choose to show, or perform, their work.

Thanks to Simon, Dan and Ollie for their support in putting on the event. If anyone has any ideas as to what we could next show/listen to and discuss, please let me know. We’re hoping to hold these on a monthly basis from now on, to create a network of informal ‘scholarly’ spaces where students and staff can gather round interesting content that provoke cross-curricular conversations.

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