Ancient and modern

Grayson Perry thinks democracy has bad taste. Is that why he sells luxury goods to the rich? 

The ancient Greeks would have been appalled at the reverence accorded to potters like Perry

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

‘Democracy has bad taste’, declared potter Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures on the BBC about art. Tell that to the inventors of democracy.

Ancient Greeks would have been appalled at the reverence accorded the views of potters, artists, chefs and other riff-raff about their work, let alone anything else. The satirist Lucian says of the would-be sculptor: ‘You will be nothing but a workman, doing hard physical labour and investing the entire hope of your livelihood in it. You will be obscure, earning a meagre and ignoble wage, a man of low esteem… a workman and one of the common mob… Even if you should emerge a Pheidias or a Polykleitos and produce numerous marvellous works, so that all praise your art, there is nobody who, if he had any sense, would pray to be like you.’

Artists, then, were simply technicians, like bricklayers or cobblers. So the question what art was ‘for’ had no interest for the ancients at all, except to please the punters, because if it did not, the technician would not make a living. To judge by classical art, one did that by blurring the distinction between ‘art’ and life.

Zeuxis was thrilled when a bird tried to peck his picture of a bunch of grapes. His rival Parrhasios said that if he wanted to see something even more realistic, he should look behind the curtain in his studio. Zeuxis did and found the curtain was a painting on the studio wall. Not that ‘art’ stood still: far from it. But it built on what had gone before. As a result, the public — the consumers — were always engaged.

The consequence was a universal passion for art, sculpture and pottery. When Roman generals brought back the stuff by the lorry-load from their conquest of Greece in the 2nd century bc, Romans went mad with excitement, ‘spending all their leisure time in fancy chat about art and artists and showing off their sophisticated critical skills’.

If Mr Perry thinks classical art in bad taste, more fool him. But as a purveyor of luxury goods to the wealthy, is he the man to expatiate on democratic taste in art?

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Show comments
  • kevinroche

    Ah! So you didn’t bother to listen to the lecture then.

  • Baron

    It’s illuminating to hear Greyson Perry, Russel Brand pontificating on the failure of democracy and the need for a revolutionary interlude to spice up our dull lives, but what about Katie Price? Should she not be given a chance to evangelise about the shite we’re in?

  • Wombeloid

    Oh dear, PJ thinks he’s found an Aunt Sally to hang another maundering piece on. Grayson Perry is actually a sensible and very articulate conservative. He was exploring the contemporary criteria for what constitutes art and pointing out that the art world will always deprecate popular taste. Hardly controversial. He is also an ironist, revelling in the fact that he has become popular – as a person and as an artist – and almost challenging the art establishment to disown him. After his successful Reith Lectures, that will be impossible. Congratulations, by the way, to Neil MacGregor for instigating them.

  • Eddie

    Grayson Perry like most modern ‘artists’ is all about PR, marketing hype and convincing Russian oligarchs and their floozies to pay vast sums for trash.
    I went off this ‘publicity stunt’ Perry when he pontificated that the English were innately violent as proven (so he said) by our history of working class drunks. Utter nonsense. Racist too.
    The mistake people make is listening to these so-called ‘artists’; they make nothing worth keeping and say nothing worth remembering.
    I’d pay £50 for one of his pots though. Perfect for the smallest room – a toilet brush would fit snugly in a Perry poo pot.

    • kattrby

      Be fair. Perry is wry and funny and smart about exactly those things, as you would know if you had listened to his Reith lectures.
      Go back to your smallest room and stay there. If you promise to stay there, and don’t take anything with a screen and keyboard in there with you, I’ll buy you a pot myself, though perhaps not fifty quids’ worth.

      • Eddie

        I did listen to some of his lecture, even though his vice is irritating, many of his views silly and wrong, and his little girl Claire pose just a marketing scam. The art world really is full of it.
        Want to see beautiful art? Go to the National Gallery of the Uffizi – avoid anything with ‘modern’ in the title and all conceptual ‘art’ by untalented non-artists and gobby charlatans. Or go for a walk on the coast – it’s free and the landscapes are worth infinitely more than any Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin tosh.
        Modern art is mostly rubbish. I would rather spend my money on a really nicely made antique pot, or an ancient Greek one – £50-100 would get something nice.
        Perry’s pots are pots with scribbles on. Worth £50, as I said. You are clearly gullible and thick. Modern art is made for you then.

  • Colonel Mustard

    His art is innovative and original and he is talented. His views on the violent English are scar tissue from his upbringing with an unsympathetic stepfather and therefore unsurprising. He is a true non-conformist in an age of increasingly tedious conformity. More power to his elbow.

    • Baron

      Every turd expunged by a man is original, and in a sense innovative, but does it necessarily follow the supplier of it possesses that increasingly rare commodity called talent?

      Only time will tell, Colonel.

  • Shorne

    Surely if he wants to see bad taste he should stand in front of a full length mirror (?)

  • Dinosaur

    I think he said it all : be yourself : I think it is sometimes difficult to read between the lines. But guys we have been doing it for longer than the Romans. I think he was the right person for the lectures in times of change. I can’t think of anything better than an artist giving an equivocal view is he a Potter or Designer or Artist. Is he black or white, Tory or Democrat. Not sure I guess we will have to see!