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Playing to the Gallery

Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to Be Understood
Grayson Perry


From How Much?!

It was originally Radio 4 in the form of The Archers, the BBC's middle-England soap opera that has been running for over sixty years - not known as a hotbed of the avant-garde - that actually gave me the idea that contemporary art had now become mainstream.

The watershed moment was when Lynda Snell, a self-appointed cultural ambassador to Ambridge, if you like, campaigned to try to get someone from Ambridge on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, when Antony Gormley was doing his 'One and Other' project. And I thought, if Lynda Snell is a fan of contemporary art, then the game is won, or lost, depending on how you look at it. If a piece of par­ticipatory performance art can feature prominently in a hugely popular and socially conservative radio drama, contemporary art is no longer a little back­water cult. It is now a part of mainstream cultural life.

It's easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation, as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don't have a lot of academic and historical knowledge. But if there's one message that I want you to take away it's that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts - even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.

I want to ask - and answer! - the basic questions that might come up when we enter an art gallery and that some people might think are almost too gauche to ask. But I don't! They might think they're irrelevant, or that they've all been answered now, or that everybody already knows the answer. But I don't think that's true. The art world needs people to keep asking it questions, and thinking about those questions helps the enjoyment and under­standing of art. I firmly believe that anyone is eli­gible to enjoy art or become an artist - any oik, any prole, any citizen who has a vision that they want to share. There is no social qualification, no quarter of society you need to belong to. With practice, with encouragement, with confidence, YOU can live a life in the arts. And this book offers up what I hope will be the basics of what you need in order to be able to do that. Though that is not to say it will be simple or that it will happen fast and in a convenient manner. Unlike shopping.

Very few people enter the art world to make money; most do it because they are driven to make art, or they love to look at it or be around artists. This means they are often passionate, curious, sensi­tive types. Nice fun people! The art world offers a nice life. Come in! It's not easy though, it's not all wealth and celebrity and free booze. A lot of man-hours and heartache are involved but it's a very rewarding and exciting place to hang out. Over the past twenty years or so a wider public is starting to realize this. I mean, take the Tate Modern. It's the first- or second-most visited tourist destination in Britain and the fourth-most popular museum in the world, with 5.3 million visitors a year. Contemporary art exhibitions across the globe from the Centro Cultural Banco in Rio to the Reina Sofia in Madrid to the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane regularly draw hundreds of thousands of art lovers. Art is very popular, and yet many of us are still quite insecure around going into galleries. I still find commercial galleries in particular quite intimidating. There are frighteningly chic gallery girls on the front desk, acres of expensive, polished concrete, a reverential hush around arcane lumps of stuff, not to mention the language used around the art, which is often grandiloquently opaque.

For somebody to walk into a contemporary art gallery for the first time and expect to understand it straight away would be like me walking into a clas­sical music concert, knowing nothing about classical music, and saying, 'Oh, it's all just noise.' We might be bemused or even angered by the work, but with a few of the right tools we might find that we under­stand and appreciate it. It can be tricky to get to the place where you can start to understand because, although you can intellectually engage with some­thing quite quickly, to emotionally and spiritually engage takes quite a long time. You have to live with it. So bear that in mind.

I also hope that, as a practising artist confronted with a blank sheet of paper or a lump of clay and having to literally make the decision of'What am I going to do?' on a day-to-day basis, my approach to the questions of contemporary art will be a little different from that of a commentator on the art world. I work on the coalface of culture. Though nowadays, of course, we live in an era when we're mainly a service economy, so perhaps really I should say that I work in the call centre of culture.