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Living Proof that Contemporary Art Is Made Up of the Middle-Brow Posing as High-Brow
on 9 November 2016
We all love Grayson Perry. He is becoming, possibly even has already become, a National Treasure. He appears on Have I Got News for You, he lectures on contemporary art and he is a social commentator. What is there not to like?
In his own sweet way, Grayson epitomises the way contemporary art has been taken to the heart of the great British public. From the open ridicule of Carl Andre’s famous fire bricks in the fusty old Tate Gallery in the 1970s to the way we all now love to slip across the river to the Tate Modern and nudge and wink our way around the provocative exhibits.
Do not be fooled by the cognoscenti in the galleries of Hoxton, the purveyors of modern art-book porn here on Amazon and those snooty-voiced types who pontificate on the meaning of art at length on BBC 4, contemporary art belongs to the masses. One way or another, they pay for the Tate Modern and they visit it in their thousands, far more than visit the National Gallery or even Tate Britain. You might say that contemporary art is the new rock ‘n’ roll.
What do they get out of their visits to this temple of the new? Who knows, but it is almost certainly not the resonances they perceive with the writings of TS Eliot, Michel Foucault and Samuel Beckett (See my review of Kelly Grovier’s 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age). Nor, because, unlike the artists themselves, they have not been to art school, are they picking up on the references to Fuseli, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Goya (Grovier again, on Tracey Emin’s bed!).
Contemporary art is “pop”. It is simple, direct and does not need deep levels of interpretation (no matter how much the Hoxton literati lay it on). Very little of it is truly high-brow. Much of it is middle-brow. And some is downright low-brow. Consider for example the work of someone like Robert Montgomery, who produces lit written word installations expressing facile sentiments that would not be out of place inside a Hallmark greeting card.
Grayson Perry, for all his intelligence, wit and charm, has us in the dead centre of the middle of middle-brow. His work is beautifully executed, has interesting and amusing detail, and inspires conversation. Moreover, it is colourful and reproduces beautifully on posters, scarves and tea towels to be sold in the gallery shop. But it is not intellectually taxing.
The Vanity of Small Differences is a case in point. The six large tapestries are imaginative, beautifully realised and great fun, but they are art works merely posing as serious cultural commentary. In them, Perry is peddling flabby clichés that would not be out of place in a Daily Mail cartoon. It starts with a pregnant chav, who through some accident of genetics gives birth to a nerd, who becomes an upwardly mobile software engineer who, with his wife, ends up as lost and déclassé new wealth before the circle is completed when he is killed crashing his Ferrari as he drives his new and suspiciously chavvie young girl friend through the suburbs. Intellectual respectability is given to these works by references to great art works of the past. Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress is referred to throughout, as are, in individual tapestries, works by Mantegna, Bellini, van Eyck and Gainsborough among others.
It is all a great laugh, but extremely superficial. The social observations recycle stereotypes taken from the 1980s and 1990s, stock figures that are already threadbare from overuse in BBC sit-coms and stand up comedy. They offer the no insights to the new world of the 2010s, this dystopia of brawling UKIP politicians, internet trolling and post-truth streamed news services. They are as dated as a Giles cartoon.