Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry at Tate Modern before recording his first Reith Lecture last month © BBC/Richard Ansett

I want to talk about the issue of quality because I think this is one of the most burning issues around art – how do we tell if something is good? And who tells us that it’s good? That’s perhaps even more important. And of course now, in the art world as it is, does it really matter? And I want to talk about what are the criteria by which we judge art made today.

There’s no easy answer for this one because many of the methods of judging are very problematic and many of the criteria used to assess art are conflicting. We have financial value, popularity, art historical significance, or aesthetic sophistication. All these things could be at odds with each other. If I go back to when I really started thinking about the idea of quality, in my second year at art college, it was almost de rigueur at that point – this is 30 years ago – that you had to dabble in performance art.

So I did a little three-act performance and in the third part I ran an election in college. I put up a ballot box a few weeks before to elect the best artist in the college, democratically. Of course, this was a very facetious act and the audience acted very facetiously in response and elected me as the best artist because they knew I was organising it, and I won the prize – which was a big head that I’d made.

But I learnt two things from doing that performance. One was I had to have very low expectation of audience participation, and the other one was that judging quality is a very tricky area, and my lecturer said to me afterwards, “That was fun but I don’t know if it was good art.” I realised then that there was this sort of tension between the idea of popularity and quality within the art world, and they seemed often to be almost at odds with each other.

The fifth most popular art exhibition in the world last year was the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, A Bigger Picture, with those big joyful landscape paintings, and it was a paying exhibition. A visitor to an exhibition like the Hockney one, if they were judging the quality of the art, might use a word like “beauty”. Now, if you use that kind of word in the art world, be very careful. There will be sucking of teeth and mournful shaking of heads because their hero, the artist Marcel Duchamp, of “urinal” fame, he said, “Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.” In the art world sometimes it can feel as if to judge something on its beauty, on its aesthetic merits, is as if you’re buying into something politically incorrect, into sexism, into racism, colonialism, class privilege. It almost feels it’s loaded, because where does our idea of beauty come from?

Proust said something to the effect that we only see beauty when we’re looking through an ornate gold frame, because beauty is very much about familiarity and it’s reinforcing an idea we have already. It’s like when we go on holiday, all we really want to do is take the photograph that we’ve seen in the brochure. Because our idea of beauty is constructed, by family, friends, education, nationality, race, religion, politics, all these things. When somebody chooses curtains, I’m sure they just think, “Oh I like those curtains, they’re nice,” but when you are thinking “What art do I like?” it’s a nightmare!

Illustration by Grayson Perry
One of Perry’s illustrations to accompany his talks © Grayson Perry

Self-consciousness is crippling for an artist. As a schoolboy, I liked Victorian narrative painting and I’ve had to go through all sorts of contortions to justify my liking of this. I like paintings by people such as William Powell Frith and George Elgar Hicks because they’re very English, have lovely craftsmanship, social history, good frocks.

And I went through all kinds of twists and turns to justify my liking of these paintings. Early on I was saying, “They’re modern in their own time, and they’re ironic and they’re kind of almost seeming exotic now.” Then I would say, “They’re unashamedly popular.” Then, all of a sudden, they were becoming popular again, and I’d think, “Oh no, I’ve no longer got kooky taste. It’ll just look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon, liking Victorian narrative painting.” So you can see how difficult it is, the role of the artist.

Now my job, day in day out, is to make aesthetic judgments around such things. And the discomfort around it is that it’s a subjective problem, so it’s very tricky. I’m sceptical of the idea that you can find an empirical way of judging quality, particularly in art. We’ve had attempts at it over history. The Greeks had their golden ratio. The painter William Hogarth, he had his Serpentine “line of beauty” that he used to put into his paintings thinking this was a sort of way of ensuring that it would be a beautiful thing. But my favourite one was the “Venetian secret”, when Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy of Art in about 1796, was hoaxed. Someone said they had found a Venetian secret, which was that Titian and a lot of the Venetian painters had this formula for painting the ideal beautiful painting. And someone brought this old letter to West and he started painting paintings in this formula and he was mocked hideously for this. But I can feel some sympathy for him in a way.

I did a bit of research myself and I think I have found the 21st-century version of the Venetian secret and it is a mathematical formula. What you do, you get a half-decent, non-offensive kind of idea, then you times it by the number of studio assistants, and then you divide it with an ambitious art dealer, and that equals number of oligarchs and hedge fund managers in the world.

And that is the ideal formula for art in the 21st century. Of course, the nearest we have to an empirical measure of art that actually does exist is the market. By that reckoning, Cézanne’s “Card Players” is the most beautiful lovely painting in the world. I find it a little bit clunky-kitsch but that’s me. It’s worth $260m.

Cynics may say that art is only an asset class and that it has lost its other roles now; that the main reason that art exists any more is that it’s this sort of big lumpen load of cash sitting on the wall. The opposite arguments are that it’s art for art’s sake and that’s a very idealistic position to take. Clement Greenberg, a famous art critic in the 1950s, said that art will always be tied to money by an umbilical cord of gold, either state money or market money. I’m pragmatic about it: one of my favourite quotes is you’ll never have a good art career unless your work fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block.

There are other measures of quality that I find funny. Philip Hook, who works for Sotheby’s, says red paintings will always sell best, followed by white, blue, yellow, green and black. But, and we are coming to the crux here, there’s one thing about that red painting that ends up in Sotheby’s. It’s not just any old red painting. It is a painting that has been validated. This is an important word in the art world and the big question is: who validates? There is quite a cast of characters in this validation chorus that will kind of decide what is good art. They are a kind of panel, if you like, that decides on what is good quality, what are we going to end up looking at?

Perry’s vase ‘Lovely Consensus’
Perry’s vase ‘Lovely Consensus’ (2003) © Grayson Perry

They include artists, teachers, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, the media, even the public maybe. And they form this lovely consensus around what is good art. I did a pot once, called “Lovely Consensus”, and I put on it, written in a decorative way, 50 names of collectors and galleries and exhibitions that I might be in, almost like the perfect CV. One of the names on the pot was a very famous collector called Dakis Joannou, and he saw the pot, bought it on the phone while he was looking at it in the Tate Gallery. So that’s a little tip there for artists. Write the names of famous collectors on the side of your work.

Sir Alan Bowness, a previous director of the Tate Gallery, said there were four stages to the rise of an artist. Peers, serious critics and collectors, dealers, then the public. But I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that nowadays. It’s still very important to be recognised. I have been called an artists’ artist and that is a lovely accolade to have. When I first started making pottery, [fellow artists] used to look at me and say, “Pottery?” And then say, “Yeah, pottery, I kind of get that.” I had to get the support of fellow artists, and then of serious critics. Everybody can remember their worst review. Mine started, “If I had a hammer . . . ”

Another member of that cast of validating characters is the collectors. In the 1990s, if Charles Saatchi just put his foot over the threshold of your exhibition, that was it. The media was agog and he would come in and Hoover it up. You do want the heavyweight collector to buy your work because that gives it kudos. You don’t want a tacky one who is just buying it to glitz up their hallway.

The next part of this chorus of validation are the dealers. A good dealer brand has a very powerful effect on the reputation of the artist; they form a part of placing the work. This is a slightly mysterious process that many people don’t quite understand but a dealer will choose where your work goes so it gains the brownie points, so the buzz around it goes up.

Then, of course, the next group of people we might think about in deciding what is good art is the public. Since the mid-1990s, art has got a lot more media attention. But popularity has always been a quite dodgy quality [to have]. The highbrow critics will say, “Oh, he’s a bit of a celebrity,” and they turn their noses up about people who are well known to the public. But now, of course, galleries like the Tate Modern want a big name because visitor numbers, in a way, are another empirical measure of quality. So perhaps at the top of the tree of the validation cast are the curators, and in the past century they have probably become the most powerful giver-outers of brownie points in the art world.

I don’t know if I’m right but I like to think that this validation process is self-correcting to a certain extent. If the glitzy collectors are buying [an artist] up and it’s all shiny and lovely and they’re just being parked outside arms dealers’ houses, you know, then, the cool eye of academe will maybe say, “Oh, I don’t know now. This is getting a little bit cheesy.” And then the opposite tack is if an artist is a bit too dry and heavy and kind of like, “Oh, it’s so bloody worthy,” the work will go (a) unsold and (b) unvisited probably – because it’s a bit dull. God help you if you’re popular.

But each of the encounters with these members of the cast of validation bestows upon the work, and on the artist, a patina, and what makes that patina is all these hundreds of little conversations and reviews and the good prices over time. These are the filters that pass a work of art through into the canon.

A Grayson Perry illustration
An illustration also used for the talks © Grayson Perry

So what does this lovely consensus, that all these people are bestowing on this artwork, that anoints it with the quality that we all want, boil down to? I think in many ways what it boils down to is seriousness. That’s the most valued currency in the art world. When I won the Turner Prize, one of the first questions they asked me was, “Grayson, are you a lovable character or are you a serious artist?” I said, “Can’t I be both?”

With a lot of the art that has been done since the mid-1990s it’s very difficult to judge it in terms of quality because it’s what they call participatory art. It’s art that, to many, wouldn’t even seem like art at all. It might be some blind people in military uniform soliciting the crowd for sex. It might be illegal immigrants selling knock-off handbags in the gallery. These are real artworks.

The whole idea of quality now seems to be contested, as if you’re buying into the language of the elite by saying, “Oh, that’s very good.” How you might judge this work is really problematic because to say it’s not beautiful is to put the wrong kind of criteria on it. You might say, “Oh, it’s dull!” [And people will say] “Oh, you’re just not understanding it with the right terms.” So I think, “Well, how do we judge these things?” Because a lot of them are quite politicised. There’s quite a right-on element to them, so do we judge them on how ethical they are, or how politically right-on they are?

Or then again I might say, “Well, what do I judge them against?” Do I judge them against government policy? Do I judge them against reality TV? Because that does participation very well. So, in the end, what do we do? What happens to this sort of art when it doesn’t have validation? What is it left with? It’s left with popularity. And, of course, we know what popularity leads to because that’s in the title of this lecture: “Democracy Has Bad Taste”.

What I am attempting to explain is how the art we see in museums and in galleries around the world, and in biennales – how it ends up there, how it gets chosen. In the end, if enough of the right people think it’s good, that’s all there is to it. But, as Alan Bennett said when he was a trustee of the National Gallery, they should put a big sign up outside saying: “You don’t have to like it all.”

This is an edited extract of Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, and will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday October 15 at 9am.

Watch preview clips of Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lecture


Letters in response to this article:

Just one look will never be enough / From Prof George S Yip

…or you may get the point quickly / From Mr Robert Cassen

A simulating exposition of modern art / From Richard and Malka Tomkins

Is it good art or bad? My two tests / From Mr Kenneth Alan Porter

A long cultural decline / From Dr Anne-Carole Chamier

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article