This year’s Turner Prize for art, worth £20,000 or about $33,000, “went not to another conceptualist but to a craftsman,” wrote Nigel Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph. The craftsman was a potter named Grayson Perry, so in a strictly technical sense Reynolds was right. The guy actually makes things, as opposed to just arranging things, like Tracey Emin’s unmade bed of 1999, or calling in a “fabricator” as is said to be the practice of Damien Hirst, who won the prize a few years before that for displaying a pickled calf. But Perry is no less a conceptualist for that. In fact, he is a kind of super-conceptualist, since he has managed to make his life as well as his art high-concept.
He accepted his award, for instance, dressed as “Claire,” his alter ego, in a purple satin baby-doll dress with appliquéd rabbits and a green bow and wearing bobby socks with his red patent leather pumps. He stood between his wife, a psychotherapist who was also wearing a dress designed by him, and his 11-year-old daughter, Florence. The latter was present in spite of public warnings that certain of the exhibits were unsuitable viewing for children under 16. These very much included her father’s pots, which–”vulgar enough in form and glaze to be in sales of table lamps at Harrods” said Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard
sniffily–are only to be distinguished from ordinary pots by the images of orgies, massacres, and sexual perversions on them. “I’m not trying to do art to shock,” says Perry.
In winning the prize, he beat out the hot favorites, Jake and Dinos Chapman who produce elaborate models in several different media juxtaposing sex, death, and mutilation and most recently came to public notice by designing a chess set in which the pieces are lifelike figures apart from the fact that they have penises for noses and anuses for mouths. “The reason for that’s lost in the mists of time,” Dinos Chapman told Ian Douglas of the Telegraph. “It’s kind of because they’re better. Better than noses and mouths.” Doubtless the Chapmans would agree with Perry, who told Rachel Campbell-Johnston of the Times that “I use penises because I’ve got one, and it crops up in many subjects I’m interested in.” The mind boggles.
You’ve got to sympathize with the judges for having to decide between two such obvious conceptual champs as these. Yet if you leave aside the money and the publicity–which is, of course, worth much, much more money–it’s not clear why you needed judges at all. Certainly nobody actually had to look at the art. The artists could simply have written down on a piece of paper what they intended to do. “We mean to create a model of two people engaged in oral sex and call it ‘Death,’” the Chapmans would have written, “and another model of decaying bodies called ‘Sex.’ Note conceptual cleverness.” Meanwhile Perry could have drawn a picture of his pot, on which is portrayed a mother and a dead baby with a pedophile running away in the background, and written the title, “We’ve Found the Body of Your Child” underneath. But then I suppose that wouldn’t have done quite so much for his reputation as a “craftsman.”
Still, everyone–not least the judges themselves–seems to assume that the judges have to go through the motions of judging works of art as opposed to mere concepts, just as Mr./Miss Perry has to pretend that “I’m not trying to do art to shock,” at least in semi-official statements. Letting his hair down (as it were) on another occasion he acknowledged that “I didn’t get here by being serious. I got here by dressing up in frocks and mucking about. That’s basically what artists do, isn’t it? They’re paid muckers-about. You’re not solving the world’s problems. You’re mucking about.” That’s true enough, but it doesn’t explain why everyone else has to go on pretending that it is serious. As the judges’ statement put it, “Perry employs a typically English satirical humour, both in the art itself and when discussing it, to deflect the seriousness of his subject matter…But at the heart of his practice is a passionate desire to comment on deep flaws within society.”
John Rockwell’s piece announcing the result in the New York Times was headed “Shocking! Offensive! But Being Pleasant is Beside the Point”–which is typical of the paper’s obtuseness.
Being pleasant isn’t beside the point; it is the opposite of the point, which is not the same thing at all. The point is precisely to be shocking and offensive, but the ability to be so depends partly on the continued willingness of the artistic establishment to act as if it thinks that there is some other point to justify someone in being shocking and offensive.
Yet beneath this mummery of social responsibility it’s not as if we don’t know that such people do these things in order to get noticed, or that the prize is being given for publicity rather than art. What’s interesting is that we don’t really care. We’ve acknowledged, in effect, that we’ve given up on art–interestingly, one of Perry’s stunts not long ago was to have himself photographed, as Claire, standing on the steps of the Tate Gallery and holding up a banner reading: “No More Art”–and are challenging the wackos and sickos of the world, or those who can persuasively turn themselves into a reasonable facsimile of wackos and sickos, to come up with ever more outlandish ways for us to feel naughty and, dread word, “outrageous.” It’s not art and it’s not much, but it’s (apparently) all we have.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.