Criticism: Journey Through A Hall Of Mirrors


Grayson Perry’s BBC Reith lecture, in Derry (BBC, 2013) got me thinking, more than that it got me going back to the very basics of the definitions often bandied about, as to what is ‘real’ art, or ‘valuable’.
He points about how we bemoan the loss of different ‘ism’ or schools of art are salient and witty, he believes that the problem and position we have reached in this ‘post post modern’ or whatever definition you choose to describe our current status and time in regards to art, is a natural one and our cynicism has brought us to what he describes as “the final state of art”


Several things I found intriguing about this talk revolve around his use of the term “art world”, something that he clearly considers himself a part of. 

Firstly what is this? This broad term seems clear and acceptable as a definition or perception of art in the modern world, until you actually start to break it down, then it becomes awkward clunky and uncomfortably complex.
It is clear that there is a market for art, a financial one driven by as he puts it, a commodification of art, so is the art market and Auction house the art world?
Or is it the galleries and museums that exhibit the work that is considered (at the time at least) to be of significant cultural value.
To this definition we should of course not forget to add the world of art education and Academia.

You will notice perhaps a pattern emerging these definitions are all institutions, so where does this leave the artist? trapped forever in a soon to be gentrified loft in north London? Or floating spectre like at the edge of our imagination in left wing groups or the more radical edges of our society?
This seems to me to present a murky picture of a series of structures that have been built up and around artists, to sell or promote a product or an idea, or to discuss, or critique and therefore bestow value upon said artwork, surely if this wholly constitutes the art world then we are in big trouble!

On reading the other provided text I found the perfect means with which to find structure and voice for my hard to pin down concerns with the first, In this second text Distinction & The Aristocracy of Culture (Bourdieu and Nice, 1987) (I downloaded the whole book as a pdf) Pierre Bordiue (1930-2002) offers much clearer and stronger lines of inquiry. So what if, as argues in This cultural understanding of art is a codified one, a socially and class distinct version of art where if we lack the key to understanding or reading the art (often still tucked away in galleries) we are unable to engage with the work.
Part of me wants to argue that the only real art is that which we needs no key to understanding, it is the work that transcends these barriers to understanding, and speaks to us all on some universal level, allows us to find our own reading free from the beret and cigarette of the learned art critic. but I of course I’m aware, that this is not the whole truth. One thing is for sure I will continue to read Bourdiue with interest.

What I think needs to be looked at further is where and when this codifying of art began, has it always been present? perhaps weeping for the death of the Avant-Garde is a little misguided then..?

Im not sure yet, perhaps more research is need here? But I’m pretty sure that a lot of the codification that The renaissance is famous for was a direct result of the need to work around the huge power and censorship of the church at that time.

So Is art a reaction to the events of a time and place, a reflection of the world around us, (and in us if we look at modernism), but then Modernism was embracing the outer worlds newfound love affair with psychology and its attempts at exploration of the inner mind, also a reaction for some to the insanity of world war one, and so like the fibonacci spiral the causes and effects can continue to inward reflecting themselves.

Are we not all trying to make sense of the world and communicate ideas? Hmmmm…

Grayson Perry also quoted one of my favourite Werner Herzog films, ‘Cave of forgotten dreams’ (Herzog, 2010)
So where the artists there not reacting to the world around them?
And where they creating a product or image for another reason than process and communication?



Interestingly some of the paintings are so deep in this labyrinth that it does create the question of who apart from the artists themselves could or would have seen the paintings, they would have been possibly more akin to a cinema like experience not least that they required effort to get there, a darkened space, and the light of a flickering torch to illuminate them.

So to be slightly cheeky perhaps if as suggested the artists seem to have been interested in suggestion of movement and form that the flicker and glow could or would have created, the earliest paintings may have been proto-cinema rather than the flat and stationary works we have seen over the preceding centuries.

Of course to defeat my own argument somewhat it does also ask questions about the availability of art in this early state to all, was the work so sacred that only the artists themselves could view it? A long way from the gallery or possibly not!

 Continuing a little more on this slightly heretical view, The idea of what is art and of the commodification of art is dealt with in the most clever and illuminating way, showing its own form as a possible answer to these questions. What is it?
Banksy’s ‘Exit through the gift shop’ (banksyfilm, 2010) In this he apparently follows a man who with no knowledge of art and who films just to film, as he creates a massive Warhol like exhibition of work, the clue to the whole film is in the title but the brilliance of the way he uses a narrative to make you question the whole essence and value of what is art is more than eloquent, it shouts at the art world for its folly. The film discusses all of this and more in a ‘The media is the message’ suggesting kind of way.

To think that a few years ago headlines where discussing whether we should look again at Banksy’s work and perhaps it was art after all!?
Who gets to decide? Below is a debate from the Tate back in 2008 discussing some of these ideas, and offering an oblique criticism of some of the the insular dieas and opinions within the art world. The use of the word sophistication is worthy of a dissertation in of itself
Grayson Perry is perhaps right, we have I think, locked ourselves up in a bit of a bind with art, Boxed ourselves in as he suggests.
It interests me greatly with all his knowing wit and self referencing cynicism whether he realises that referencing the art world in this closed to outsiders fashion, or to use an old term my father used “Ring the bell jack I’m on the bus”! That he is in danger of just shrinking the box even further?

It smacks to me me of a retreat back into a safe environ, a fixed position with which to stand from to view the world, that of ‘The Art world”
Surely this retreat and conformity with the existing structures built up and supporting this perceived world, is precisely what more radical Art is designed to break down, interrogate, and rise above and beyond?
To put it another way If all of our understanding of art is either commodified or codified, and we continue to beat our chests and look for the next ‘ism’ to get us out of our cynical rut, then we will just find more words more codified reading and definitions to take us into the next boxed up and wrapped package of product, the next ‘ism’ will prove no escape.

So are we at the end of art as we know it?
I don’t see it like that, it is the art worlds own vision of self that has lead us to this impasse, so if as I feel, much of art is trapped in a hall of mirrors concerning itself too much with its own reflection, then it follows that the mirrors can be broken from both sides, perhaps from without as well as within?

Perhaps this is a much less ‘Sophiticated’ look at public art, and I can feel my cynical bones resisting it’s inclusion, but if its not answers we need…

If Art where to look outside of the shiny reflecting prison it has created for itself, then perhaps It could also reconnect with an audience both wider and larger that remains outside of its narrow gaze.

If we want to break way from this current paradigm of commodified art then the simple or rather logical solution would simply be not to sell our art, to simply say no, I am happy being a penniless artist! I will continue to attempt to create art because I have to…. This is of course the type of utopian thinking that Grayson perry talks about, and in our existing ideological and political landscape it does seem like a pipe dream. However there is always more than one way to approach a problem, Failing a complete change in our attitudes toward advanced consumerism and capitalism, perhaps how artists engage with a given audience is an area that still needs to be looked at a lot more closely.

I would like to curtail this text inspired journey before it spirals even further into ‘Rantydom’ by simply stating that although on the surface the two texts do indeed appear to speak in Unison, I believe they are as opposed in reality, as night and day. Grayson Perry appears to walk a tightrope between cynicism and sincerity. His concerns for artists and art are no doubt genuine but it is hard to take seriously his self styling as man of the people, when his language continually suggests a retreat back into the warming financial gain and popular acceptance he calls the ‘art world’.
banksyfilm (2010) Banksy’s exit through the gift shop. Available at:
BBC (2013) Nice rebellion, welcome in!, Grayson Perry: Playing to the gallery: 2013, the Reith lectures – BBC radio 4. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).
Bourdieu, P. and Nice, R. (1987) Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. 10th edn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cave of forgotten dreams (2010) Directed by Werner Herzog [Film]. USA: IFC FILMS.
Street art talks – graffiti: Utopia or a bit boring? (2008) Available at: (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
TEDx Talks (2015) Graffiti: Art or vandalism? Street art in school & communities | Diego Gonzalez | TEDxCountyLineRoad. Available at: (Accessed: 18 November 2016).


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