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Grayson Perry & The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

November 7, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ll start this post by stating for the record, that I’m a bit of a fan of Grayson Perry.

Not so much his penchant for women’s clothing or his strange Teddy Bear/ deity thing and not all of his art, although those things obviously go to make up who he is. No, what I really admire about Grayson Perry is his eloquence, his self deprecating sense of humour, but above all else his belief that craft has a large part to play in good art.

Grayson was on TV the other night talking to Alan Yentob and driving around Germany on a pink and blue motorbike, looking something of a prannet with his idiosyncratic take on bike leathers and his teddy Alan Measles. He was also shown choosing artefacts from the British Museum for his recently opened exhibition, and all in all generally not taking himself too seriously.

The new exhibition is entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and in it Grayson pays homage to the unacknowledged and unsung craftsmen of the olden days through a selection of objects that Grayson argues are intrinsically beautiful regardless of who they were made by. We’ve not managed to get there yet, but my friend Wong has been, and he says it’s really excellent, so we will get there as soon as we can.

I’m very much in agreement with Grayson Perry’s argument that in contemporary art, the value and significance given to a piece of work appears to be directly related to who made it, even if it isn’t very good. Think of just about every scrap of rubbish Tracy Emin has ever signed as her own and still managed to sell for millions.

For me (and I guess for Mr Perry too) good art, sculpture, photography, graphic design whatever, usually has two distinct characteristics… you wouldn’t or couldn’t have thought of it yourself, and if you could, you wouldn’t have been able to make it, or can’t quite work out how it was made…

So many contemporary artists today have virtually no involvement in the production of their work: Hirst, Quinn, Koons etc. none of them appear to do more than take photos and/or sketch ideas that are then given to somebody else and get magically turned into “art”.  And I know the arguments about artists as business men and limited editions rather than single objects, and meeting demand etc.. but that’s all do with money and so much of their stuff is so thin, nothing but one liners, tossed off and forgotten as quickly as a student project or a bad idea after a heavy session in the pub.

So by choosing work from the British Museum, the name of whose creator has been lost to history, Perry argues (quite rightly) that other values come into play: culture, history, craftsmanship, society… Unsurprisingly the irony of him being the exact opposite of unknown isn’t lost on him, but he can’t really do anything about that, can he. And before anyone starts, I’m aware that Grayson gets some of his stuff made by others (the tapestries especially, and the cast iron version of the actual Tomb to the Unknown Craftsmen) but to my eyes the fact that he has spent time making the whole thing in one form, before it’s then scaled up and transformed into the final chosen medium offsets this completely.

I also like Perry’s argument that the art world has become disengaged from the real world and that the largely self appointed arbiters of good taste appear to be out of step. He cites Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano as two hugely popular and gifted artists whose work is largely overlooked by the “serious” art world and will almost certainly never be hung in the Tate. I would also like to add Charlie Harper, the amazing stained glass artist Brian Clarke and of course that unsung genius William Mitchell to this list.

Grayson Perry to my mind is everything that so many contemporary artists are not: A talented person with a strong wilful character, considered viewpoints and an ability to express himself without sounding like an elitist arsehole…

Talking of which, I’ll finish with his rather wonderful Map of Nowhere from 2008. An image inspired by the now lost 13th Century Ebstorft Mappa Mundi and in which he replaces the Christ figure with himself (oh! the irony) and depicts the sun shining brightly on the world from his very own rusty sheriff’s badge……

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