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Subversive Contemporary Artist Grayson Perry: "I Have A Deep Aversion To Bullshit"

17 December 2019 | 11:26 am | Hannah Story

British ceramic and sculptural artist Grayson Perry talks to Hannah Story about the titillation of crossdressing, how high art is like granola, and the joy of "a good, guilty evening at the theatre".

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Subversive multi-disciplinary artist Grayson Perry pops one hearing aid in – “a special treat!” – to speak to The Music ahead of his Australian tour, Them & Us

“I don’t like to describe myself as a stand-up, though I like people to laugh constantly and cringe at the same time. I like to think of myself as a comedy thought leader,” he jibes. “I'm like one of those people you see on award-winning TED Talks, striding backwards and forwards on the stage with a head mic, making people have minor revelations – but with laughter.”

Them & Us then is “a kind of journey through the nature of the fact that we like to have a group and there's always going to be another group who we don't like quite as much”.

While the artist has previously written about how art saved him from the pull of unhealthy hatred and violence, Perry is interested in how anger functions as a motivator. “I love having a good ol’ hate – that’s great fun. Anger is a very energising and creative force.”

We all have irrational hatreds, and Perry just wants people to admit to them. “People are often deluded, me included, about what sort of person we think we are. I think it's good for us to give ourselves a good, cold look.”

“People are often deluded, me included, about what sort of person we think we are."

People are unable to have a civilised debate with people they don’t agree with, Perry says, referring in particular to Brexit, the subject of his 2017 documentary, Grayson Perry: Divided Britain. “I think that’s sad,” Perry notes. “One of my new big interests is the unfashionable area of the centre. I'm always interested in what's unfashionable, because you can be damn sure in a few months, years, time that will be the trendiest place to be.”

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Them & Us is unscripted, with “lots of pictures”, although Perry knows where he’s going at any point in time. As he does with all his work – from ceramic and sculptural art to books to television programs – he will try to distil complex ideas, like the sometimes perplexing language of the art world, in a way that is entertaining and informative.

“My great passion really is taking perhaps more highbrow ideas and breaking them down into digestible chunks so that people don't feel like they're doing their homework. Because with a lot of high art, especially when it's dealing with political issues, it does feel like the cultural equivalent of granola,” he laughs. “I have a deep aversion to bullshit, so I try to translate the kind of language that the art world uses into plain English and with a sense of humour, and with a welcoming glint in my eye.”

During the show, Perry will ask people to vote with an electronic keypad on big and small questions. “That’s a lot of fun because I can then use that information in whatever way I choose as the show progresses,” he says. “[The questions] go from the most serious, like what are you voting and things like that in the political elections to, ‘Are Volkswagen campervans Liberal or Labor?’

“I like to tease [my audience], because there's nothing that the liberal elite like better than a good, guilty evening at the theatre,” he continues. “A lot of the things that I'm having a go at, I'm guilty of myself... With the audience, I lay myself open. I like that. I like to be open.” 

Grayson Perry. Pic: Jochen Braun. 

Perry’s projected audience is people like himself. “I'm making it for myself. I'm trying to make myself laugh.

“[The audience are] my people,” he stresses. “We probably have shared viewing habits on the TV, we probably listen to the same music, we probably eat the same foods, and sit in our nice glazed extensions at the back of our nice houses in nice parts of the city... Obviously there'll be other people from other socioeconomic groups there, but the polling suggests that most people have been to university, and things like that.” 

Still, Perry says he’s gratified by just how wide a demographic he has for his television programs, like last year’s docu-series Grayson Perry: Rites Of Passage, and his art exhibitions, including his last show in Australia in 2015, the retrospective Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career. “I get taxi drivers calling out in the traffic, saying 'Oh, mate, love your tapestries!’”

“I get taxi drivers calling out in the traffic, saying 'Oh, mate, love your tapestries!’”

Political concerns don’t necessarily inform his work, even though he often explores ideas around class, religion, and gender and sexuality: “I am an artist and a performer and a broadcaster, I'm not a politician.”

Instead Perry sees his role as to “notice things and then take the piss”. “I'm not here to play some kind of friendly role to calm the waters of disagreement in world political problems because I think that'd take a bigger intellect than mine. I just like to point things out to people.”

Using humour can make difficult ideas more palatable to his audience. “If you land a truth bomb on someone but as a joke, then they're kind of obliged to swallow it without spitting it out. I think that's good really.”

Perry, a lifelong crossdresser, will “drag [his] carcass on stage in a dress”, the show inevitably grappling with ideas around masculinity that he previously unpacked in his 2016 book, The Descent Of Man, and TV documentary series, Grayson Perry: All Man. “I've been banging on about [masculinity] for ages, so I feel like an old lag on that one.” 

It’s going to take a long time for our understandings of masculinity to evolve, Perry notes. “Masculinity is mainly a set of habits, traditions and beliefs historically associated with being a man,” he explains in The Descent Of Man.

Those habits, traditions and beliefs are not going to change overnight, or even in a generation. But he believes that our ideas of gender are largely malleable social constructs – learned and then performed routines, not fixed behaviours – that have changed and will continue to change over time. “We're talking about the layer of our identity that is almost the most deep-seated, it nestles next to the very fact of our humanity,” he says.

But Perry acknowledges that changes in the way we perceive traditional gender roles will affect the way he seems himself as a self-described transvestite. 

In The Descent Of Man, Perry writes that his transvestism may be “some unconscious renunciation of being a man, or at least a fantasy flight towards femininity”. “If anything, it gives me a sharper insight into what it is to be a man, since from the age of 12 I have been intensely questioning my own masculinity.” 

“Obviously, as a transvestite, I'm incredibly heavily invested in sexist gender roles,” he tells The Music, “because if there were no strict gender roles then transvestites wouldn't exist, because we get off on wearing the wrong clothes. Basically, in the glorious future that many kind of ‘gender warriors' believe will happen when we're all equal and behaving in a gender-fluid way, transvestites won't exist.”

Dressing as a woman wouldn’t be titillating for Perry if it was no longer a taboo. “Part of the excitement of it is that it's forbidden and humiliating and ridiculous and stands out. So if it was like a normal, accepted behaviour, a lot of the thrill of it would go.” 

Perry hopes people take some of the lessons from the show with them into the world. Then, “next time a discussion comes up about something tricky, they can navigate their way through it with good humour and openness and solve the problems of the world – and then give me credit for that at the end of it”.