Art Club gets over 1.3 million viewers a week and has thus far received some 10,000 submissions. This huge response is a true testament to the inextinguishable creative power and resourcefulness of people across the UK. Each week Grayson and his psychotherapist wife Phillipa, who is a key presence on the show, create work responding to a different theme. The first episode kicked off with family as its focus. ‘Who we miss, who we’re shaped by, who we truly belong with are all questions art can help us explore,’ Grayson said. As well as helping us think through life’s big subjects and cope with the loss of so much basic liberty, the show rallies towards a levelling effect: the work of celebrity guests and the general public are judged without prejudice, as Grayson’s interviews hone in on the frequently stirring story behind each creation.
Even Grayson Perry Can't Save Us
Grayson’s Art Club launched on Channel 4 shortly after the UK hurtled into its first lockdown, armed with the belief that ‘Art is good for you, whoever you are.’ You can’t help but be heartened by its message. As the show returns to our screens for a second series, it is a much-needed pick-me-up, as welcome as the snowdrops leading the way to spring. But… but what? Reader, I wish I could see only the silver linings and not the clouds. I wish Grayson Perry could save us. Only, I fear that Grayson’s Art Club is toiling under structures too huge and malign to be assuaged by its good nature and irrepressible vibrancy.
"If, as a society, we genuinely believe that art is good for us, then why must we rely on compassion of a handful of famous artists to involve us in it?"
What’s more is that, as Art Club returns for series two, it is bolstered by another nationwide initiative, The Great Big Art Exhibition. Some of British art’s biggest names, including Sir Antony Gormley, Sonia Boyce and Anish Kapoor, are asking people to make an artwork at home and put it in their window or garden, to create a ‘magical patchwork of creativity’.
"Human virtue throws structural failure into stark relief."
Why, then, do I feel uneasy? Having thought it through, I am not resistant to Art Club and The Great Big Art Exhibition in and of themselves, but to how they jar with the world they’re coming into. Human virtue throws structural failure into stark relief. The fact that Grayson’s Art Club seem so vital is a damning reflection of our cultural sector. If, as a society, we genuinely believe that art is good for us, then why must we rely on the compassion of a handful of famous artists to involve us in it? And could it be that the romantic nationalism that lives on in the phrase ‘National Treasure’ – a mantle frequently bestowed on Perry – is distracting us from the nationwide issues of Her Majesty’s Treasury?
For many, what crystallised the government’s disdain for the creative industry was its ill-advised endorsement of the ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ campaign. Cast your mind back to the poster of ‘Fatima’, a ballet dancer tying up the ribbon on her pointe shoes for perhaps the final time. The text read, ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)’. The subtext of that sinister aside was how foolish Fatima was for having ideas above her station. The highly skilled professional could be pouring her effort into something useful – never mind the £10 billion a year that the creative industry contributes to the UK economy.
"could it be that the romantic nationalism that lives on in the phrase ‘National Treasure’ – a mantle frequently bestowed on Perry – is distracting us from the nationwide issues of Her Majesty’s Treasury?"
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was quick to distance himself from the advert. ‘To those tweeting re #Fatima - This is not something from @DCMS & I agree it was crass’, he tried to explain. ‘This was a partner campaign encouraging people from all walks of life to think about a career in cyber security.
‘I want to save jobs in the arts which is why we are investing £1.57bn.’ Yes. A bit like Grayson Perry, Dowden sometimes creates pots. Last year, he created a ‘new, very large pot’. Note how, in Dowden’s segment announcing the bailout on BBC breakfast, he plays with perspective: in the foreground, he prioritises ‘those institutions that need it most, starting with the crown jewels of our national life, you know, the Royal Albert Halls and so on of this world.’ While those ‘crown jewels’ are safe (phew!), way, way in the background you can just about make out the individual, highly skilled artists, advised by Dowden on Sky News to ‘hang on in there for as long as they can’. The Culture Secretary leaves it up to the viewer to imagine what, if anything, they should hang on to, and it’s this ambiguity that gives his pot its acerbic resonance.
"Ireland’s Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce has proposed a universal basic income (UBI) to sustain artists, creators and other workers in the cultural sphere."
It should be mentioned that even Margaret Thatcher’s milk-snatching government had an Enterprise Allowance, which was created with the cynical hope that the young unemployed would claim it rather than the dole. Creative individuals managed to subvert and repurpose it for their artistic endeavours, giving them something, other than thin air, to hang on to. Shamefully, this is the closest that UK policy has (accidentally) come to backing individual artists.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce has proposed a universal basic income (UBI) to sustain artists, creators and other workers in the cultural sphere. Not only would this encourage growth in a sector particularly hard hit by the pandemic, but it represents a nurturing and supportive attitude that takes the arts seriously. It demonstrates a belief that culture can bring wellbeing to the country as a whole.
With proper financial support, art might seem more like a viable career, as opposed to a ‘passion’ or a ‘hobby’. It’s noteworthy that, currently, to appeal to a wide audience, both Art Club and The Great Big Art Exhibition invoke an implied amateurism. You can hear it in the titles: an art club is a place where students meet, and ‘Great Big’ sounds like the premodifier of a televised, amateur sewing or baking competition. I’m not saying that amateurism is a bad thing – the opposite, I suppose, is elitism (ick). Yet between the witch-hunts of amateurs going after the elites and vice versa, we forget there is another way. Where is the voice in our culture that says, ‘You can make art, and make a living from it’?
"Between the witch-hunts of amateurs going after the elites and vice versa, we forget there is another way. Where is the voice in our culture that says: You can make art, and make a living from it?"
‘So you wanna be creative, because you’re Creative People,’ said Perry with vocal fry, gently baiting the young crowd at the Sarabande Foundation in 2019. ‘Creativity is one of the words that I really hate,’ he continues, ‘because it’s always used by people who aren’t. It’s a bit like aspiration and inspiration and passion and all those’ – at this point, he pretends to be sick – ‘words’. Indeed, creativity is a concept that has been appropriated and bandied around by people like Oliver Dowden who systematically devalue it.
It is the government’s responsibility to clarify whether art is a viable career or just a hobby, and not up to people like Grayson Perry – especially because his own career has been built on brazenly dismantling the distinction between workmanship and high art. ‘People in the art world were more shocked that I made pots than the fact that I was a transvestite,’ he went on to say at Sarabande, because pots are supposed to shelter under an umbrella called ‘craft’. They aren’t supposed to come complete with provocative political messages and lurid headlines, like an alarm designed to wake up the #sheeple. In his 2013 Reith lectures, Perry said, ‘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?”’
Of course, he can. Perry has made a career out of multiplicity and is known as an artist, writer and broadcaster, and one who often appears as his female alter-ego Claire to boot. So, when Art Club Perry uses the very words that made him faux-vomit at Sarabande, we’re primed to hear them as they’re intended. Platitudes they may be, but ones which clearly come from a genuine desire to help creativity thrive. Does that sweeten the pill, for artists yet to graduate to National Treasure status? What does Fatima think about the whole business?
Here’s one for you. Instead of ambushing ballet dancers and wresting them into careers in cyber, let’s drag Dowden into a dance studio. Boris into a writer’s room, Rees-Mogg onto a film set. Meanwhile, I’m pitching something to Channel 4 called the Great Big Politics Club, where the British public can indulge their hobby of running the country while that lot in Whitehall pull their socks up and get a real job in the arts.
By Sammi Gale