‘Never pass a lavatory, never trust a fart and never waste an erection.’ Grayson Perry is laying down the rules of life once you’ve turned 50. At the same time he is balancing in high, black-patent platform shoes on the stairs of his Islington home and modelling a kimono that reveals surprisingly shapely, pink-stockinged legs. If not erotic, it’s certainly an exotic performance, and pulled off with the self-confidence and panache of a man who is enjoying unprecedented national acclaim and affection.
Between winning the Turner Prize a decade ago (with the immortal line ‘It’s about time a transvestite potter won’) and picking up a Bafta earlier this year for his Channel 4 series examining class in Britain, Perry, 53, has attained the kind of fame rarely enjoyed by a contemporary artist. Whether in his clay-splattered overalls, dressed as Little Bo Peep or wearing a designer kimono (created by Milligan Beaumont, winner of the annual Central Saint Martins competition to come up with a frock for the cross-dressing star), Perry is the art world’s everyman. Settling down to talk, sipping water from a pint glass in his basement kitchen, he claims to be ‘suffering from adrenalin poisoning’. The reason: the Reith Lectures. At Tate Modern the previous evening, before an audience of fans and art world insiders, Perry delivered the first of four lectures to be broadcast on Radio 4 this month. His mission: to explain how the contemporary art world works.
Your first Reith Lecture is like an exposé of the art world. Did you worry about ruffling feathers?
‘I think the art world can take it. Crikey, for the last 150 years it’s been punching itself in the face. It’s quite difficult now to find a bit of unbruised flesh. I don’t think you have to worry.’
Someone in the audience said ‘You don’t make pots for poor people.’ Did that wind you up?
‘That was a lazy jibe. I think there’s a kind of bitterness sometimes because artists would all like to be able to charge the prices that I can. If you had bought my work in 1983 you could have had it for next to nothing. I hate it when people say that art shouldn’t be a commodity. A lot of the rooms in museums, and all the Frieze week events, are there because of high-end art collectors. I’m happy to see the whole thing – I’m decommissioning my curmudgeonly part.’
But when you talk about how art dealers, curators and critics interact, you seem to imply some sort of skulduggery…
‘There are some very unsavoury aspects of art dealing that go with the unregulated nature of the market but it’s all part of the glamour. Glamour always has an unsavoury edge. I don’t want to come across as preachy.’
You’re not knocking the system, then?
‘In many ways I’m cheerleading for the art world as it exists. I’m not asking for it to be overthrown. In the end I don’t think you could do it because it would just shrug and go: oh that reminds me of the ’70s…’
So you’ll be going to the Frieze Art Fair?
‘Yeah, I like the social side of it. For me, it’s like going to the village fête.’
Do you think art is overcomplicated by theory? Should we learn to trust our gut feeling?
‘Our gut feeling is a construct. There is no such thing as an untainted gut feeling. Our gut feeling is the result of our lives.’
A theme of your lectures is giving people the confidence to go and look at art…
‘I think sometimes in the art world there’s an implication that you need an entry-level education to walk through the door of a gallery. But you don’t. The learning experience actually happens once you’re in the gallery. I don’t think people should be intimidated to go through the door, so I’m kind of trying to give them enough info to do just that. Like a starter pack.’
Have you always felt the need to make work and comment on the art world at the same time?
‘I’ve always had an interest in the machinations of the art world. I used to do pieces and the title would be something like “Vase in the Style of Grayson Perry”. So I’d always been self-conscious. But self-consciousness is in the DNA of the art world. We can’t just like something. We have to know why we like it, then pull that apart, then make an artwork about it.’
How has the art world changed in the decade since you won the Turner Prize?
‘There are more designer handbags about now. When I started, in the ’80s, the art world was quite tweedy. By the ’90s I remember going to an opening and seeing people in Hackney who looked like they’d come from west London.’
How could you tell they were from west London?
‘They were thin people who looked glamorous. You never used to see people like that. If there was glamour in the art world, it was kind of Oxfam shop glamour. Suddenly the fashion and celebrity world started taking an interest. It was a perfect storm: White Cube, YBAs, Saatchi, Serota, Tate Modern, Turner Prize and the coolest stars were in alignment. It was a great time to be an artist.’
Has making TV changed the way you make art?
‘Yeah, I make art less because I’m always working on TV. I try to keep the art separate.
Do you have a lot of studio assistants?
I don’t have studio assistants as such but I do use businesses like printers and foundries and digital manufacturers.’
Your shows are getting bigger. Do you feel you have to scale up your work?
‘I’ve done some pretty big work. “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” ship for the British Museum show was the biggest piece of sculpture I’ve made, and it was so time-consuming and labour-intensive and such a daunting process that I wouldn’t want to do it again. It took so bloody long, and the expense – manufacturing costs were over £100,000.’
Does being famous mean added pressure – from critics and the public?
‘Yes, but it’s good to find ways of shutting them out of your mind when you’re working.’
What helps you switch from Grayson the celebrity to Grayson the artist?
‘I find drawing in front of the telly very therapeutic because I watch something like “The X Factor”, which only needs half an eye, and have a couple of beers, so I’m sort of loosened up. Then I get my felt pens out, so I’ve only got half an eye on the drawing as well. It’s quite a good way to operate – your impulse control is low and that’s good.’
Are you recognised a lot?
‘Increasingly. I have little bursts, like when I did my TV series. But then it dies down again.’
Do you still use your bike to get around London?
‘God, yeah. It’s amusing how cycling is so popular now. I think, curiously, the people who made it popular were the bombers.’
‘To me, it’s obvious that cycling started in London when the tube bombs went off. That summer it was nice, and people were scared to go on the tube, so they dug out their old bikes. I think everybody should do a bit of everything. I drive, I motorbike, I cycle. So I understand where other people are coming from. Like cyclists who don’t have lights. They obviously haven’t driven. Especially if it’s raining. They are invisible. I stopped next to someone at the lights and I said to her: “You haven’t got a car, have you?” And she said no, so I just leaned over and said: “Get some lights.” ’
Did she recognise you?
‘No, I was just another cyclist at the traffic lights. With loads of lights flashing and a dayglo top.’
What else has changed in London?
‘Everybody likes sitting outside now. Exmouth Market is like Las Ramblas on a sunny evening. London’s lovely, but it’ll never be finished. When I first came 30 years ago, I thought: Will it ever be finished? There seems to be more building work going on. More bloody glass monoliths.’
Do you hate new buildings such as the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater?
‘I’m glad they’re not regular tower blocks. And I love the way that they get daft nicknames – the hubris of architects needs tempering. I worry that house prices will get to the point where places get hollowed out and the mixed culture dies. I talk in one of my lectures about gentrification and how artists are often at the forefront of that. It’s like developers need to pay artists for the first ten years, in order to set the gentrification process in motion.’
What do you tell young artists who are starting out now?
‘There’s no recipe. It’s in their hands to do what they want. And unless you’re doing what you want you won’t be doing anything good. So don’t worry about what other people are doing, don’t second-guess the market. Go to loads of openings, drink lots of cheap wine, hang out, talk about it, mix it up. That’s important.’
Is there anything you wish someone had told you 30 years ago?
‘The obvious thing I could say to myself is: don’t worry, you’re going to make it, what you’re doing is good. But it might be ruinous for that to happen, because being anxious, being self-conscious, lacking self-confidence... those things might actually help, because hubris is one of the big enemies of good art, as we see in many a plaza.’
You’re not a fan of public art, such as the blue cock?
‘I love the blue cock. I’m proud to be part of the reason that’s up there because I’m on the Fourth Plinth committee. It was a no-brainer: a blue cock, that’s brilliant.’
You talk scathingly about biennale art – or ‘banale art’ as you call it. What annoys you about it?
‘I think that it’s been quite corrosive. I go to the biennales and I walk round and I feel like: yeah I know war is bad, I know that people are starving in the world, can I have some pretty colours please? It feels like I’m at a student freshers’ week and all the political societies are nagging at me for their attention. And I want to go: no, I just want to go and dance. What I dislike about some art is when it’s just a stage set built to illustrate an idea. I just think: write me a thesis, preferably in about two lines.’
Do your heroes William Hogarth and James Gillray still have anything to say to us?
‘I’m just reading Hogarth’s biography and the follies and pretensions are just the same. Hogarth’s cartoons were part of the turmoil of everyday life. Now we just have Twitter.’
Do you have any ambitions to go into politics?
‘It would be so boring, wouldn’t it? Having the press breathing down your neck and the public breathing down the other part of your neck. Awful.’
How about running for mayor of London, like Eddie Izzard?
‘You can’t have two transvestites standing for mayor. Actually, I think Eddie Izzard should have his licence ripped up – he’s not a tranny any more. I haven’t seen him in a frock for ages.’
Is being a very visible tranny important to you?
‘I do feel that me dressing up in public still has a political tinge to it, that I’m visible: a Reith Lecturer who’s a tranny, a tranny on “Question Time”, a tranny on “Have I Got News for You”… If it makes it a little less of a challenge for someone else to do it, then good.’
Is there one overriding message that you would like people to get from your Reith Lectures?
‘The lectures, I hope, tell people that: a) they don’t have to like all contemporary art, and b) if they don’t, other people like it and that’s fine. I’ve made a handy guide for the Radio 4 website, a kind of quality gauge to hold up next to any artwork. It’s got a list of places – from “Mum’s Back Bedroom” to “Tate Modern”. You judge where the art would look best.’
Can you print it out and take it to the Frieze Art Fair?
And what will it tell you?
‘Whether the work you’re looking at is “Oligarch’s Entrance Hall”. Or “Elton John’s Lawn”.’