“Who Are You & What Do You Want?” Career Advice From Grayson Perry CBE

Photo: Courtesy of UAL.
Interviewing Grayson Perry is like drinking a full-bodied wine – it charms you with a whole bunch of flavours you weren’t expecting, and leaves you feeling all woozy and lightheaded. The multidimensional, brazen British artist best known for his ceramic pots, tapestries and cross-dressing, was one of the judges of the annual art show Xhibit, which showcases the best pieces of art from students across disciplines and across colleges of the University of the Arts London (UAL). Grayson's work, as one of the most influential people in British art and culture, stretches far and wide, as a documentary maker, author and UAL Chancellor. As a longtime fan, my eagerness to meet him only intensified as he breezed into Bermondsey Project Space with the full force of Claire, his alter ego. I got the chance to catch up with him about art, the internet’s effect on creativity and why Tories are underrepresented.
What were you looking for when judging this exhibition?
I don’t look for anything, I wait to be surprised and delighted! But there was one thing I found when judging the exhibition: I thought the student statements weren’t particularly constructive. I found myself sometimes liking the piece, then liking it less by the time I’d read their statement. It was almost explained away, and I’m also very, very allergic to art guff – words like ‘performativity’, you know? The statements need to be really clear and students don’t need to be embarrassed about what the work is about. I always say: Try to speak to the man on the street who's interested in art – that’s your audience, not other art academics.
What advice would you give to arts students leaving college today?
Well, it’s very different from when I left, that’s for sure! Fundamentally, whatever business you’re in, it’s all about building relationships with people, but not just people you might collaborate with – people who you can do work for, people who might write about you, and the public who will consume your product. Of course you’ve got to be talented and do brilliant work, too, but I think a lot of what's helped with my career over the years (particularly recently), is being able to get on with people. Nobody wants to work with an asshole.
Do you think being an artist today is a realistic career choice?
Being an artist was never a realistic career choice! The person who goes to art college thinking that being an artist is a realistic career choice, is really in the wrong business. Curiously, the people who succeed are often the real dreamers. I can be very cynical and say I care a lot about the financial part of it but really, if you really want to succeed, you have to have a vision and you have to stick to it. You’ve also got to take any opportunity that comes your way, because money is important to operate day by day. I always say to students: Have plan B, because even if you never use it, it's a safety net. If you say to yourself, ‘Ok, if by this time I’m not earning a living and I’m really unhappy, I will go and do plan B’, whatever that is. Happiness is important and if the job you’re doing day in, day out is not fun, then why do it? Nobody does art because it’s a drudgery, they do it because they’re really passionate about it. As long as you’re excited and you keep yourself excited, that’s all you can do. Because if you’re not excited – who else is gonna be?
On the days when it does feel like drudgery, how do you find ways to get over it?
I have lots of experience of going through lots of difficult times when making art. Times where it’s felt like really hard work, and everything’s going wrong. But I know there’s light at the end of the tunnel because I've come out the other side many times. I think when you’re starting out it can seem very difficult because you haven't got that experience but it’s important to remember – it will look better from the other side! It always does, and you learn that part of being an artist isn't just about knowing how to make things, it’s also about learning to deal with the practicalities of the job. Like learning to manage your time, your moods, what time of day you want to work, whether you want to work in a studio with other people around, whether you need the radio on. It’s all simple things and it's good to know what works for you because everyone has a different recipe.
Your professional life is very active. How do you manage your own energy and when do you know which opportunities to say yes to, and which opportunities to turn down?
As I’ve become more in demand I have learnt to be better at saying no. You learn to do that because it’s kind of like the distant elephant thing, something that seems months away becomes a real bore when it's tomorrow you’ve gotta do it. So you have to really learn the kind of things that you don’t mind doing and also limit the number of areas where you’ve got an interest.
When you were finding your way in the industry, what were the type of things that kept you focused?
I enjoy being part of the art world, it’s a nice thing to be a part of. But I was very lucky in that I always made just enough money. It's very frustrating if you're really struggling. I never made loads of money, but I always made just enough to get me excited about the next hurdle. I used to call it my treat money – enough to give me a few treats and give me a taste for the next thing.
Do you think the internet helps or hinders creativity?
The internet is like us, it's both, isn't it. I love the fact that if I want to find out what something looks like I can google it and instantly I have an image. But it also makes you overwhelmed with choice, and it becomes very difficult to give in to chance encounters. Essentially it’s like Grindr or Tinder – if one chance encounter doesn’t work you can go and find another. But there’s never gonna be the perfect one. I think what is difficult for students nowadays is choosing what to do. Very early on in the rise of smartphones, a student asked me after a lecture, ‘How do you decide what to do’? It was like a fascination for her because she had every image in the palm of her hand, literally. I didn’t have that, I just worked with whatever I stumbled upon in the library.
Do you think artists don’t embrace serendipity enough anymore, then?
I think it’s about the ability to make a choice. In life, the two big questions are: 'Who are you?' and 'What do you want?' If you can get those nailed down, then you are in a position to choose out of that huge plethora of stuff that the internet offers. When you're just sort of like, ‘Ahh I don't know what to do’, you can’t. I see students like it all the time, and they don't quite know what to do because they’ve got a million ideas going on in their heads and they never make a choice. It's like with your partner – get someone in the ballpark who's vaguely ok, and commit to them. Because there is no Mr Right!
What do you think are the social themes that are being explored in art today?
I think politics and social themes have become so big in art now because they’ve got edge. What you make art out of, and what form it takes nowadays doesn’t seem to matter. When we’re talking about social themes, what we’re really talking about is wanting edge, something that's got people excited and passionate and interested, or shocked. But I always try to bring people back down to the fact that when people go to art galleries, they’re on their day off. They don't want to be given homework about how terrible the world is. When I go into a gallery and I’m suddenly being bombarded with social issues, I’m just like, ‘Ok yeah, but what are the colours like? Is that nicely made?’ Social issues that are going on today are the same as they ever were, they are the same ones that my grandparents were worried about: poverty, equality, all those sort of things. Often, people think that if they’ve got good politics in their work, then their work is good, but I've seen a lot of work that has really great politics that is shit!
So what do you think is the edgiest thing in art today?
The edgiest thing to be in art today is to be a Tory artist! People talk about equality, but how many artists make art for Tories? Hardly anybody. They’re a whole section of the community that they’re not making art for. They’re underrepresented. What was it Jesus said, look at the mote in your own eye before trying to pick it out of someone else's?
Xhibit is at Project Space Bermondsey until 14th May.

More from Entertainment

R29 Original Series