Wednesday 23 December 2015

Smiles and Self-Loathing in Sydney – Grayson Perry at the MCA

Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, installation shot, MCA, Sydney (Photo C. Rhodes)

I’m glad I went back to see the Grayson Perry show at the MCA a couple of days after attending, and thoroughly enjoying, the opening.[1] It's a sort of retrospective, and in effect it's the third time I’ve seen the exhibition, if you count the version I saw in the English seaside town of Margate last September.[2] I was intrigued that I was allowed to take photographs in Sydney, whereas there had been an absolute ban on photography in the gallery in Margate, policed by hardnosed invigilators.[3] I wondered whether this had contributed to my unsatisfactory experience at the UK venue, or whether it was at least partly attributable to a rather crowded hang.[4] The MCA has given its Grayson Perry show lots of space – the whole of the third floor galleries – and it really suits the work. In Sydney it can breathe. And since each individual object is almost a world in itself, breathe it must.

Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, installation shot, MCA Sydney (Photo C. Rhodes)

The overall feeling of the accumulated work was quite depressing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the exhibition, but it left me more convinced than ever that the wit and humour – and both are here in spades – is employed in the service of cynicism, self-loathing, hopelessness and nihilism. So many questions are posed. So many avenues of travel are opened up, but peter out. So many roads to optimism or solutions turn out barred and sealed off. No answers are offered. This is a place in which cuddly dogs bite you. It's a place where victims turn out predators. It's a place where nothing is what it seems, and yet everything is exactly what you expected.

Grayson Perry, A Weed is Just a Plant in the Wrong Place (detail), 2003 (Photo C. Rhodes)

Much is made (not least by the artist himself) of Perry’s use of materials, in particular ceramic, associated with crafts rather than fine art: ‘I had set myself quite a challenge: how to get something that was materially and formally indistinguishable from the product of a long-applied art/craft tradition accepted by the gatekeepers of the fine art palaces?’[5] He was taken up by blue-chip London dealer Anthony D’Offay early on, though, and was a ‘name’ on the contemporary art circuit. While his career didn’t take off at quite the rate as some of his YBA peers, his work should be viewed in the context of others of his generation in the UK artworld: I’m thinking especially of people like Sarah Lucas and Jake and Dinos Chapman. In all of them, the work is suffused with a furiously focused, witty nihilism – like some stereotypical northern English comic – that really asks questions of the culture from which it sprang, but doesn't really offer any answers. In Perry’s case, it keeps the work uncomfortable and disturbing even as we have a good chuckle in front of it. And nowhere is it clearer than in The Vanity of Small Differences (2012), his riff on William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress.

Grayson Perry, installation shot, MCA, Sydney, with The Adoration of the Cage Fighters(from The vanity of Small Differences) (Photo C. Rhodes)

The fragment reigns supreme in Perry’s practice. It’s interesting to me that each narrative (and this is very much an art of narrative, which Roger Fry would have hated) is contained in a very ordinary, self-contained (utilitarian) object – a ceramic vessel, a plate, a blanket, a map.[6] But within the boundaries of that meta-object there is a world of constructed fragments. In most of the ceramic vessels many pictorial languages are at work as narratives build from the parts. Collage – both literal and derived – is the major driver. Everything, in a way, is collage. Perry’s ceramics are commonly decorated with a mixture of decals, drawings and decoupage elements. Works often function through visual contrast and dialectic: the faux-Japanese flowering cherry and pop skateboarders in Butterflies of Wheels (2001), or literally two-faced vessels like Mum and Dad (1994) and Head of a Neurotic (2004). In the great Walthamstow Tapestry (2009) the visual elements are held together through common stylistic handling reminiscent, on the whole, of folk art and gothic figural idioms. A 'seven-ages-of-man' piece, it is peppered with text that appears to put names to people and objects, but which is actually a list of consumer brands – perhaps, cynically, that which we are all made of in the contemporary world.

Grayson Perry, The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail), 2011 (Photo C. Rhodes)

The style of the illustrator is strong throughout. Perry is actually a very limited (though effective) draftsman, which is confirmed in the ex catalogue sketchbooks and small drawings on show at the MCA. There’s a suite of five works in the show[7] that fuse drawing, collage and watercolour in order to piece together image and create a mis-en-scène and narrative.
Grayson Perry, installation shot, MCA, Sydney, with four drawing/collage works (Photo C. Rhodes)

This is where the relationship to (or influence of) the ‘outsider art’ of Henry Darger (1892-1973) is clearest. Darger pictured a whole world using collage, tracing and watercolour on large cinemascope-proportioned sheets. His work was (now) famously a revelation to the young Grayson Perry when he saw it in London as an art student in 1979.[8] It was not only Darger’s techniques but also his images of androgynous girl heroes that appealed to the transvestite Perry. The big difference between the two is that this approach to image making is where Darger stopped; his concern was merely to establish an acceptable vehicle for illustrating the epic tale he was writing. For Perry, these drawn and collaged images are foundational; part of a process. They are pushed through to resolution in other media.

Grayson Perry, installation shot with The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011
and Map of Truths and Beliefs, 2011 (Photo C. Rhodes)

Perhaps for me the most disturbing work in the show – the apotheosis, in a way, of the fragment and the monument to barricaded roads and dead ends – is The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011). Constructed out of objects from all times and places in the British Museum collection, cast in iron, together with glass jars and rope, it is essentially a ‘ship of fools’; a final piece of celebration (of the art making genius of all cultures at all times) and simultaneous helpless, barbed snipe (at the objects’ fragmentary condition and the anonymity of their makers). Perry has a predilection for outdated and moribund object types and narratives; here the allegory of how the philosopher (and presumably artist/craftsman) is rejected by the state. And perhaps also the Ship of Fools as parody of the Catholic Church embodied in some 15th and 16th Century images since, becalmed in the long, grey gallery in Sydney, it faces the great tantric map tapestry, Map of Truths and Beliefs (2011).

Grayson Perry’s art is very much in a particular British tradition. He is a miniaturist, a modeller, and a literalist. Though there are some huge works in this show (The Walthamstow Tapestry is 300 x 1500 cm), each is an accumulation of parts. Each is interesting primarily for the way the totality of its parts are offered for reading by viewers. The work of the viewer, then, is one of imaginative narrative construction and reconstruction from the elements available in each object.

[1]Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 10 December 2015 – 1 May 2016, curated by Rachel Kent. There is an accompanying catalogue, beautifully designed by Claire Orrell: Grayson Perry: My Pretty Little Art Career, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015.
[2]Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk’, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 23 May – 13 September 2015. Many of the works in Sydney were shown in Margate, though the MCA show is about half as big again. Reviews include Jonathan Jones’ blisteringly negative critique for The Guardian (, Alison Coles’ lukewarm summation in The Independent (, and Martin Gayford’s more positive, but largely uncritical review for The Spectator (
[3] On my second (paying) Sydney visit I never saw so many people using iPads to take photographs.
[4] I wonder also whether it had something to do with me really wanting to see work by JMW Turner. This was the Turner Contemporary after all. And Margate was one of the artist’s favourite haunts outside London. Not a Turner to be seen, though!
[5] Grayson Perry, ‘My Pretty Little Art Career’, MCA Catalogue, p.40
[6] I see Perry’s fine art ‘transgression’ much less in his use of materials and more in his choice of ‘useful’ objects, for high art seeks to transcend the utilitarian and quotidian. Vases, headscarves and even maps are obvious, but his more recent use of tapestry for wall-hangings also belongs to the class of useful things: often used in the past as wall insulation for castles in winter.
[7] All but one from the 1980s and not listed in the catalogue.
[8] The show was ‘Outsiders: an Art Without Precedent or Tradition’, Hayward Gallery, London, 8 February – 8 April 1979, co-curated by Victor Musgrave and Roger Cardinal. Darger also influenced Jake and Dinos Chapman, especially in their Tragic Anatomies series from 1996. The literature on Darger is now extensive, but in 1979 this work would have been completely new to British audiences (and was hardly known in Darger’s native USA).

Monday 7 December 2015

Why We Need a Great Australian Art & Design school
(and How to Make One)

I have been thinking a lot in the last few months about where Australian tertiary art and design education sits in relation to international competitors. Also, about how it is valued by government. I have long seen the contribution of art and design to the economic, as well as cultural, wealth of a nation as a self-evident truth, and schools of art and design as the wellsprings of this process. Yet, it occurs to me that in Australia today this view is not shared. Instead we are faced with a largely instrumentalist view of culture as static, rather than dynamic and in a constant state of emergence and renewal. And in spite of a current near obsession with the term ‘innovation’, we appear also to be faced with policy makers who do not fully understand the contribution that art and design makes to the national economy, or the huge potential that exists for exploiting our creative industries here and internationally in the future.

I realised early on in my thoughts that Australia has no globally prominent schools of art and design, as measured by metrics such as international reputation, league tables, diversity of staff, or international student demand. I argue that if government and business is really to capitalise on this opportunity, it needs to invest in the creation of at least one or two top Australian schools of art and design to produce the creative human capital to effect this transformation.

The following essay aims to explore some of the context and underlying issues for Australia’s schools of art and design, and to propose a broad vision for establishing our own top-ranked schools. An earlier version was completed in early September and circulated to a few colleagues and friends. I offer this revised version more broadly now in the hope that it stimulates further reflection, discussion and, perhaps, action.

Art and Design schools are the crucibles into which creativity is poured, bubbles and is transformed. Art and design graduates touch every aspect of our lives, culture and values, from the way we think and look at things, and the nature of the objects we use and daily take for granted, to the health of our economy.

Imagine a workforce without artists and designers.

Imagine a society without art.

There would be no reflections of the world around us that simultaneously inform and transport us into other realms. No arena for innovation. No creativity. No culture. And innovation and creativity are the things that drive the growth and health of a thriving society. Culture is the thing that makes us human.

Australia does pretty well in art and design education at tertiary level. But do we have any really great art schools? The best of them are nestled in the university system. I’m thinking of places like UNSW Art & Design (University of New South Wales), the Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne), RMIT University, Melbourne, the Queensland College of Art (Griffith University), and, of course, my own school, Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney). All have produced lots of graduates of high national standing as artists, designers and other arts professionals. And even a few of our graduates have achieved the kinds of international reputations that Australians have somehow come to expect of our film actors in recent years. These A-listers include uber product designer Marc Newson (SCA), artists Shaun Gladwell (UNSW Art & Design and SCA), Ben Quilty (SCA) and Tracey Moffatt (QCA), and filmmaker Jane Campion (SCA). Yet the names of Australian schools don’t generally trip off the tongue when asked to name the top ones in the world (an inexact science, I know, but the results are confirmed by evidence such as league tables and lists of internationally prominent alumni). In response to my own rhetorical question I hear myself saying, ‘Goldsmiths (UK), Rhode Island School of Design (USA), Parsons (USA), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (USA), the Gerrit Rietveld Academie (The Netherlands), the Royal College of Art (UK), Central St Martins (UK) …’ So, what do they do that we don’t?

Perhaps a better first question is, ‘Do they do things that we don’t?’ At the level of curriculum design the answer to that question is a guarded no. The curriculums of the best Australian schools compare well with the best in the world. In some cases Australia has even led the pack. Postgraduate education in art and design is world leading in the best of our art schools. And Australian universities were among the first in the world to offer practice-based doctorates in visual art. So, if it’s not curriculum in itself that makes the difference between a really good school and a great school, what is it that does? I would argue that the answer is to be found in aspects of the histories and geographical contexts of these other places listed above that are not reproduced anywhere in Australia. It’s not even just a question of age: the Queensland College of Art was established in 1881, for example, and the origins of the Victorian College of the Arts go back even further to 1867. And these dates are comparable with most of the international institutions mentioned in my list of world leaders. Rather the fundamental difference is formed out of what has been achievable in the contexts in which these various schools have operated since their founding. In short, overseas institutions like Goldsmiths, Central St Martins, Parsons and the Art Institute of Chicago have hosted an international mix of staff and students from the start and are located in densely populated urban locations in which commerce and industry thrive in concentrated form. Moreover, these histories have produced not only strong local markets for art and design consumption, but also significant industry partnerships and philanthropic support along the way.

Internationalism, business, art and design
Australia, of course, nowadays counts itself as an internationalist, multicultural, and connected nation. But it has some catching up to do in the area of art and design. Until relatively recently the country was very isolated from global affairs as a result of its geographical distance from the centres of world economic and political power. Even with the recent rise to prominence of Asia as economic power and Australia’s own self-positioning as part of the ‘Asian Century’, it is worth noting that Beijing, the capital city of our biggest trading partner, China is closer to London than it is to Sydney or Melbourne and more or less the same distance from Sydney as it is from San Francisco. Australia, meanwhile, is much further away from London or San Francisco than is Beijing.

In many ways distance has been collapsed in the last few decades, through greater ease and speed of travel and the advent of a highly sophisticated virtual space, making it easier for Australia to be connected to, and do business with, the rest of the world. Add to this increases in, and greater diversity of, Australia’s population and it’s easy to see how a place like Sydney can now be truly counted as a world city.

Even in a global society, though, art and design relies on a strong local culture of consumption. And in the most successful instances art and design largely produces that culture locally, enhanced by international interaction. The training and retention of artists and designers of the highest quality is an essential part of this process. Yet, if Australia was a relative latecomer to the global marketplace, it has been more than any other thing late in seeing the global economic and cultural opportunities of growing its own local strengths in art and design.

For most of the last two hundred-odd years Australia was an importer of art and design innovation and an exporter of talent. Until at least the end of the 1970s ambitious graduates of Australia’s art and design schools usually sought to launch their careers overseas (especially in Europe), likely never to return (think Sidney Nolan or Jeffrey Smart, for example). Nowadays there are signs at least of the existence of global Australian art and design citizens – if Marc Newson and Shaun Gladwell are currently based overseas, they remain (like their professionally close to, and immersed in, the Australian art and design industries. The numbers of such individuals are small, though.

Transformation is needed in art and design tertiary education
Transformation is possible, but not overnight, but it can be encouraged and enabled.

Part of the answer lies in Federal Government and its agencies selling contemporary art and design overseas much more aggressively – not just product, but also expertise. And although I’m thinking here about the role of the Australia Council for the Arts to some extent, I believe that this is even more a responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Art and design is big business worldwide. Culture is big business.

Government needs something to sell, though. And that means a globally competitive art and design resource. So, what concerns me here is the root driver of this transformation of Australia into recognised international player in art and design, namely the conditions in which we train and educate future generations of artists and designers in this country. We need to establish at least one or two world-class schools to educate future generations of top Australian artists and designers by creating conditions that organically exist in other great innovative cities, like New York, London, or Milan

We have the building blocks in place, in the best of our current schools. So, what more needs to be done? What might an internationally prominent Australian art school look like?

The key enablers for creating a world-prominent art and design school are top quality students and staff, a bedrock, relevant curriculum, a culture of innovation and creativity, and integration into the commercial world. A broad curriculum across the range of art and design disciplines is the key bedrock on which a successful structure can be built. Consistently top quality learning and teaching delivery across the full range of art and design disciplines guarantees achievement of institutional reputation. Currently, even the best Australian schools either concentrate on or are strong only in individual aspects.

Top international schools attract the best and most promising students – a constantly renewing, diverse group of intelligent, creative and visual people. They are thinkers and makers. Students are the very stuff of the school; they are the group that interacts most closely and most productively together, forming informal hothouse teams and personal friendships and alliances that will take them into professional life, both at home and overseas. They are the future.

A mix of undergraduate and postgraduate education is crucial. Not all graduates will do postgraduate study (and graduating students must be work ready at whichever stage they leave education), but most ambitious artists and designers take advantage of the chance for deeper, more focused postgraduate learning, together with closer encounters with industry.

Critical mass is also important – the most successful full-service art and design schools in the world have a student population of four or five thousand. Cities like Sydney (pop. 4.8m) or Melbourne (pop. 4m) can easily sustain such a population, with a mix of domestic and international students. However, in each city, it shouldn’t be a case of creating yet another school to add to the ones already in existence, but perhaps merging the best of them to form a single hub of global art and design excellence. If this sounds contentious, it’s worth remembering that one of the main reasons cities like London (pop. 8.6m) and New York City (pop. 8.4 m) can support more than one globally-reputable art and design school is partly because their populations are about double those of Melbourne or Sydney and because, unlike their Australian counterparts, they are in close proximity to other highly populous areas.

Besides institutional reputation, the greatest draw card for any prospective art and design student is the staff. World-class schools have world-class staff. Academics must be prominent, practicing artists, designers and thinkers who are trained, reflexive teachers. Their teaching must be supported by specialist technical staff who are experts in the various media necessary for artists and designers to make things (and even in these digital and virtual times it is necessary for artists and designers to be makers). Learning in art and design is especially reliant on active experience – of making things and trying out concepts, of learning from peers, and of enjoying the widest possible exposure to art and design professionals, and real life industry experience. Top schools therefore augment the regular academic staff body with specialist visiting teachers who are artists, designers and industry professionals to provide concentrated, inspirational learning opportunities.

Australia already has good academics and highly competent technicians. But schools of true global standing expose students to a diverse range of international art and design leaders. Through these interactions, global networks are created between individuals and institutions, resulting also in outward movement of staff, students and graduates. Unlike London or New York, opportunities to do this in Australia by catching international stars passing through town are few, so it’s necessary to create the conditions for this to happen, by funding visiting professor and lecturer positions that carry with them short- and long-term residencies. By virtue of their very nature such residencies provide constant renewal of staff and therefore of student experience. And this kind of renewal is essential for innovation in the creative environment.

Setting is important. Perhaps more important than the quality of the physical facilities. Training artists and designers and preparing them to enter the workforce as tomorrow’s leaders in creativity and innovation demands a context in which they are cheek by jowl with the collaborators, employers, markets and audiences that give them life. And the larger the population and local economy, the higher the chance of creating a self-regenerating dynamic of world class industry professionals helping to produce the next generation. In Australia such a concentration can only realistically be found currently in its two world cities, Sydney and Melbourne. In both places a global art and design school would be at the heart of the buzz of a truly live local environment, characterised by creativity, innovation, pace, business, clients, partners, patrons, and cultural institutions. A context providing the opportunities for building contacts and networks that are so important for pursuing a career in art and design. It is also a context in which the school can make real partnerships with industry in order to drive innovation together through research collaboration and live projects for undergraduates.

Facilities are also important. Artists and designers develop best when they have access to good physical spaces and appropriate tools and equipment. Studios are an important aspect of the learning experience, not an expensive luxury. Creative growth is strongest when human interaction – and competition – is facilitated. In any art and design school worthy of the name, this is focused around the concept of the studio. These spaces are the hothouses of learning and creativity – not individual, monkish cells, but large, flexible, open spaces that encourage interaction. Studios are augmented by workshops and laboratories – the toolboxes, if you will. And ideas are tested and brought for the first time to public gaze in their experimental form, through the provision of galleries and project spaces.

What makes a sustainable art and design school?
Art and design education can be expensive. Class sizes are necessarily relatively small in the learning encounter with academic discipline specialists. The 300+ mass lecture experience common in many subjects cannot be an effective feature of world-class learning in art and design. However, over-exposure to teaching staff is also dangerous for practical learners, producing over-reliance and rigid ideas. Top art and design schools attract the best and most promising students. And top quality students are proactive learners who require shorter, intense experiences of inspirational teaching, supplemented by opportunities to develop creative ideas with their peers and alone. Less able or committed students need more time with teachers to get them to a benchmark level. This should not be the job of the world-class school.

It is possible, therefore, to produce a business model that will deliver highest quality learning and research resources, in a financially efficient and sustainable form. The number of salaried academic staff should be set at a proportion necessary to maintain continuity of student contact across the discipline spread and to manage the operation and development of curriculum, leaving resource available for the appointment of local and international visiting artists and designers to provide constantly renewing experiences of inspirational content. Most academic staff would be on fractional, teaching-intensive appointments, giving individuals space in the working week to maintain active parallel careers as artists and designers (another reason to establish schools in large, urban centres). More formalised staff research activity is also necessary for the culture of any school that engages in postgraduate education and which seeks active partnerships and collaboration with industry and government. Therefore internal research funds should be maintained for dispensation as necessary and useful to assist for seed funding or for the completion of important research projects.

Facilities costs are the largest expense after salaries. Currently these are seriously underutilised in all Australian art and design schools, including long breaks in which no learning takes place. Artists and designers tend to want to just keep going – creativity doesn’t keep office hours – and the introduction of a trimester structure, which allows maximum teaching delivery over a full calendar year makes good educational and financial sense (compare with the current two semester structure which is the current norm in Australian universities, and which includes average 12 week summer and 4 week winter breaks). This would keep the campus active year round without having to look for other activities that are not core business to fill in the large non-teaching spaces (a double business saving) and would fully ustilise technical and administrative staff over the full working year. Academics need space for research and professional practice, so the obvious thing is to look at the American model, where academics are paid for 2/3 of the calendar year (this can be spread over 12 months, if that makes sense financially for the organisation and individuals). This also gives students an opportunity to complete their degree more quickly if they so desire.

Finally, the introduction of distance learning components will reduce physical and technical staff resource needs. In the postgraduate space in particular, it also facilitates engagement with international top quality students, without those students having to be resident in country throughout their degree. It also enables a level of MOOC engagement that helps particularly in the marketing and brand positioning space of schools nationally and internationally.

Australia can support one or two globally important art and design schools that will fit easily onto a world’s-best list. We need them sooner rather than later not for the A-list reputation alone, but because schools that employ the best creative talent to work with the best creative students will contribute more than anything else to Australia’s future economy.