The cross-dressing potter Grayson Perry has come up with a brilliant strategy for making his work look good. It’s such an obvious wheeze, I wonder why others haven’t employed it before. Asked by the Arts Council to select a show from the huge collection of modern British art it has built up, Perry has plumped for the bleakest, dullest, greyest, least sexy things he could find: if it made you want to slit your wrists, it was in. Then he produced a couple of fabulous new pieces himself and added them to the show. Thus, anyone walking in here has little choice but to notice how awful the rest are and how brilliant Grayson is. Genius.
The Arts Council’s collection ought to be one of the joys of the land. Started in 1946, it coincided with a string of huge moments in British art. From Bacon to Moore, from pop art to Brit art, from Auerbach to Freud, from new sculpture to the video revolution, there has never before been an era when British art has been as globally pertinent as it has been in the postwar years. So, does the collection reflect this excellence? Do pigs make good pilots? Most of the important artists are represented somewhere in there, but the bureaucratic shuffling involved in putting the collection together, and the grey thinking of the lump-heads who sat on the relevant committees, have ensured that all the real excitement has been missed. It takes courage and conviction to build a great collection. The Arts Council has neither.
But Perry, bless his ridiculous extra-large stilettos, has both. You do not turn yourself into a laughable caricature of a woman and totter about the international art world looking like Lily Savage’s spinster sister if you lack courage or conviction. Perry has balls. And, let loose inside the national warehouse of art assembled by the dithering dullards of the Arts Council, he has managed, somehow, to find a path through their timidity. It might be a horrible path, proving that British art in default mode lacks spirit, charm, grace, joy and fire. But it is a path.
Unpopular Culture, as the show is sneakily called, looks back at the art produced in Britain between the 1940s and 1980s. It’s a made-up stretch of time that does not coincide with any actual era in art or life, but Perry explains that he sees it as a period of dignity and wisdom sandwiched between two national calamities: the second world war and the coming of Margaret Thatcher.
“I hardly ever go to Tate Modern,” he complains in his catalogue, opposite a stern photograph of himself in a headscarf, looking like someone who might once have sat down with Elsie Tanner in the Rover’s Return. “It has become too popular for me. I can’t see the art for backpacks and buggies. It is always full of snapping tourists, screaming school parties and families visiting London for the day.”
Perry is right to grumble about the turning of Tate Modern into a crèche. It is, indeed, outrageous. We have become a nation that insists everywhere, and everything, should cater for babies and their mums. Proper grown-ups have nowhere left to go, nothing left to read, nobody left to admire. Like him, I miss the days when being interested in modern art was a lonely pursuit that left you isolated with your thoughts in an underpopulated gallery. Galleries were better places when insight was their goal, rather than entertainment.
Unpopular Culture has, therefore, set out to capture the mood that prevailed in Britain before popular culture took over: before everything went glossy and pumped up, in-yer-face and obsessed with actresses. Alas, where the argument drops a sizeable brick onto its own toe is in the art selected to exemplify this alternative national mood, which is, in most cases, dire. The show is spent chiefly in the gloomy 1950s, when taking a bath was something you did in a tin tub on Saturday nights and Capstan full-strengths were the ciggies of choice. The keynote painting is, according to its selector, After the Meal, by Jack Smith, from 1952. A family has just had dinner. Mum is leaving for the night shift. Dad holds baby in his arms. Painted almost exclusively in shades of grey, it’s a fully representative example of the “kitchen-sink” school of painting, evoking, in turn, poverty, unhappiness, bad luck, bad food, bad housing, bad alienation.
The black-and-white era of glumness that preceded our full-colour time of plenty is witnessed by lots of artists I have never heard of. Not just because I am a know-nothing when it comes to the miserabilists of the 1950s, but because they had such tiny careers. Smith is the best of an exceptionally mediocre bunch. Leonard Rosoman, Brian Robb, Alan Reynolds, Alan Lowdnes, Elinor Bellingham-Smith, Ruskin Spear, Carel Weight – separating their sludgy pessimism into strands would test the forensic skills of the mortuary scientist in Waking the Dead. All of them poke sluggishly about the murk of postwar Britain like a school of half-blind deep-sea fish. I never thought I’d have cause to hail the arrival of LS Lowry in a show, but in this company he’s a breath of fresh air, with his spirit and humour. Edward Burra is another welcome exception.
If the painting is bad, the sculpture is worse. Forget transvestism: on this evidence, Perry’s real vice is chronic masochism. How else to explain the display of so many grim bronze turds by (in ascending order of lumpy hopelessness) Anthony Hatwell, John Wragg, Francis Morland, Edwin Pickett, Margaret Lovell, Meg Rutherford and, worst of all, Elisabeth Frink, whose appalling Head, from 1959, looks to have preserved in bronze the skull of a sheep pulled out from a fire? I challenge anyone, anywhere, to name an uglier sculpture.
Thank heavens, therefore, for photography, which supplies this display with almost all of its best sights. Homer Sykes turned up at Pinner Fair, on Whit Wednesday, in time to see two porky 1960s mums stripping off, in what I assume to be an early attempt at fund-raising nudity. Patrick Ward’s double portrait of a pearly king and queen repeated in the broken glass of their dressing table is especially poignant. Then there is that neglected genius of British documentary photography, Thurston Hopkins, who tiptoes up to a cold child sleeping under a newspaper headlined “Slimming Methods” and says it all so potently, so economically.
The show’s other notable success is Perry, who has made a lovely pot in which he shows himself in his headscarf, surrounded by clusters of British folk heraldry and beer signs. In the end, I suppose, he must be commended for locating such a tangible lump of material among the odds and sods of the Arts Council’s collection. His taste is suspect, but not his drive.