I understand art, but is that enough?

The other day I picked up a book of postcards in an art exhibition gift shop. They were illustrations from Grayson Perry’s book ‘playing to the gallery’, taken from his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures. Out of the context of the lectures and the book, however, the postcards stand as slightly obscure jokes about art, the art world and the artist himself. Jokes which, nevertheless, made me chuckle so I bought the book.
Over a pain au chocolat in the nearby bakery afterwards, I tried to explain the jokes to my five year old. Starting with this one:
Grayson Perry - Urinal
As I was putting the pieces together, I began to realise just how much specific knowledge about art and the artist was needed to explain the joke. Here’s what I think you’d need to know to raise a chuckle:

  • That in 1917 Marcel Duchamp took a standard urinal, signed it R. Mutt 1917 and submitted it to the American Society of Independent Artists for their annual exhibition as an artwork called Fountain.
  • That this subversive act marked that start of a trajectory in contemporary art that would allow artists to define anything as art.
  • That, had it been preserved rather than thrown in the skip, that urinal would now be one of the most valuable pieces of contemporary art every produced.
  • That the trajectory of ‘anything can be art’ has led to artists needing to use more and more shocking images and materials to arouse our emotions. This includes using human excretions in art (such as Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine and Piero Manzoni producing 100 numbered cans of his own faeces in 1961).
  • That ‘Highbrow’ and ‘Lowbrow’ are terms frequently used to differentiate between ‘good art’ and art that has ‘popular appeal’.
  • That popular appeal in that last point isn’t a compliment.
  • That Grayson Perry is best known for his ceramic work, which led to him winning the Turner Prize in 2003. (Famously leading to his quote that “it was about time a transvestite potter had won the Turner Prize”)
  • That, since 1984, the Turner Prize has been awarded annually to British Visual Artists for outstanding exhibitions or contributions to art in Britain.
  • That in his Reith Lectures, Grayson Perry described ceramics as part of the craft suburb, that one needs to travel through to get between the genteel countryside of traditional fine art and the hip urban environment of contemporary art. Middlebrow being very much the no-man’s-land of art that is neither cutting edge, or that popular.
  • That Perry’s work now sells from far more than the ‘two week’s dole money’ which he used to sell his pots for. In fact, in 2012, Perry’s ceramic vase Triumph of Innocence sold at auction for £85,250.
  • Not essential to the joke, but a nuance for the really sharp, you might also recognise that, since urinals of that design are not made any more, any copy of the work that you see today will have been hand-crafted. By a potter.

Or maybe, as my five year old put it, “It’s funny because there’s wee-wee in that standing-up toilet”.

For the professional communicator, it’s a dangerous moment when you begin to assume that your hearers have the same background knowledge as you do.
This is especially true when teaching the Bible, because there is such a lot of background to be aware of. As a Lecturer in Biblical Theology, my jokes might fall a bit flat when people don’t get humorous references to Jael and camping accidents (Judges 4:21), or Eutychus and boring preaching (Acts 20:9), but when I’m preaching I don’t want to mistake a technical detail for a common cultural reference.
On the one hand, unnecessary over-explanation leads to dull and technical presentations. On the other, inaccessible references leave hearers bemused and none-the-wiser. It’s always interesting to hear the reaction of your regular hearers to a visiting speaker. Are they saying, “it’s good to be stretched”, “that was a bit over my head” or “I didn’t hear anything new today”? These could be a good barometer as to whether your own preaching is building up a foundation of biblical understanding for your regular listeners.
It isn’t enough for communicators to just be experts in their subject.
Communicators need to know their audience as well as they know their material. Or make wee-wee jokes. The choice is yours.

Grayson Perry’s book, Playing to the Gallery is available from Amazon.co.uk

or Wordery.com (UK) for £10.54
Grayson Perry’s postcards, also named Playing to the Gallery, are available from Amazon.co.uk

Or Wordery.com (UK) for £6.76


This post contains Amazon and Wordery affiliate links. This means that if you click through to either site and buy anything at all you help this site, at no cost to you.


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