“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”, the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry told a flock of young artists in a speech at the University of East London last month.
The artist doled out valuable nuggets on how to conquer the art world, with patience, passion and a ‘plan B’ at the crux of it.
Rule number one is to love what you do. “You’re not going to make good art if you’re loading it up with expectations of income or praise or respect,” Perry began. Expectations will make your art a burden, and most importantly, “it must not become something that tortures you”.
Perry told the audience, mostly composed of fresh-faced students, about the importance of being “a bit raw”. Most of their art so far, he said, is likely to be unoriginal, for becoming a great artist takes time. “Stick with it,” he advised.
Succeeding in the art world will not happen all at once, so a ‘Plan B’ is always a sensible idea. Perry’s own backup plan, he revealed, was in advertising, yet fortunately he’s always been able to live off his art (along with a little help from his wife, the psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry).
Earning a living from art is a defining dilemma of many an artist, and Perry’s answer to this was to sell your work and not worry about the price. “Don’t overprice”, he insisted. At the start of your career, “the work is out there being an ambassador for you”, and you must do everything to get it out.
Like in any career “it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of networking”, Perry added, and recounted how manoeuvring himself into a seat next to Neil MacGregor at a dinner party planted the seed for an exhibition that took place at the British Museum a few years later.
Judging from Perry’s own road to fame, his advice is solid. Perry comes from a working class background and achieved widespread acclaim only in his late thirties. He said he saw himself in some of the UEL students. “I imagine a lot of the kids here, they don’t have conversations about art around the dinner table with their mum and dad. So you’ve got to be really driven, and I think that’s important.”
Perry admitted he is still learning a lot about himself and his art. His next television project will be about masculinity, and the process of making the programme he claims taught him a lot. “I might put on a dress sometimes,” he said, “but I am really quite a man.”