Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear Grayson Perry,
The theme of the Erasmus Prize 2020 is: ‘The power of the image in the digital age.’ We could have made it a little easier for ourselves by borrowing an adage from Erasmus of Rotterdam: “Difficilia quae pulchra.” Beauty is difficult to attain.
Digital culture affects all of us, almost drowning us in a torrent of images. One advantage of digital image culture is that it has made creativity more democratic. Yet it severely tests our concentration and judgement. Sensitive artists respond to the deluge of images by reflecting through patient contemplation and by reviving traditional techniques. Grayson Perry’s compatriot David Hockney recently claimed that Vincent van Gogh would have used an iPad instead of a paintbrush today. It is an audacious assertion, which of course is difficult to verify. That we have now selected an artist who likes to use ceramics, cast iron and textiles might at first seem somewhat illogical. But it is not. For the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, modern image culture is the very reason to award the prize to an artist whose work critically reflects on today’s world and the art business. That, too, reflects the power of the image in the digital age.
One of the most important qualities of Grayson Perry is precisely the fact that he does not meet expectations. That is true both of his art and of how he approaches life. His play with changing identities makes him one of the most authentic personalities in an art world often dominated by vanity and superficiality. With ceramics, his favourite medium, Grayson Perry creates an ‘area of discomfort’ within that world. Or, as Perry’s biographer Jacky Klein has aptly expressed it: “His work, filled with text and narrative, contemporary storytelling and snippets of popular culture, runs counter to the more allusive and coolly conceptual vein of much contemporary art.”
Contemporary art. What exactly is ‘contemporary’? And how long does something remain contemporary? Every artist is the product of their time, and we ourselves are contemporary witnesses to the present and tradition. Good artists realize that they are part of a long tradition and see their predecessors, though they lived centuries ago, as colleagues. Grayson Perry is no different. “I’ve always compared my own work to historical art…” he once said.
It is an incontrovertible truth that history extends into the present. History is tangible in this very building, where it is tradition for the head of state to present the prize to the artist. This building is the biggest symbol of a time once referred to as the ‘Golden Age’. Inaugurated in 1655, this was the city hall of one of the most powerful cities of the day. Amsterdam gifted itself not only an administrative building but also a monument to showcase its status and glory. The sculptor Artus Quellinus from Antwerp was commissioned in 1650 to design the decorative scheme for the city hall. It is his work you see around you here. The architecture of the building followed the rules of Dutch classicism, while the interior is dominated by Italian baroque. The decorative programme was designed to present Amsterdam as a paragon of peace and prosperity. A city governed in exemplary fashion, a city where justice prevailed. And that is what we – together with Grayson Perry – see around us. Baroque and the contemporary view. Let us examine what they have in common.
You are looking at the entrance to the Hall of the Magistrates, where judgement was once pronounced. Above the entrance we see Lady Justice, the personification of justice, with her symbolic sword and scales. Those we can still recognize. But people now have a lot more difficulty identifying the other figures. Justice crushes the mortal sins of Greed and Envy underfoot. Greed is represented by King Midas, while Envy is the old woman with snakes for hair. Standing to the left and right of Justice are her escorts: Strict Law (left) and Punishment (right), with a whole arsenal of torture devices. The clock strikes eleven, a warning to all who enter that hall. Putti with rods and lightning bolts and two harpies emphasize yet again the symbolism of administering punishment.
The prize is today awarded to an Englishman. A man from the country that left the European Union – a fact for which he of course is not personally to blame. Yet the relationship with England has certainly had its ups and downs. While Artus Quellinus elaborated his decorative scheme, the first Anglo-Dutch War gathered momentum. Joost van den Vondel referred to that war in his poem written to celebrate the opening of the city hall when he compared Amsterdam and London to Carthage and Rome, who eye “each other angrily” like “A lion and tiger”.
Not surprisingly, the war between the Dutch and the English was triggered by trading interests and control of the seas and colonies elsewhere in the world. All this is graphically expressed on the floor, visible for those sitting in the front row. Here we see a map of North and South America. And up above, Atlas carries the globe by holding up the southern hemisphere. And so this city hall is a symbol of the wealth accumulated – and fiercely defended – through colonialism and slavery.
But how do I come back to Grayson Perry?
Let us take a look at Perry’s monumental masterpiece, The Walthamstow Tapestry.
Here you see one of the three originals held at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. One thing we can say about the work of Perry is that the baroque is certainly alive and well. Perry is indebted to the baroque not only in the vivid imagination, the pleasure of invention and the tremendous wealth of figures, forms and colours, but also in the visual imagery. The minimalist aesthetics of ‘less is more’ were always a thorn in his side. As he puts it: “When in doubt, bung it on!”
Quellinus emphasized the pursuit of a life free of sin, lived according to the rules of the Bible and the Classics. In the case of Perry, humankind in the age of mass consumption is at fault. Quellinus and Perry employ all sorts of symbols that their contemporaries could recognize, and that is still the case. “Museum curators love objects that tell a story about the time and place in which they were made,” Grayson Perry once said, and I can confirm that.
The Walthamstow Tapestry can be read from left to right as a story from birth to death, frequently interrupted by small scenes filled with humour and horror. Each mini-scene features a brand name.
This tapestry no doubt presents future art historians with a daunting task. For nobody quite knows how long names like Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and IKEA will remain part of our collective consciousness. Yet that is precisely the point. Forms of expression may change, but in principle people remain the same. Perry’s theme is ‘the journey of life’, a uniquely baroque motif.
And what certainly does not change are the mortal sins. In the case of Quellinus, Greed was one of the key themes; in the case of Perry, Greed is the key theme. Here in the city hall, Greed is personified by the Phrygian King Midas, recognizable by his ass’s ears. Midas had rashly chosen the wrong side when Pan and Apollo held a musical contest between pan flute and lyre. Everything Midas touched turned to gold – unfortunately for him, his food also transformed into gold, which is why he died of hunger. In other words: Greed is its own punishment. Perhaps we can also interpret the tapestry as a depiction of the ‘hedonist treadmill’: It is through consuming that we buy a moment of elation. But that fleeting happiness brings us no step further. For all that awaits us in the end is death. A reference to mortality could not be more baroque.
We do not know if all sinners who passed through these doors really understood what they saw. For how versed in the Bible and in mythology were the people of the time? No matter how interesting the artworks are in and of themselves, the way people receive them is every bit as exciting. Who makes what? And for whom? Fortunately for us, Grayson Perry is an eloquent interpreter of his own work. He wants to share not only his art but also art in general with as many people as possible. We see how he conveys his enthusiasm with audiences in theatre performances, films and television programs. It is fantastic to see how he does that, often with his wife Philippa. He succeeds in passing on the spark because he takes his audience seriously and, in that disarming manner of his, he unearths something positive in every form of creative accomplishment that comes from the heart.
Grayson Perry makes art that is beautiful yet awkward. Through his art and public performances, he connects with many people, often succeeding far off the paths well-trodden by insiders. For him, the process of creating and explaining coincide. Perry creates something that we once called ‘social sculpture’ with humour, provocation and passion.
Grayson Perry’s predecessor as Erasmus Prize laureate is the American composer John Adams. I would like to quote from Adams’ acceptance speech of 2019 because it contains something that applies here too: “For some artists the abstract ideal and the perfection of the artwork itself is what matters most […]. For others the artwork should carry a message, social or political, that […] hopes to influence as large an audience as possible. Fortunately great art can emerge from either of these two positions.” That applies to the period before, during and after the digital age. Art history follows this development with bated breath. Nobody knows how the story continues. But one thing I confidently predict: with his art, Grayson Perry has already secured his place in art history.
Due to the restrictions around COVID-19, this laudatio was not pronounced at the Royal Palace, as is customary under normal circumstances.