Can Grayson Perry Put the “Art” Back in “Artisan”?

Wander through most major museums and you’ll find a remarkable number of works with no name. Either lost to the mists of time or never recorded because the work was considered that of an artisan rather than that of an artist, the names of those who created these remarkable works long to be remembered.  At the British Museum, home to over 8 million nameless wonders from cultures spanning both the globe and the ages, those nameless artists are finally getting their due. In Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Grayson Perry, winner of the 2003 Turner Prize, curates a show matching these unknown craftsmen (and women) with his name-brand star power to raise the public consciousness of the talents of these neglected artists.  If Perry succeeds, he may finally put the “art” back in the name “artisan.


“If the world were to put its camera-phone away for a moment and use its eyes it might take away a more profound image of itself,” Perry writes in the catalog to the show. “What I mean is seeing oneself, one’s personal concerns as a human being, reflected back in the objects made long ago by fellow men and women with similar, equally human, concerns.” Perry freely admits his indebtedness to the artistry of the past in his contemporary art works.  For him, we lose a great deal of ourselves in losing our ability to appreciate and connect with the works of the past and, by extension, the artists and cultures that shaped them. “When I began working with the British Museum [in 2008], I thought: why not reverse this process of response?” Perry recounts the origin of the exhibition. “Why not, I thought, make the works I am inspired to create, and find objects in this vast collection that respond to them?... I invite you to view these artefacts by reading them through my lens.” Perry thus offers his own work as a gateway through which to view the past, as if he had influenced them, rather than the other way around.

From the British Museum’s vast collection, Perry selects an eclectic cast of 190 works to star in his passion play of the neglected past: Polynesian fetishes, Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe, 20th century badges, an 1882 coin featuring a bust of Queen Victoria re-engraved so she’s sporting a beard and boating hat. Perry even pulled from the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum an appropriate roadmap for the exhibition to follow based fancifully on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perry presents his own roadmap in a new tapestry titled, Map of Truths and Beliefs. The rest of the works Perry contributes as his “lenses” on the past hint at the nameless works from the British Museum collection, but always with a Perry-esque twist reflecting his set of “truths and beliefs.”  Another new piece, The Rosetta Vase (shown above), recalls works of pottery from the past with characteristic individual touches by Perry, such as an infant figure (presumably Perry himself) with body parts marked as “fantasy world,” “autobiography,” “career enhancement,” “mischief,” and “celebrity.” A gnarled tree also on the vase features tree houses on the branches, one of which is marked “Post-Diana Society,” a nod to the cult of personality surrounding the dead Lady Di. Like the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone to which it alludes, The Rosetta Vase hopes to serve as a key to unlock the lost languages of the cultural past.

The central work of the exhibition is Perry’s work titled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an elaborately decorated, cast-iron coffin-ship that Perry calls “a memorial to makers and builders, all those countless un-named skilled individuals who have made the beautiful man-made wonders of history.” Quoting Jacob Bronowski, Perry proclaims that the great monuments of the world, from the pyramids to modern mausoleums, “are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end, the man they commemorate is the builder.” Perry hopes to turn artifacts such as Sutton Hoo (also in the British Museum) into “Sutton who?” in our minds, thus transferring the grandeur and wonder from the subject of the art to the makers.

I admire Perry’s desire to “reverse” the “process of response” and make us see the works of the past with fresh eyes through his own work.  I especially applaud his willingness to be an Every(wo)man for every woman and man who expressed her or himself in art but never enjoyed the prizes he has.  (If you think that’s a pun on Perry’s transvestism, you are correct, but I think that Perry’s penchant for crossing gender barriers goes hand in hand with his crossing of space and time in this exhibition.) However, I’m dubious as to how feasible reversing the course of influence is.  Knowing that Perry comes chronologically after the other works is a fact that at least my mind is unwilling to suspend.  That willing suspension of time-based influence lies at the heart of the experience Perry wants each viewer to have—that they must have to achieve his goal fully. But even if we can only see through the “lens” of Perry’s work as through any philosophically challenging pedagogical lens—darkly—then at least he’s shed more light on these lost artists/artisans than we could perceive previously.

One of the many, many inscriptions on Perry’s The Rosetta Vase reads, “Hold your beliefs lightly.” Read in one way, it echoes the call of Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman to question everything we think we know and believe about art versus craft and what constitutes art versus artifact.  By letting go of prejudices that divide, we unify art and artisan and recover the spirit of the past and the people residing ghostly behind it.  Read in another way, that inscription may be a warning from Perry to himself, who believes that it is possible to reverse, however fleetingly, the course of history and imagine the present influencing the past.  I sincerely hope Perry succeeds, but at the very least, he’s imagined and realized a monumental (in the best sense) failure.

[Image: Grayson Perry. The Rosetta Vase, 2011. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Copyright Grayson Perry. Photo: Stephen White.]

[Many thanks to the British Museum for providing me with the image above and a copy of the catalog to Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, which runs through February 19, 2012.]

[Many thanks to friend Hugh for prompting me to look at Perry’s work.]

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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