Grayson Perry: An artist as an anthropologist in search of middle class taste. I want to share this video as an example of how artists can make things visible that are invisible. It is interesting to see how the people of middle class that Perry visits fear choices. The middle class will go for the ready-made ‘no choice left’ houses. “It is restful to buy a show flat, a new house is like a blank canvas and people don’t want to get it wrong”, the interviewed woman explains.
Perry nails it when he refers to this ready-made utopia created by brands as “the esthetic duvet”. The middle class is able to afford to buy the dream that brands offer. This phenomenon is aptly described by Perry as: “A potent symptom of modern capitalist hyper consumption and hard working middle classes and what they have to do to be happy.” The rules about taste are shared and people know what not to do.
But within the middle class there are different tribes. When Perry visits an other middle class home, not far from the ‘esthetic duvet’ tribe, class is not about money but about cultural capital, “the sum of all the knowledge, education and culture these people worked so hard to accumulate”, according to Perry. However because historically the middle class are not the workers and not the landowners, they are therefore unsure of their place in society. Paradoxically people are very well aware of the tribe and the rules they belong to or want to belong to.
Perry visits tribes like the ‘esthetic duvet’ tribe, the vintage loving tribe, the classical academic tribe, ‘green bling’ tribe. Belonging to a tribe means that people validate their choices by TV chefs, glossy magazines, philosophical book shops or organic markets. And within the tribe everybody is seeking for kudos (=respect and recognition) from their fellow tribe-members. Kudos is obtained by not trying to hard or otherwise you look desperate and you are out. There is also something that all tribes of middle class have in common, that is they are self made and highly consumerist.
Perry’s conclusion at the end of his anthropological quest about middle class taste is that each tribe has a different version of saying “I am a good person“: I am doing alright, I have dragged myself out of working class or look I have a shiny house and a shiny car and wife or I am a respectable citizen, I contribute to society and I know the rules or I am groovy I know the rules but I am going to send them off or I want to save the planet for my children.” Between the tribes and their moral reasoning stands a huge wall.
The six tapestries that Perry has set out to create on middle class taste will have to represent precisely these moral varieties mentioned above. When he writes “I think boundaries now [in relation to anything can be art, so what is art] are sociological, tribal, philosophical and maybe even financial.” (‘Playing to the gallery’ p. 42), this implies that for the tapestries to be art they have to fall within a philosophical framework that does justice to these moral varieties without condemning them. Condemning the rules of the tribes will overshadow the (incomplete) meaning behind existing moral varieties within middle classes. The meaning of the condition of the middle classes is that there are a lot of agonizing choices out there. “You become more and more aware of these choices and that is a blessing as well as a curse.”, says Perry at the end of video talking to the woman who bought the show-house.
Perry decided to call these tapestries on middle class taste ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ and combines them with biblical scenes. For example in the tapestry ‘Expulsion form number 8 Eden Close’ the character Tim Rakewell (computing student at university) and his middle class girlfriend are send away from the tribe that sells into ready-made utopia, into the tribe of classical academia like Adam and Eve are being expelled from paradise.
Expulsion From Number 8 Eden Close, Grayson Perry, 2012
What is striking is that people who have been interviewed by Perry as part of different tribes feel both validated by his tapestries as well as uncertain about whether they are being belittled. Perry ensures them, being part of the middle class himself, that he loves there homes, that “he toke it on board”. So what is the meaning or the message of the tapestries? Perry’s answer: “The desperation to be an individual.”
If you want to know more about Grayson Perry and middle class taste, there is an article in The Telegraph written by Perry called: ‘Taste is woven into our class system‘.
Pottery by Perry is now at display at the Bonnefantenmuseum until 5 June 2016. The exposition is called: ‘Hold your believes lightly’. I went and I thought it was beautiful. On the way back in the train I read Perry’s book ‘Playing to the gallery’. (I wish the book had been available when I graduated from art college, I should have stayed on the fucking bus.) In this book Perry gives a definition of art which I really like: “[Art is]…indeed an onanistic experience, to detain and suspend us in a state of frustration and ambivalence, and to make us pause and think rather than simply react.” (‘Playing to the gallery’ p. 70)
Karin van den Driesche