Thursday, 17 January 2013

Inspiration: Grayson Perry

In the Vanity of Small Differences 



As my work is concentrated around class in the UK I found the Grayson Perry set of documentaries for Channel four inspiring and interesting. Perry starts by asking 'what is behind our personal tastes?' and 'What does it mean?'. He is to produce six tapestries revolving around the class system in the UK. Perry's main source of inspiration was William Hogarth, who looked at class and social position in his classics. 



The first episode concentrates on the working class, Perry positions himself Sunderland, once the heart of the  tradesman. Sunderland is a contemporary manifestation of the working class. It is at once apparent that the middle class are still disgusted by working class traditions and taste. Is this because of their willingness to 'climb the class ladder'? Perry looks at working class rituals, and compares them to tribal rituals of males and females, such as men using cars as a sexual display. An example in female form is women and the prospect of measurable beauty, and using getting ready as some kind of bonding ritual. 

The key to this first episode is Perry's epitome of education being the key, the key to prospect, the key to a better future, the key to climbing the ladder. Class mobility is a key theme throughout the entirety of the works. 

Next Perry travels to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, a middle class haven. What is the working class, what is the new modern middle class? It is soon apparent that for the lower middle class symbolism is key, symbolism and aspiration. The prospect of buying a lifestyle is ideal for this group. They are the new product of an increasingly obsessed population of capitalist consumers. Next Perry looks at more levels  of the middle class spectrum, distinguishable by comfort in their tastes and  individuality. 

The penultimate episode focuses on the upper classes, the constant fight for survival at the top of the ladder. Weighed down by past traditions, family history and taxes. 

The following are exerts from an interview with Perry on his works; 

"You say The Vanity of Small Differences tells a story of social mobility. Can you tell me in more detail what the story of the tapestries is?
They're based on Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. The hero of that is called Tom Rakewell, and my hero is called Tim Rakewell, and he starts as a babe in arms in Sunderland.
The first scene is in his great-grandmother's front room, where he's sitting on his mother's knee trying to get her mobile phone, because that's his main rival for her attention. She's just about to go out with her mates on the lash and they've just arrived to pick her up. Her grandmother's in the background, and it's about showing the taste of that nan's front room: the nick-nacks and the associations. And the big thing about working class taste is that it holds this ghost of heavy industry still, the social emotions are hangovers from a time when we had heavy industry, and they're changing very slowly, so they're not necessarily appropriate to the modern world but they're still there. The scene is called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters because it depicts two cage fighters coming up to Tim and giving him the symbols of membership of the tribe, which are the Sunderland football shirt and a miner's lamp.
The second image is called The Agony in the Car Park. It depicts Tim's stepfather doing a bit of singing and his mother enraptured by it, and Tim looking a bit embarrassed. He's almost crucified against an image of a shipyard crane because he's on the brink of social mobility himself - the stepfather - he's going to go into the call centre and become a manager there, moving away from the traditional jobs.
Then in the next tapestry they're on a nice private estate in a new development. One of those places with PVC clapperboarding. It's called The Expulsion from Number Eight Eden Close. It depicts our hero Tim with his girlfriend who he's met at university - a nice middle-class girl - having rowed with his mother because she thinks she's turned him into a snob. He's passing through that sort of miasmic barrier between the lower and upper middle classes to a certain extent, which is very much about education and culture and an understanding that yes, there are rules, but to be a true member of the middle classes we play with them to a certain extent.
So he's moving through to a dinner party in a nice bourgeois home with William Morris wallpaper and mid-century British paintings on the wall. He goes up into the quite chichi Islington world: the world of the Aga and organic vegetables.
His software company gets sold for an enormous amount of money and he becomes a member of the new upper class to a certain extent. Because he can't become truly aristocratic and upper class himself he witnessesthe predicament of the aristocracy: this dying breed, and the final one is his death in a Ferrari smash as a kind of nouveau celebrity. There's a copy of Hello magazine in the gutter with him and his second wife on the cover.
You touch on the fact that he can't become genuinely upper class. A Rake's Progress is a downward spiral for Tom Rakewell going from wealthy to destitute whereas Tim Rakewell's going the other way. It seems like quite an optimistic interpretation of modern social mobility?
Well I think social mobility now is almost at a standstill. There's a kind of irony about it. And also, of course, what it depicts is maybe a kind of moral bankruptcy to a certain extent, in that we're in a time now where we've moved from a market economy to a market culture and the idea of celebrity and possessions. That's what the final tapestry's saying: he might have a Ferrari and he might be famous but he died just the same; if you don't do your safety belt up... I suppose if there is an over-arching story that's the one: it's not about getting money in the end. What is it we're getting?
To what extent do your own experiences of class, taste and social mobility inform The Vanity of Small Differences?
Hugely. I come from - I wouldn't say a poor working class background - but culturally definitely a working class background, and then through girlfriends and then my wife I've been almost forcibly educated in the morés of the middle classes and I can almost call a piece of cloth you have at the table a napkin without thinking about it, but in moments of panic I do still call it a serviette. I think the most precious commodity that the middle class have - and it's a very expensive commodity to attain - is confidence... that confidence that you see in the flushed faces of the front bench.
Do you think that has implications for taste and maybe increases snobbery towards the remaining working class people's tastes?
I think there will always be this barrier where there are people who are looking for rules. A lot of the lower middle class still need reassurance and clear rules, which they find in brands and in definite trends because they perhaps don't have the confidence to go on their own intuition and try something else out. So there's always going to be a large proportion of the population that have what they think is a very clear idea about what is good taste. But of course the good taste is just an illusion; it's just that they're obeying the rules of their tribe.
Do you think the gap between the lower middle class and the upper middle class is essentially as big a gap as between different classes in terms of taste?
The conclusion that I came to is that the real 'Berlin Wall' of the taste landscape is between the lower middle and upper middle class. It's made out of education, a kind of knowingness, an understanding, a bit of confidence, and ease with the whole thing. It's almost as if the moment you understand it you realise 'does it actually matter?' It's about awareness as well. If you're insecure about the track you're on, if you don't know what the landscape is either side of it, you're very desperate to stay on the track, but if you're confident you stride off into the undergrowth and say 'it's just as nice out here'."


 

I am increasingly interested in the portrayal of the classes in contemporary Britain today. Perry's work has inspired me to research several projects I have in mind; 

1. Tribal London, Londoners decisions on where the make a home are calculated and the diverse nature of the different Burroughs in London interests me. I wanted to photograph and interview the different tribes across London. 

2: The Worker: I wanted to research professionalism that are often over looked by modern workers and see the real workers, how hard is it to maintain that role in a modern world? Taking portraits of fishermen, tradesmen and farmers to name a few. 

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