Grayson Perry: a class act

The cross-dressing potter’s TV road trip on class, taste and consumerism has been an
eye-opener.

David Bowden

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I’m sure this matter hasn’t been weighing on his mind, to be honest, but I have come to the conclusion that I rather like Grayson Perry.

On first appearance he is, possibly deliberately, the archetype of the irritating contemporary artist: his notorious cross-dressing public persona; the vogueish focus on outlandish sexual imagery and child abuse in his work; his regular pronouncements on the pointlessness of art and veneration of the superficial. Even his attacks on the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin seem to focus on their vulgar obsession with making money (without even showing their skill!) rather than critical indignation. It’s difficult to escape the sense that, with his pots and Little Bo Beep dresses, he simply serves up a Middle England-friendly form of the postmodern cool he postures against.

As a TV presenter, though, he is a revelation. He is charming and friendly towards his interviewees without being toadying; mocking and critical without being snide. Moreover, in his current Channel 4 series on modern consumerism and the class system, In the Best Possible Taste, he proves himself, underneath the superficialities, to be a commentator with depth: accessible but capable of piercing insight; unintellectual without lapsing into being anti-intellectual. While he may share Emin’s and Hirst’s contempt for the art world and suspicion of critical judgement, he differs from them by not quite extending that contempt to the audience and the public whose money he takes.

In the Best Possible Taste takes on a familiar trope of ‘edutainment’ series: following a presenter on an anthropological journey into modern Britain, meeting real people in their real homes, filled with shots of the presenter expressing amusement/amazement/sympathy with the subjects on display. Since the subject is class, we know what to expect: the working classes are vulgarly tacky but know how to have a good time, which is fine because Thatcher was so mean to them; the upper classes are vulgarly snotty but really know how to have a good time, which is okay as they’re on their way out; the middle classes neurotically combine all of these things, but they’re okay if they don’t get too greedy.

The format has variations, and since we have yet to reach the episode on the upper classes, we will see whether it updates this formula for the anti-toff mood of coalition-era austerity Britain. The first episode certainly conformed to this formula, with Perry visiting Sunderland to produce an artwork celebrating working-class taste. Yet within these confines, Perry managed to offer some interesting insights and, alongside a refreshing sight of someone unashamedly celebrating working-class consumerism, it was pretty easy to get swept away by it all.

Working-class taste and style, Perry argued, were still heavily informed by its history of industrial manufacturing: the workman’s pride in practical skill and handicraft being transferred into his modern consumer habits in choosing to venerate cars over sculpture; spending thousands on tattoos rather than paintings; obsessively bronzing and toning their bodies rather than a car chassis or a ship’s hull. Joyously tarting himself up as a typical Geordie lass for a night on the town, Perry rather astutely noted that the theatrical style for big hair and so on was ‘beauty you can measure with a ruler’.

It was easy to see where Perry was coming from here: in a climate where arts funding is increasingly focused around public engagement and a conviction that simply exposing the public to art is inherently a good thing, the question of whether art is somehow civilising or necessary for all is worth exploring. Yet it lacked the crucial counter-argument: such community-generated folk taste may be nice, but it can also be parochial and inward-looking.

Tattoos may be as intricately crafted and beautiful as any artwork – indeed, one interviewee had da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ inked on his arm – but what of art’s claim to transcendence, of breaking people out of their narrow community and identity? The aforementioned tattoo commemorated only his Catholic upbringing, alongside ones marking the birth of a child and death of a grandmother. The working classes may happily express judgement, but if that judgement is devoid of meaning or value, isn’t this just patronising? In this context, Perry’s suggestion that working-class culture should be celebrated and preserved as we would ancient tribal rituals left a sour taste in the mouth.

He was on much stronger ground in the second episode, taking on the middle classes in Tunbridge Wells. Perry implied that while working-class consumers – makers and manufacturers themselves until relatively recently – hold little respect for history in favour of cheap, disposable and practical goods that meet their immediate needs, the middle classes have grown increasingly obsessed with the impractical (expensive organic food) to advertise their ethical and financial superiority.

The observation that most vintage goods were once mass-produced items that had grown fashionable because they outlived their original shelf life (the return of retro plastic telephones in a digital age) was again a striking one, even more so for how subtly it was made. The middle-class consumer – neither a producer or owner of capital – is obsessed with things which offer the security of the past while expressing a hostility and suspicion of the future, as the popularity of recycled and eco-conscious goods indicates.

There was plenty more in Perry’s arguments you might take issue with, but you had to admire how many arguments were packed into what amounts to little more than 90 minutes of screen time. For its faults, In the Best Possible Taste is an absolutely absorbing programme, packed with ideas and celebrating the sheer thrilling delight of having lots of things. Perry, the champion of ceramic craft and pottery, has managed to take some very limited materials and mould them into something which is more than the sum of its parts. That may not be art, but it does take some real skill.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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