Until May 11th, Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (as it’s touring the UK). I watched the TV programme ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’, and was fascinated by Perry’s irreverent (but also benign) take on the small, aesthetic markers of taste and class in Britain, and the underlying cultural assumptions which these little signs denote. The tapestries stand alone, of course, but it is particularly appealing to see the people and objects he encountered depicted in these large tapestries. The series (six in total) is modelled on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, in which the anti-hero goes from rich to poor by wasting his money, eventually dying poor and mad. Perry’s approach traces characters through class as well as life-stages, taking the opposite approach to Hogarth (from ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’ to ‘The Upper Class at Bay’), and is highly intertextual and allusive, drawing on religious imagery, historic paintings, contemporary class markers (Willow Pattern wallpaper, anyone?) as well as the characters from the documentary.
The Art Fund website explains in Perry’s own words why he feels this is an important as well as interesting subject: ‘The tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design, but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.’
In looking at taste, class and social mobility (among other things), Perry touches on some serious subjects. The tapestries ask us what we worship if we do not worship God; how we find our place in the world; and how we can connect with other people who are different from us. The tapestries conjure modern life in all its beauty and ugliness, with a veneer of credibility given by the presence of familiar logos, objects and clothes. These are the kind of works one can stand in front of for a long time (if you’re not being jostled by the crowds!) noticing different things, seeing connections and disconnections, and wondering what society, class and taste actually mean in the twenty-first century. They may also make you smile, perhaps at a little joke, such as these mugs, or perhaps a little sadly.