A sociological study of the British by a transvestite artist from Essex may not sound like riveting television but I found Grayson Perry’s “safari through the taste tribes of Britain” on Channel 4 quite brilliant.
‘Tribes’ is largely the preferred term to the politically loaded concept of ‘classes’.
Perry is more fascinated by appearance and the things people choose to live with, wear, eat or drive than exploring deeper rooted social or moral issues.
We see him working his images and impressions into six large-scale tapestries collectively called the “vanity of small differences” inspired by Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and religious paintings. This unusual choice of medium was made because he liked the contrast between the grandiose stately home associations of tapestries with the relatively commonplace subject matter of his artwork.
Each programme looked at a different class – the first was about the working classes and filmed mainly in Sunderland.
For the middle classes he travelled to Tunbridge Wells while The Cotswolds was the chosen destination in the search for examples of upper class taste.
Perry now lives in Islington and concedes that the contemporary art circles he moves in means that he has gravitated to a middle class status. Part of the impetus for making the series is to address what he calls the “adopted snobbery” that goes with the territory of this kind of social mobility.
In the first programme he found plenty of examples of the peacock instinct for showing off with pimped up cars, elaborate tattoos and spray tans being the order of the day.
In marked contrast, the middle and upper classes were shown to prefer understatement to such brash displays
These two latter ‘tribes’ seemed to share a fear of not appearing to be trying too hard. As a result, the middle class were frequently found to be “agonising over looking effortless” . Perry noted how their carefully chosen possessions often served as an “aesthetic duvet”, offering warmth, comfort and reassurance.
The upper classes were shown as having less to prove but more to lose. Perry defined their attitude to taste as one of “impeccable appropriateness” but correctly observed that they are no longer the ruling class of the nation and his tapestries depict them as an endangered species.
What makes Perry such an endearing presenter is that he has a strong point of view but is never judgemental or patronising. Above all, he treats these people as individuals and is genuinely interested in finding out what makes them tick.
His conclusion is that there is no such thing as good and bad taste, just small yet telling differences that have more to do with identity and social ritual than choice.
- The Vanity of Small Differences (xthreadbearx.wordpress.com)
- Hogarth revisited: Grayson Perry uses tapestries to tackle taste and class (guardian.co.uk)
- In The Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry – Channel 4 Documentary (sleender.wordpress.com)
- The conversation: Grayson Perry and Suzanne Moore on taste and class (guardian.co.uk)
- Grayson Perry’s tapestries tell the story of class mobility (lostateminor.com)
- All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, Channel 4, review (telegraph.co.uk)