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Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences: The Vanity of Small Differences (reprinted)

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Discomfort, though, is exactly what Perry pinpoints most acutely in his depiction of the middle classes. This is, of course, where more and more of us claim to belong, but we are bewildered by the exact worth of our own cultural capital. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, from whose theory this notion comes, talks of disembodied cultural capital – things, books, art. And of embodied capital – say, fake tans and tattoos. He wrote, too, of how cultural capital is transmitted domestically and through inheritance, but primarily through education. The exhibition (13 April – 2 September 2018) is produced in collaboration with La Monnaie de Paris museum, where it will be on view during autumn 2018. By straightforwardly asking all kinds of people what they like and why, Perry used TV to navigate a way through the class anxieties that plague us all. What if I don't fit in? What if I don't stand out enough? Perry teased out from his interviewees, completely without judgment, how we use taste as a way to signal the tribe we aspire to. What if objects really mean something, and that meaning is about more than materiality? In the gospels Jesus says, ‘Judge not lest you be judged,’ using the word in the first condemnatory sense. And that is the sense in which Christians should approach these tapestries and all questions of class and taste and social behaviour. We are not here to pass judgment but to understand even if our understanding may differ from Perry’s in some cases. Perry is trying to make judgments in the second sense – he is observing objects and actions and reporting them as accurately as he can. And yet, the question might sometimes be asked as to whether he abides by that. Sometimes, as in his presentation of Tim’s mother and mother-in-law and even his wife, we are left wondering whether we are being invited to pass judgment on them. In a cathedral, however, judgment is not based on class or taste. We try to make judgments on the basis of that way of being human which Christians believe is intended for us by God, and which is exemplified in Christ. In this way we may identify failures of humanity, failures which may in part be caused by prejudices inculcated by class, but by many other things as well, relating to our own personal experiences, our moral education, our social environment, our wealth or poverty.

Tapestry is an art form historically often used to decorate the homes of aristocratic families with religious, military or mythical scenes, so Perry plays with the status of tapestry by using it to depict everyday scenarios and characters. The artist’s works are rich in both content and colour, incorporating autobiographical references as well as mapping contemporary British society.Inspired by Hogarth’s morality tale, A Rake’s Progress, Perry’s tapestries (on display in Salisbury from 29 June 2022) follow the socially-mobile life of fictional character Tim Rakewell from infancy to untimely death. A big part of middle-class-ness is defining oneself as different, seeing one’s taste as ‘normal’ and other people’s as ‘not right’”. (Exhibition Catalogue, p. 12) Tim’s world is secular, post-Christian Britain, and Perry highlights this in carefully imagined quotes from those who observe Tim’s life. His mother describes Tim’s Nan (who belongs to the cultural world before the great fall in church attendance in the 1960s) as “the salt of the earth”, a secularised phrase from the Sermon on the Mount. But her children and grandchildren know only one “ritual” which gives their lives rhythm and sanity: a night out on the town. You can imply a fake past – the distressed leather sofas of the gastropub – but what if something is so bad that it is not good but simply bad, and you have made a tasteless joke?

While Hogarth is a stated influence in this work, so also are various early Renaissance religious paintings – as Perry puts it, ‘A very middle-class thing to do as it flatters the education and cultural capital of the audience.’ And that answers the question as to Perry’s expected audience for his work! But what is the point of such references, especially as they are often very slight, to the extent of being hardly recognisable? Do they have any religious point or is this just an intellectual game? It would seem not to be a game, because in contrast to the ironic comment about his middle-class audience, Perry also says, ‘I wanted to use the audience’s familiarity with the Christian narratives depicted to lend weight to my own modern moral subject.’ Does he overestimate familiarity with Christian narrative? And how does that narrative ‘lend weight’ to his moral subject? The Vanity of Small Differences is jointly owned by the Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London and the British Council Collection. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, with the support of Channel 4 Television, the Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners. We are holding special Sunday openings at the start and end of the exhibition, so as many people as possible get the opportunity to see the work of this Turner Prizewinning artist in Scunthorpe. We will be open from 11am to 4pm on Sunday 8July and Sunday 9 September (normal opening days Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 4pm). 14 July – Summer Funday The exhibition (16 June–7 October 2018) engages with themes of communication, breakdown of communication, and isolation. A talk by the artist (16 April 2019, 7–9pm) at Sarabande Foundation, the Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation, a non-profit organisation championing young creatives.The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an elaborate, richly decorated cast-iron coffin-ship, will be displayed alongside the striking 2,400-year-old Nereid Monument from 27 August 2020. For me, to read writers or to see artists who understand that working-class culture can be as profound and as complex as high culture remains exciting. Yet this is not to romanticise it; there was much I was glad to run away from. And where was I to run to? Is there a place where taste is democratic rather than just demographic? Is there a place where taste is about hope and morality and life itself; somehow not just a mirroring of market values? Made in parallel with a Channel 4 documentary series, All in the Best Possible Taste, they are crammed with acutely-observed detail and invite us all to consider our own attitudes to class and our positions in society. In the series The Vanity of Small Differences, two tapestries are devoted to each of the three social classes: working, middle and upper. As mentioned before, this work is loosely based on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and Perry plays homage to the master by including in each tapestry a small dog reminiscent of Hogarth’s beloved pub, Trump. Each work also includes snatches of text in the voice of a participant in the scene illustrated, thus tying the pieces intimately to the people whom Perry met during his “journey through the social classes”.

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