As Pop Lifer touched on in our bluffer’s guide to the Olympic Opening Ceremony, Britain seems to be looking in the mirror a great deal this summer, even more than usual. Elizabeth Windsor been our head of state for 60 years and, of course, the Olympics is taking place in London, reminding us of what it feels like to be genuinely at the centre of attention (rather than just thinking we are).
As 60 million people put on their mirror face (lips pursed, eyes slightly narrowed, enigmatic smile), we are happily trading self-deprecatory jokes via Bond, Bean and Brookie. However, every family has a dirty little secret – those wedding and birth certificates that don’t add up or that mysterious year when Uncle Fred was on ‘holiday’. Britain’s dirty little secret is the class system.
Hang on a minute, though, Britain’s class system is not a secret! So many songs, films, novels are dripping in with references to class! Well, yes, but the uncomfortable truth that we don’t like to acknowledge is, that (unlike with our complicated history where we have established a cool detachment) we still all too often adhere to the nuances of a social order we know is wrong but still seem to need. We are still being recorded daily by the class register.
Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences is a magnificent, vibrant representation of how these nuances are manifested through that prism of snobbery, taste. This is a subject very close to Pop Lifer’s heart. Indeed this blog is a (very) modest new front in the battle against that grotesque red herring – high art / low art. This spectrum is not so much married as conjoined to the class system. TV schedules, festival billings, newspaper review sections – these and many more outlets for cultural representation and review – end up inadvertently reaffirming a code which is both difficult to describe and escape. Perry comes close to both and this is a significant achievement.
His six woven murals describe this code. They are a modern interpretation of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, and they chart a loose narrative of a climb through the class system via the front rooms, working men clubs, golf clubs, dinner parties, conservatories and manor houses of Britain. They do so with a vivid detail and uncanny accuracy.
The tattoos and pimped cars of working class Sunderland give way to aspirational modern housing developments, in turn usurped by the well-educated, shabby chic (the mural pictured). The manor house, second wife and Ferrari provide the fatal overreach. The iPhone is ubiquitous, the journey is awkward, ugly, sometimes desperate and inevitably tragic. Icons are gently mocked (Jamie Oliver is the sinister overlord of the aspirational middle class, as seen above) and acknowledged (Steve Jobs features).
The murals are a spiky conclusion not reached in Perry’s warm and generous TV documentary, In the Best Possible Taste. As a TV presenter and social commentator, Perry proved to be an excellent conduit for the anxieties and bravado of a nation. Perry is a comprehensive school educated Essex boy made good – as a Turner Prize winning, cross-dressing master potter. This unique position affords him a space and perspective which is invaluable. He dresses in football tops and wax jackets through the day and swaps them for fake tan, gladrags, pearl necklaces and high heels of an evening. As such, as a commentator, Perry achieves the necessary distance and almost comes close himself to escaping the class system. But he can’t.
After all, the documentary was on Channel 4 and the exhibition is in Shoreditch. Neither platform is likely to secure the mass audience that the TV series and exhibition both deserve. And so, with deadening English irony, a study and representation of the class system finds itself merely adding to its dynamic. However, the work was designed not to bring the class system down from within but to bear witness to its foibles and this it does very, very well.