reclaiming the working class

All in the best possible taste, with Grayson Perry is a three part doco by a Turner prize winning artist on an ambitious quest to define the taste structure of contemporary UK. He hails from Essex but goes to the coastal working class city of Sunderland, which in the past was established on shipbuilding and mining.

At the outset, I have to define my position, culturally I am Australian migrant working class, my dad was Dutch & my mum was a Slovenian refugee; they met in a Bathurst migrant camp at the end of World War 2. My knowledge of the UK is minimal; I travelled there in 1978, found London impossibly emotionally cold: the Anglican youth hostel, the Colherne, Westminster Abbey, the horribly cramped underground [I’m 6 ft 4 inches, I had to stoop] filled with the opera crowd; I managed to meet one friendly str8 guy in a pub & he was Irish.

As in Perry’s life, education [uni] and art making represented some upward mobility for me; clearly we inhabit some shadowy region of middle class blurred existence; his thesis for this Dantesque three part quest is that we are formed by the taste of our upbringing; how we deal with that influences what sort of artist we’ll become.


Perry is a transvestite; I was genuinely surprised at how accepting his working class interviewee blokes were. BUT, point a camera at a working class crowd & they’ll perform; Big Brother is testament to that!

I’ve done drag maybe three times in my life; but how I itch to remake Perry’s female persona: he has a comely face that would really suit shorter hair with more spontaneous clothes: soft looking cotton/linen/silk pants suits. So there. But as he says in a very Oscar Wildean moment, with a hair net and wearing only underwearExif_JPEG_PICTURE in a tanning booth: “naturalness is a limited concept”.

SO, he goes to Sunderland to investigate working class taste. The doco has opened with examples of his work: I seem to recall the figured ceramic vessels that won him/her the Turner prize. In a previous chapter I waxed dogmatically against the use of caricature; Perry’s style of depiction involves figures drawn loosely, less in a spirit of ridicule that as a shorthand, a no-man’s land zone between high and popular art. His mode of work is to take lots of photos and to make drawings from them. These are intended to eventually become 6 large “tapestries” ; Perry elaborates at length on the tradition of commissioning tapestry as a triumphalist high art form; he has commissioned a Belgian company to weave computer generated jacquard pieces, measuring 2 m H X 4 m W, but each completed in five hours of mechanical shuttling.

The working class pieces are two: an adoration by the magi and an agony in the car park. In all of this process the comedy routine with Clees sticks in mind: I look down on him; I look up to him & I look down on him; the working class guy does an ineffectual grumble at the end of the cue. Perry acknowledges this rigid slope of privilege and entitlement; he constantly muses that working class taste is the most despised. Do they cry more vintage tears at Glyndeborne, he asks at one point. I do not have the geographical experience to analyse his work further. Suffice it to say, his reference to Mantegna and constantly to Hogarth the great English satirist of social mores means that I will look forward to his exploration of purgatory and heaven with keen interest.



Online I since found out he has gifted the six works to the nation. Two works are devoted to each class: of the upper, one work simply echoes a Gainsborough landscape with a privileged couple and a large morphed, patched beast. Not a lot of analysis or commentary compared to the Sunderland works which are dense with observation and transformation; I hope this isn’t just the latest version of cap doffing, that the English do so well.


About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
This entry was posted in Hogarth, Mantegna, working class UK. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to reclaiming the working class

  1. nikimcdonald says:

    A fantastic review and well articulated insights

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