Text by Rebecca Travis
For better or worse, we are a nation fascinated with class. It is still a subject very much open to discussion, just earlier this year, the BBC and collaborating university sociologists devised a new survey to address the evolving boundaries of what signifies ‘class’ and how we might ‘calculate’ our position. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973). It seems all factors combine to create a social picture of our place in relation to others, from where we work and who we socialise with, to our exposure to culture and our take home wage. Whether it’s right or wrong, it is often so engrained in our habitual sensibilities that it can’t help but remain a feature of contemporary existence, even if the parameters have somewhat shifted.
Artists, as social commentators, observers and recorders of contemporary life, have often reflected upon the hierarchies of social strata. Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry is the latest to focus upon this omnipresent subject and its commercial sister, that of taste. He tackles the subject firstly through the modern lens of a television show In the Best Possible Taste broadcast in 2012 on Channel 4 and secondly through the traditional medium of woven tapestry – the resultant works following his filmed research. His investigation into working class British taste centred on Sunderland and hence the tapestry works have now made their way to the City Museum under the title The Vanity of Small Differences.
The huge tapestries, six in total, follow the journey of young ‘Tim Rakewell’ as he climbs the societal ladder, from his youth in Sunderland to his grisly death as a rich but unfulfilled bachelor at the side of the road, being papped on iPhones as his young second wife looks on. The series parodies William Hogarth’s famous satirical work A Rake’s Progress which follows the story of Tom Rakewell (perhaps Tim’s great great great great grandfather?) and updates the story to include all mod cons and bring it to a current context. Throughout the works and process is a consistent pull between tradition and contemporary means, from the disparate use of investigative research played out on prime time TV combined with the deeply traditional practice of tapestry weaving, to the inclusion of contemporary syntax and technology in compositions based upon religious paintings of the 15th century.
As with all of Perry’s more anthropological works, The Vanity of Small Differences revels in its own sense of social flanerie to great effect. Every minute detail is carefully considered, from the home décor, to the dress sense of the protagonists. Much like a moralistic Pre-Raphaelite painting, each object is coded with social meaning, which perhaps can only truly be understood and appreciated in a contemporary time frame.
They are beautiful to look at too, sumptuously coloured and resplendent in their machine-crafted finery. Perry doesn’t mind that they are created by machine rather than hand, and embraces the use of digital technology, going so far as to say, “Google is the great tool of the modern artist.”
Whilst it is arguable that artworks such as this serve to further engrain the notion of social difference, Perry also highlights the blurred boundaries of social mobility and misapprehensions surrounding the classes at each level. In equal measure, the tapestries satisfyingly depict many of the distinctive social stereotypes carried about belonging to a certain ‘class tribe’.
The Vanity of Small Differences is an exhibition that can be read at different levels. On a surface glance the aesthetic appeal of the tapestries is obvious and they pander to our fascination with the lives of ‘others’. For those that wish to look deeper, there is a complex language of art historical reference interwoven with contemporary signifiers that both reflect our fascination with tradition, roots and respect towards heritage, and warn of the perils that could befall our aspirational desire to move onwards and upwards.
Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences is on display at the Sunderland Museum until 29 September 2013.
Rebecca Travis is an artist, curator and writer based in Newcastle.