“All societies will always stigmatize some conditions and some behaviours because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating ‘outsiders’ from ‘insiders’ “ Falk, 2001
Grayson Perry, the tranny potter, has created “In The Best Possible Taste”, a new documentary discussing class ‘tastes’ and identity. In his first instalment he takes us on a trip to Sunderland, where he revels in the experiences of working class types – from celebrity hairdresser Neville Ramsay to Subaru boy racers – all to inform a range of new artworks. His colourful tapestries, inspired by William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ paintings of the eighteenth century, will be Grayson’s personal interpretation of ‘the taste of modern Britain’; a brazen panorama of the working, middle and upper classes.
Grayson visits some working class characters of the twenty first century and celebrates existence regardless of social stigma. It’s about time; as our perception of what ‘working class’ has completely eroded. Social hegemony in consumerist Britain means we all shop at Tesco – our class categories have become alarmingly soft around the edges. Traditional trades; coal mining, shipbuilding and traditional old industries, have been swept away and all we’re left with are annoying caricatures in the form of Little Britain style chavs, ASBOs and hoodies. As class is so vague, talking about what being ‘working class’, ‘middle class’, or ‘upper class’ means is confusing and sticky.
What’s beautiful, then, about Grayson’s documentary is that it unabashedly squares up to issues unspoken. I love the fact that he daringly comments to a group of boy racers that their suped-up Subarus are like ‘peacock feathers’ erupting with ‘mating calls’ from sound systems. This is a ‘platform for them to express themselves without feeling vulnerable or exposed about it’. It’s wonderful that when he’s dressed up in huge hair, false eyelashes and a skimpy dress, he claims he feels like he’s in his ‘folk outfit’ ready for the ‘tribal dance’. When I went out around clubs in Doncaster, I’d talk about girls in skimpy outfits in a derogatory way because I felt like I didn’t fit into all that, and didn’t know how to be quite as cynical and charming as Grayson is in ‘The Best Possible Taste’. He’s friendly and approachable, not intimidating and patronising, and it’s interesting to see community members discussing their class; “Sunderland’s working class heritage is pride and call centres!” is shouted laughingly by a football fan. “The North east female working class look is quite constructed and there’s a lot of effort that goes into it. We’re very strategic about the effect we’re trying to create,” say two women clothes shopping before a night out. It’s really refreshing to find a live discourse about taste and identity, easing the charge of everyday snobbery.
“I think we can be harsh about working class taste, but people in Sunderland know what they’re doing and no-one should look down on it. My experiences of going out on town (in a short dress with lots of tan, big heels and big hair) touched the guilty pleasure part of my self, which I wanted to release and indulge.”
If how working class people, and middle class and so on, define themselves deflates, at the end of it all, to what clothes are worn, where we shop, what alcohol we buy, why are we so protective about our ‘stuff’? I love that Grayson unravels our modern pack mentality and argues the case for transcending your social group and simply throwing your snobbery aside.
Britain has an incredibly rich cultural landscape including the Houses of Parliament, the Angel of the North, Edinburgh Castle, that should never push working man’s pubs, snooker halls, local pubs aside. In a working man’s club you can find great examples of the eccentricities of British life (I once enjoyed a Metallica tribute band in Norton, a small village on the outskirts of South Yorkshire). Why should you have to go to a foreign country to find something new and interesting? There’s plenty worth exploring in the community centre on Holloway Road, and you’d probably open up your mind a little more to your own environment.
To view ‘In The Best Possible Taste’ episode one, just click.
For more explorations of British folk art see Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive: www.britishcouncil.org/arts-aad-folk-archive.htm