All in the Best Possible Taste: The Complexities of Social Class.
What is good taste? According to the artist-cum-social-commentator Grayson Perry, it is what is accepted by our tribe. In this case, our social class. His series of six tapestries named ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is a humorous and enlightening exploration of how aesthetic taste and social class are interwoven in modern Britain.
Contrary to what some may believe, Britain’s social class system is alive and well. While the social class system may have evolved, it still has a bearing on people’s lives and often affects their opportunities. Sociologist, Richard Hoggard writes that “class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves”. The rifts between social classes are as large as ever, and people on one side struggle to understand people on the other.
Meritocracy and democracy should lead to socioeconomic mobility, but identities associated with social class are as entrenched as ever.
As well as providing a surprising springboard for discussions about taste, Grayson Perry’s work illustrates why meritocracy and democracy are not strong enough forces to dissolve Britain’s class system. His tapestries show that social classes are not just differentiated by levels of economic capital, but that class is also deeply cultural. Our class sub-culture is expressed in our preferences. From our taste in music, to the type of coffee we drink to our favourite celebrity chef.
Perry’s tapestries tell the story of a character called Tim Rakewell as he moves upwards through the social strata of 21st century Britain. It is a tale of social mobility, in which Tim rises from his humble beginnings in working-class Sunderland, gets a middle-class girlfriend and then ascends into the upper-classes by becoming a computer software millionaire. The story plays over six brightly coloured tapestries. Using his ethnographic eye for detail, Perry weaves in layers upon layers of cultural references and class markers: from red bull cans to Cath Kidston bags.
In the tapestry, ‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’ we see Tim going to dinner at his middle-class girlfriend’s house. In the image, he steps over the miasmic barrier between the lower and middle classes. He is walking away from his working-class family on the left towards her bourgeois home on the right. The family is sitting down to vegetarian dinner surrounded by walls decorated with William Morris wallpaper - the epitome of the middle-class lifestyle.
Jamie Oliver looks down benevolently from above like a god. In an interview with the Guardian, Grayson Perry remarks on how Jamie Oliver is “a working class Essex boy, a real geezer- and he’s got good taste!”. It’s almost as if he sells class mobility through the middle-class lifestyle his cookbooks represent.
The mid-century British painting hanging on the wall and the full bookshelves also hint to the importance of cultural capital for questions of taste and class. This is discussed by Mike Savage in his book Social Class in the 21st Century. He argues that while it may seem that cultural tastes and interests seem to emerge out of our personal enthusiasms, in reality they are often a form of cultural capital. A form of capital that can be accumulated and exchanged just like economic capital. ‘High’ culture is elevated over popular culture and seen as more respectable and worthy. This is perpetuated cultural critics and other taste-makers as well as an education system that promotes canonised, ‘high’ art forms over popular art forms.
The way in which the visual environment people weave around themselves is affected by social class is most evident in his tapestry ‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’. By this point in the story, Tim has found success and sold his software company to Richard Branson – on the bottom right, an iPad displays a news article headlined “Rakewell sells to virgin for £270m”. He has earned his place in the affluent middle classes.
The kitchen table is a still life of his cultural bounty. Overflowing with items representing the middle class: a Cath Kidston bag, the iconic Penguin Classics mugs, a cafetière … In our consumerist society, our consumption habits are a visual expression of class.
But there’s an even more profound commentary residing within these visual markers. Certain items reveal the values typically espoused by the middle class. A copy of the guardian and a “make tea not war” tea towel hung up on the Aga stove. As well as more subtle things like the jam with the label “allotment organic homemade jam” and recycling bins.
In the conversations held while Grayson developed the ideas for his tapestries he noticed that “amongst the upper middle class was the desire to show the world that one was an upright moral citizen”. This need to pay inconvenient penance to society seems to come partly from guilt. The "liberal, educated middle class “have done well, but they must pay with hard labour on their allotment, or by cycling to work”.
Coming from a working-class background but having gained access to the upper echelons of society through his success in the art world, Grayson is our perfect spokesman when it comes to social class. He is curious rather than judgemental and manages to not take things too seriously, affectionately making fun of the working, middle and upper classes alike.
We can’t help but notice the comedy of the offering of the Sunderland football t-shirt being offered to the baby in his depiction of a working-class home in Sunderland in ‘Adoration of the Cage Fighters’. He satires how despite their obsession with self-expression, the middle-class are most predictable of all, with their penguin mugs and Jamie Oliver cook books.
In the documentary series that accompanies the production of these tapestries ‘All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry’, Grayson picks fun at the upper classes uniform of pink polo shirts and boat shoes and as well as the scruffiness that they almost pride themselves in.
Perry’s shrewd and humorous commentary on how much our taste reveals and even constructs our social class helps us to understand our differences rather than slipping into cultural snobbery.
His eccentric tapestries testify to how art has the power to help us understand ‘the other’. In this case, the person on the other side of the dividing line of class. Perry’s art embraces the differences in taste in all their vibrant variety. He shows us that regardless of whether we shop at Lidl or Waitrose, we’re all just as silly, and just as human, as each other!
Rebecca studies Anthropology at the University of Exeter. She is particularly interested in ideas around affect, language, and creativity.