Open to Interpretation: Moving between the Social Classes

My practice has evolved to become something that questions the domestic objects we treasure; their cultural value and their perceived credibility amongst the social classes. Grayson Perry rather boldly states that; “The British care about taste because it is inextricably woven into our system of social class.”[1] “More than any other factor”… “one’s social class determines ones taste.” 1 Although bold, Perry speaks somewhat of an alarming truth here. Perry’s newest exhibition: The Vanity of Small Differences shows its viewers the blunt truths behind social class taste- the taste choices we make in our domestic spaces and the cultural value of which they hold. In this piece of writing I intend to interrogate Perry’s tapestries against my own practice through the prism of social class taste. Investigating: what is working class taste? To what extent does your birth place determine your social class? What role does education play towards the degree of social mobility in Britain? And can it be said that the elite art world is only for the middle classes?

Walking into Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences I was greeted by vast tapestries; vibrant in colour and rich in detail. This visit to Manchester Art Gallery allowed my practice to move forward into another depth, a depth of class and in particular; social class taste. In the first tapestry- The Adoration of the Cage Fighters I immediately noticed the décor, the patterned wallpaper, the carpet style, the fireplace, the fake flowers and of course the ornaments! Grayson Perry captured the very essence of that room. The panorama view captured every detail and included yet even more accurate text of the working class people he was portraying.

What unsettles me about Perry’s tapestries is the certainty in which he delivers the tastes of the classes. The way in which he writes and illustrates these class-tastes are with extreme confidence, there seems to be no exceptions to his portrayal. The TV show which Perry made to support the tapestries’ research shows Perry visiting the areas of Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and The Cotswolds. It’s with absolute certainty that Perry expressed that these areas only house the social classes he spoke of. Beginning his television series in a chipper voice with the statement- “I’ve come to Sunderland to investigate working class taste.”[2]

Can it be said after the fall of working class industries that people from one area can be labelled as one set class? During post-war Britain you could almost certainly say yes to that question. The explosion of council housing determined that factor for the working class. Lynsey Hanley’s book Estates explores the role of council housing in Britain, she expresses the same view as Perry; that geography does matter- that the “British class system is down to the fact that class is built into physical landscape of the country.”[3] Even more so relevant to my practice she remarks that class is: “divided not by income and occupation, but by the types of homes in which we live.”[4] So it seems that Perry and Hanley agree on the boundaries of class location. Yet, in a more contemporary world where; “the working class set out to establish themselves in new places.,”[5] and the affluent working class are; “adopting a way of life- a culture- closer to that of their middle class counterparts.” 5, that it is not only our geography that determines social class.

I myself being brought up in a working class Lancashire town am unsure of where I place myself within the social classes. According to my geography I’m northern working class; a strong Lancashire accent and a strong work ethic; rooted in the form of the Lancashire cotton mills. But where do I see myself in Grayson Perry’s tapestries? I see my family life in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters. My grandma’s living room so well depicted; her ornaments- aspirational working class objects; the link I’d yet to make before seeing this tapestry. Yet I see myself currently in the middle of Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close– torn between the lower middle classes and the cultural middle class. My family have worked hard to make their way up the ladder but what other factors allow me to break through the invisible barrier to the cultural middle class?

Perry, referring the taste decisions of our homes, suggests; “We often only become aware of these unconscious choices when we move between social classes.”[6] I had my first transitional experience of this when visiting my boyfriend’s family for the first time; their home was very different to mine, filled with books, artworks, and collectables from their well travelled places, not to mention the fancy food I’d little heard of. It certainly didn’t look anything like my Grandmas’. It’s this experience that first placed me in Perry’s 3rd tapestry: Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close. But there is an underlying factor that takes me through that rainbow into the cultural middle classes and that is education- a “Ticket to a better life.”[7]

“I could have gone to Uni.”[8]– The first text you read in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters. Using that one statement Perry is able to sum up the “the story of class mobility.” During the working class episode of his TV series Perry declares; “Of all the objects in Susan’s house it was her daughter’s graduation photos that unlocked for me the themes of class, taste and social mobility.” 7 Susan; an interviewee of Perry’s, spoke of her upbringing; “in a council house, in what was considered a really bad area of Sunderland,” 7 She wanted to turn that around for her daughters. She believed that “Going to university would enable them to move a little bit up the ladder.” 7 Like my parents wanted for me and what Perry saw for himself; they saw what access to education could do in terms of social mobility. More than any taste choices in Susan’s home it was education that allowed her children to better themselves. As Lynsey Hanley states with remarkable truth; “all the back gardens and spacious front rooms in the world cannot compensate for access to work and education.”[9]

It’s then incredibly disheartening to read that- “The access that smart, creative, messy kids from council estates once had to polytechnics, universities and art colleges has been eroded by prohibitive college fees.”[10] Sean O’Hagan, in an article published just last month, exclaims his dismay for the limited prospects of current working class students. With student fees rising does this mean that only the social elite will have access to Higher Education? Will access to education through creative courses become an exclusive option? As successful British Artist; Gary Hume, asked in the same article-“If you can’t do something meaningful through art because you can’t afford to go to Art College or even rent a studio, what happens to you?”[11] Therefore I ask the question: Has the art world banished its working class contributors?

It’s my art education that brought me through Perry’s elusive rainbow into the cultural middle class. Grayson Perry knows this only too well himself. Being involved with contemporary art permits you into the middle classes. Perry admits- “Foundation was a foreign world which I was entering. I was seeing into a freer, more adult, middle class world where culture was important in people’s lives.”[12] “art was my ticket out of Essex”-… “escaping my roots through art.” 12 Escaping seems to be a common theme amongst the research of working class roots. Lynsey Hanley explains the sense of achievement you feel to have escaped- “You believe yourself to be proud of having overcome the limitations of your environment.”[13] We’ve overcome hardship to get to our position, but do we ever feel comfortable here? Does the art world accept me for who I am?

Perry makes the big statement saying that “There is no working class art world.”[14] He jokes about this in his TV series, but is he right? Perry’s tapestries are said to be “a bracing walk through that taboo subject of class.”[15] But how far does that taboo subject reach within the art world? Perry touches on this when asked about his decision to use tapestries; “Tapestry because of its associations really, which are mainly with big posh houses.”[16]…  “a little bit ironic to tell a commonplace tale of social mobility in average Britain…” “with that grand medium.” 16 Although he feels it ironic, I feel Perry is pleasing his alleged middle class audience by choosing a medium that will appeal to their tastes. By using tapestries he reinforces the middle class art world; therefore excluding the working class. He then only furthers this notion by referencing 18th century artist William Hogarth: Perry himself admitting that; “Making knowing reference to older artworks is in itself a very middle class thing to do.”… “It flatters the education and cultural capital of the audience.”[17]

Where Perry uses tapestries I use plinths within my practice; plinths turn the aspirational working class objects I use into something that the middle classes can appreciate. By bringing these ornamental figures into the art world I transform them into something of middle class value. The plinths, like Perry’s tapestries, say I am middle class; therefore these objects no longer possess the kitsch taste of the working class. They can now be appreciated as a work of art. The plinths belong to the art world: its middle class; its white cube; so why then are my grandma’s ornaments on display? These working class objects now question the art world in which, like me, they are now a part of.

One of the most endearing scenes in Perry’s television series involved the working class reactions to the tapestries they featured in. Hairdresser Debbie; portrayed in the tapestry ready for her night on the town; was thrilled to see herself as part of an art work; “That’s me! That’s my dress!”[18] The working class people couldn’t quite believe that they now featured in a work of art. They were incredibly honoured be woven into the world of contemporary art. Momentarily they had been allowed into the middle classes.

Perry, using his artist status, monumentalises Debbie; “The people that would have been depicted in tapestries historically would have been Gods and Kings. And here is a hairdresser from Sunderland.”[19] In The Adoration of the Cage Fighters the tastes of the working classes are briefly allowed through the rainbow into the middle classes. Like my grandma’s ornaments on plinths; they are allowed access to a new realm of society. The daughter of interviewee Susan, who I discussed earlier, spoke with almost disbelief as she saw the tapestry The Adoration of the Cage Fighters.; “I loved seeing so many things from my childhood and growing up in a work of art. It’s an incredible feeling!” 19 The working class don’t often see their possessions given such high status, but the art world has accepted their tastes through this tapestry, even if it is just the once, and with what I suspect is a hint of ridicule.

[1] PERRY, G., MOORE, S., and LOWE, A., 2013. The Vanity of Small Difference. London (Southbank Centre): Harvard Publishing
[2] All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, 2012, Series 1, Episode 1 [TV] Channel 4, 10pm 5th June 2012
[3] HANLEY, L., 2007. Estates. London; England: Granta Books
[4] HANLEY, L., 2007. Estates. London; England: Granta Books
[5] MASSEY, D., and ALLEN, J., eds., 1984. Geography Matters!. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press in association with the Open University
[6] PERRY, G., MOORE, S., and LOWE, A., 2013. The Vanity of Small Difference. London (Southbank Centre): Harvard Publishing
[7] All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, 2012, Series 1, Episode 1 [TV] Channel 4, 10pm 5th June 2012
[8] PERRY, G., 2013. The Vanity of Small Difference. Exhibition held at Manchester Art Gallery. Manchester, 24th October- 2nd February. [Exhibition]
[9] HANLEY, L., 2007. Estates. London; England: Granta Books
[10] O’HAGAN, S., 2014. A working-class hero is something to be … but not in Britain's posh culture, The Guardian [online]. 26th January 2014
[11] O’HAGAN, S., 2014. A working-class hero is something to be … but not in Britain's posh culture, The Guardian [online]. 26th January 2014
[12] JONES, W., 2006, Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, London: Chatto & Windus
[13] HANLEY, L., 2007. Estates. London; England: Granta Books
[14] All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, 2012, Series 1, Episode 1 [TV] Channel 4, 10pm 5th June 2012
[15] PERRY, G., MOORE, S., and LOWE, A., 2013. The Vanity of Small Difference. London (Southbank Centre): Harvard Publishing
[16] PERRY, G., Grayson Perry Q&A [online]., Available at: [Date Accessed 16 February 2014]
[17] PERRY, G., MOORE, S., and LOWE, A., 2013. The Vanity of Small Difference. London (Southbank Centre): Harvard Publishing
[18] All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, 2012, Series 1, Episode 1 [TV] Channel 4, 10pm 5th June 2012
[19] All in The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, 2012, Series 1, Episode 1 [TV] Channel 4, 10pm 5th June 2012