A balloon for Britain

Whilst on the travels, as you can imagine, I visited a great deal of galleries and saw lots of amazing art. They were a great source of inspiration for me as well as being any travellers dream… a fantastic free activity! The most memorable visit has to be in Melbourne at the National Gallery Victoria. Being an extremely well established gallery; I got to see the likes of William Morris, Mark Rothko, Picasso and David Hockney, plus a really amazing piece of art by Jeff Koons- Puppy Vase– a real tribute to the working class objects of my grandma’s living room. But the piece which really hit home for me (please excuse the pun) was by Scott King- A balloon for Britain. The piece framed 10 grainy photographs of Britain’s 10 poorest towns and cities. Above each image was a brightly coloured balloon symbolising the gentrification/regeneration of these towns using public art. And low and behold was an image I recognised.. I’d passed that same building each day for 8 years as I passed it on my to school/college. There was my home town of Blackburn! Seeing Blackburn depicted, (be it not in the kindest of lights), in the National Gallery of Victoria was a mile stone for me. It symbolised where I’d come from and re-established that notion of working class roots within my work.

Working Class Taste isn’t Easy

Back in the studio today! It was a lot harder than I first thought to create the image of working class taste! I had a play around with the wallpapers and boarders I’d carefully picked out, but it seems I really needed to conquer the taste choices of the lower classes. I need to select carefully the colour of paint I plan to use on the wallpapered plinths, I want them to compliment both the figure and the boarders/wallpaper I’m using, as well as obviously having the look of working class taste.

I’m struggling with the number of plinths I want to use, 4 would be ideal if time allows it, 3 would look too much like previous piece and two is manageable. Tomorrow I need to make some big taste choice decisions, I’m considering reds and a beige colour in emulsion- hopefully matching the boarders. I am pleased with the embossed wallpaper plinth today though so that’s a success I think! This piece is either going to be an absolute disaster in terms of feedback or extremely good, lets hope for the last one!

Grandma Kathleen

As I have mentioned quite a lot of times, this work has all stemmed from the figurines which my grandma keeps. So whilst chatting on the phone to her the other day I began thanking her for being such an important part of the work. I explained that I was now looking into council housing and mentioned I had been researching the Glasgow tenements; this set her off on a few stories which I feel I should mention. As a child, Grandma lived in the tenements, a one bedroom flat in Glasgow with her 6 brothers and sisters and her parents. Just one room for all the kids! Absolutely crazy to think of now! 5 families shared one toilet which was the next street away she said! She did say it was immaculate though- so was proud of that. She was born in 1947 so only two years after the war, which then made a lot of sense considering all the research I’d been doing concerning the state of housing post-war. 8 years later, again making a lot of sense in terms of new social housing, she moved to Drumchapel, an area 7 miles away from the centre. There was another room available- a 2 bed flat, but with the arrival of two more siblings it was still a tight squeeze; with 5 girls in one room and 4 boys in another.  Although this all sounds pretty terrible to me, she was happy to say that: “It was happy days in the tenements.” and what also made me laugh was when she said, “O yes, you would have had to be a posh person not to live in a tenement in Glasgow.” I loved that! While she was on a roll I began asking her about her ornaments, intrigued as to why she likes them so much, she said “I couldn’t live without them.” she said that her mum had had them; probably to show she could afford them. And to my disbelief she came out with-“You better yourself with ornaments.” My grandma truly is the picture of aspirational working class.

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]. Channel4.com, Available at: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/in-the-best-possible-taste-grayson-perry/articles/all/grayson-perry-qa [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

Grandma’s House

So the research begins for working class taste. Here I have taken some fantastic photographs of my grandma’s house. Like many of the older generation of the working class their homes are filled with various pieces of sentimental tat- sorry grandma. Some may think its tat or kitsch, or memorabilia, but my grandma likes it and it’s of real interest to me as to why. As I’ve said before I was shocked when my tutor remarked- “She doesn’t really have it like that does she?” when I showed him a photograph of my grandmas ornaments surrounding her whole fireplace. I’d grew up with it so taken it for grated, but when you move between classes and into the art world you find that not everyone agrees on the same taste.

My favourite photograph is of Grandma’s Fruit-bowl. An icon of her home. “Been with me since Ryan was born.”- referring to my uncle now in his forties. I really love the image, what it represents, what it portrays about ornamental objects and the table cloth surrounding it; the image of working class taste.


(3 Ornamental Figures and 3 Ornamental Plinths)

As I wrote in my previous post I had big decisions to make regarding the aesthetic look of the plinths, it just shows though that sometimes not every decision is final, because when it came to it, when I went back into the studio the next day I liked them how they were. I didn’t want to change them! So I kept them the same and I’m still nervously awaiting feedback to see the reaction. However regardless of the tutors reaction I’m  pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the piece. I love the details of the figures captured by the magnolia paint! I love the figures placed on the plinths just so and I’m increasingly liking the taboo subject of class that is coming into the works! As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts my previous piece seemed to evoke an intriguing discussion focusing on class. The plinths, it seemed, turned these aspirational working objects 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 title reflects this attitude as it emphasizes the fine art setting that the piece is in; made even more so apparent with the use of the bracketed format. The title, along with the plinths belong to the art world: it’s middle class; it’s white cube; so why on earth are my grandma’s ornaments on display?