Smash Hits : Grayson Perry
My essay on class and taste
Last night I was lucky enough to go to the preview of Smash Hits, a retrospective of Grayson Perry’s work at the National, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, (22 July-12 November.) At the party after Grayson sang! Anyway it’s a retrospective of forty years of his work, the monumental tapestries, the slyly subversive pots, Claire’s coming out dress and all sorts of wonders in an incredible space.
I know all the stuff art critics say about the evolution of artists etc etc but seriously this is a knock out show and yes he is a mate of mine and I think to be honest I have taken him a bit for granted. He never stops making things, biting the hand that feeds him, prodding all our pretensions and making us wince in recognition while also making very beautiful things. I loved the small Class War pot inspired by Mark E Smith from the 80s and the huge tableaux about everything from our spiritual beliefs to er … brands. I suppose Grayson is himself a brand now and his work is just full of colour, humanity and insatiable curiosity.
I can’t remember when we first met, but a few years ago he asked me to write an essay for his exhibition catalogue The Narcissism of Small Differences following his TV series where he had explored taste. It was the first time I had seen the tapestries up close. They were just mind blowing but also here was and here is an artist who explores what still remains the taboo subject :class. I loved contributing to what became a beautiful book and whenever anyone looks at my bookshelves they pick it up and ask what it is, as it is a gorgeous object in itself.
National Treasure? Apparently this is now Grayson’s official title which I feel is a bit like being spayed or something. For me he is a bringer of joy, savagery and laughter . At the Turner in Margate once, I saw two elderly women discussing one of his tapestries and one said to the other “If he were here now do you think he would talk to us?”.
“Yes I think he would” came the reply.
I found that moving actually, we look at ‘great art’ in galleries in compelled reverence and yet somehow Grayson has done the thing so many talk about but so few achieve : he had made himself and his work accessible. No one needs permission to enjoy art, of course not, but trust me lots of people never really feel they have been given that permission. What an enormous gift Grayson has and what a gift it is that he passes it on, back to us.
Here is my essay.
The Narcissism of Small Difference
Nothing has made me think more about taste than going through the possessions of a dead person I loved. To sort through the clothes and shoes and ornaments of my mother, who died way too young, sounds sad. It is the bit, after all, that most people dread, post-funeral, an autopsy of attachment – attachment to objects. What will be found in the silent sorting of a life's accoutrements? What will these things say of the life that has gone? What memories are there in a dress, or some special, unused cutlery, or someone's Sunday best? A friend, whose father was a collector of some repute, was surprised to discover, inside a box in which she hoped to find a valuable sculpture, a mildewed dildo. You never can tell.
For me, though, going through my mother's stuff was not a trial, but strangely wonderful. This was a veritable treasure trove of clothes and shoes, in which I saw the formation of her taste and, therefore, inevitably, my own. I took what I wanted (our feet were the same size); I bagged up what I didn't. I wondered whether nature or nurture were responsible for the parallels in our taste.
What I found was the fantasy of the life she would have led, had she been able, compared with the mundane one she ended up with. She was a good-looking woman, who had married an American and lived in the US. So, although solidly working class, she had glimpsed another life and tried to grasp hold of it. She was glamorous to me. I found shoes – deconstructed wedges that make Vivienne Westwood's look tame; zebra‑skin handbags; amber cigarette holders for those sophisticated menthols. Oh yes, and a load of absolute tat. For, towards the end of her life, when she ran out of money and the men who would provide it, she became a hunter-gatherer at car boot sales, where the line between treasure and trash is fine indeed.
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