Art Critique: Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences


In his 2012 documentary series In the Best Possible Taste, Turner Prize-winning textiles artist Grayson Perry explored the social and cultural aspects of ‘taste’, as a conduit for looking at class difference in the UK. Through visiting a variety of people from all over the country, immersing himself in their culture and confronting their tastes Perry proposed to use his findings as the inspiration behind a series of six tapestries. The exhibition of these pieces, The Vanity of Small Differences, in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery was of great interest to me having so enjoyed the TV series.

In the Best Possible Taste confounded the working, middle and upper classes into three words for me; expressive, conformity and appropriateness, respectively. The working-class “beauty that you can measure with a ruler” is immediate and extremely visible. The middle-class “tug of war”, between showing off and not wanting to, is brand-conscious and standardised yet understated. Whereas the upper-class “semaphore of inescapable appropriateness”, whilst hard to imitate, appears unkempt and shabby, affecting an inherited air of not having to care what others think.

The tapestries show all of this. All of the places, people and objects within them reflect Perry’s findings from the working-class women in their glad-rags ready to hit the town and paint it every colour under the sun – to the middle classes cradling their ‘Le Creuset’ casserole dishes and unfettered adoration of Jamie Oliver (a.k.a. the scraggly King of class mobility). Not forgetting of course the dying aristocratic stag of the upper classes, in tattered tweed, being hounded by the dogs of tax and the upkeep and fuel bills awarded to their inherited landowning.

Perry’s work is intricate and dense with these class signifiers, perhaps to a convoluted level. Both in the TV series and the tapestries Perry’s exploration of class taste finds many stereotypes with little or no outliers. As a young working-class writer from Liverpool, who as a matter of personal ankle safety doesn’t wear heels over 3 inches high and who as a matter of non-judgemental personal taste has never fancied getting a tattoo, I found his exploration of the similarly working-class Sunderland lacking. Although everything Perry discovers and depicts is true it isn’t a tireless exploration of neither class nor taste. I didn’t fit his portrait of working-class culture. So does he force his subject to fit the brief of his work?

Talking about his work in The Telegraph Perry says that, “a childhood spent marinating in the material culture of one’s class means taste is soaked right through you,” (1) and ultimately his tapestries confound this assumption. Although I could not deny the existence of taste tribes in Britain and the values with which our upbringing equips each of us individually, I’m afraid that I see a contradiction between what Perry has discovered, or not discovered, and what he has depicted.

In the final episode of the TV series Perry tells us that there is no good or bad taste, only ‘different taste’. Yet Perry indicates through his aptly-named final tapestry, ‘#lamentation’, that modern class mobility and taste is a discriminatory system. Tim’s ascension through the classes alienates him from his working-class roots whilst he never quite fits in with the middle and upper class that he joins and ultimately perishes within. Do we rejoice in this modern capacity for class mobility awarded to the intelligent? Or are we not led to lament Tim’s journey as he is killed by a Porsche car, a flashy status symbol of the middle-class? This damning indictment is contrary to Perry’s assertions in In the Best Possible Taste. So Perry, which is it?

Perry’s work will be on show at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery until 10 August 2014.

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