29 January 2015

Grayson Perry, Establishment Man

This post began as Grayson Perry at the NPG but providing the necessary context turned it into a wider review. 

In 2013 Perry was the BBC’s Reith Lecturer and in a series titled Playing to the Gallery he discussed “what makes him an artist and the limits of contemporary art”. The BBC website has downloadable pdf transcripts of his four lectures and also shows some drawings he made for them. In 2014 he authored a book, Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood (PttG) with additional material and images. It’s worth reading, not just to have Perry’s astute observations in a more accessible form, but also for some of the extra illustrations which are very amusing (eg page 69, ‘inspiration for the staff bedrooms’; page 90/91, a London art map; page 113, curation) but I thought one conveys Perry’s sardonic views particularly well:


On inspection, Map of Museum based on Interior of Curator’s Head might have been more appropriately titled Map of Art Gallery based on Interior of Director’s Head. But Perry, who regards himself as “a fully paid-up member of the Establishment” (PttG page 82), presumably knows not to bite other dogs . 

About a month after PttG was published, Perry was Guest Editor for the 10 October New Statesman magazine – “A special issue on the Great White Male - That’s the straight, white, middle-class men who dominate our culture (and our politics)”. In the issue’s The NS Essay, They walk among us, Perry bemoaned the fact that:
… white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged … [are] a group that punches far, far above its weight. 
They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population.
and christened them Default Man. Though he had to admit:
I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice. and then spent much of the rest of the essay in the fortunate position of having his cake and being able to eat it: When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to! 
… Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.
Just why post-industrial societies in general, not just the UK, are still dominated at their upper levels by men is not something Perry gives much consideration to. At one point he quotes Sherrie Bourg Carter:
Women in today’s workforce ... are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases ... “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.
but he seems more interested in the wearing of suits than the raising of children. Only in The NS Interview, when Perry invites Martin Amis to his studio for a dialogue, does that aspect of reality begin to intrude:
MA You have to whisper it now that there are differences between men and women. There are, though. Women have children, you know. 
GP Yeah, but there’s also a much more encultured version of what it is to be a man and a woman. I sometimes characterise it as: males are defined by what they do and women are often defined by what they are. … 
GP I think that the male role is more heavily policed, in terms of constricting behaviours that are available to it. The male aesthetic is often about camouflage – because he then retains his ability to observe from a supposedly neutral standpoint. Women are one of the groups to be looked at. Everything is defined from that male gaze. Is it possible to unpick the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual effect on culture and take it out? Because they’ve become inextricably woven into what we call culture and “right thinking”. 
MA Males? 
GP Yes. How do you think men have branded the nature of intellectualism and seriousness?
MA It would take for ever to untangle that, wouldn’t it? …
Early on in The NS Essay, Perry reveals that:
In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s. Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms. 
Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Magdalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group.
Who Are You?, in which Perry “turns his attention to identity as he creates portraits - from tapestries to sculptures and pots - of diverse individuals who are all trying to define who they are”, was broadcast in three parts starting on 29 October. It was a successor to his 2012 Channel 4 series, In the Best Possible Taste, with its six large accompanying tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, which eventually went on a UK tour. This time the Who Are You? pieces are displayed among the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in London (below):

‘Vibrant’ art that working-class people might like – surely not 
There isn’t space here to describe all of the items, let alone reference the 140 or so minutes of video essential to their explanation – see next year’s book by Perry perhaps. But a few are worth mentioning, not least because Default Man turns up in the form of the Huhne Vase (below top). Why Huhne allowed Perry so close when he was in such dire circumstances (before imprisonment and subsequently on release) is a mystery. Later at the NPG, Huhne’s meeting with potter and vase, (which, according to the Guardian:
… was purposefully smashed by Perry and then repaired using an ancient Chinese technique which involves lacquer resin dusted or mixed with gold. The Huhne vase has been decorated with the motifs of Huhne’s face, his H11HNE number plate and a penis.  Perry said: “This is a riposte to the common Default Man’s defence that he is an ‘individual’ and his achievements and behaviour have nothing to do with group identity.  I have smashed the pot and had it repaired with gold to symbolise that vulnerability might be an asset in relationships to such a person.”)
was filmed for the first part of the series, an encounter which resembled that of water and a duck’s back, Huhne not being in the least fazed by Perry, who, he pointed out, was a RA and CBE*. I didn’t think Perry closed on Huhne, who, although he didn’t say so directly, seemed to regard Perry as just another player in the influence game** albeit one with an outr√© image.


Another item which attracted attention when the show opened was The Ashford Hijab (above lower), a portrait of young Muslim convert, Kayleigh Khosravi, from Ashford in Kent. Perry commented:
What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties?  The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women all pervasive in western society.  Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque.
Nearby in Room 31 is Wallis, Duchess of Windsor (1939) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, a portrait of a woman who had been on an even more remarkable journey. Whether this was an intentional juxtaposition, the visitor doesn’t know. But it was doubtless deliberate that The Line of Departure (below top), a tapestry in the style of an Afghan rug showing three wounded war veterans, is in Room 23, Expansion and Empire, near Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari by Barrett. I don’t believe the vets featured in the Channel 4 series, an omission which wouldn’t have surprised Kipling. [But see UPDATE 31 JANUARY below]


Probably the most memorable item was the Jesus Army Money Box (above lower), a ceramic in the form of a medieval chasse, a small enamelled chest containing a holy relic. This was inspired by the time Perry spent with a Christian group which helps the homeless.

In the few years since he was first mentioned here, Perry seems to have grown even more popular – no crime that. At the end of 2104 he used his Twitter account (@alan_measles) to keep followers informed, and patiently answering queries, about the construction and decoration of a large (one meter tall) vase:


Large, but not exactly breaking new ground. In the year that Perry became a RA, Brian Sewell wrote rather caustically about Perry:
In the quarter of a century that he has been making them [pots] they have remained essentially the same - perhaps bigger and more provocative in imagery and narrative, but they are so undeveloped that they demonstrate stultifying intellectual and aesthetic limitations. Meanwhile, Claire [*] has gone from strength to strength and it is for her tasteless and preposterous dresses, worn on every possible public occasion, that Perry is now notorious. 
[* earlier] … a female alter ego, Claire, who is now, in adult life, his public persona and has become not only much the subject of his work but the work itself, with the sedulous promotion of being Claire a constantly performed performance that more or less obliterates his unmemorable pottery.
But since then Perry has become a CBE and Reith Lecturer, and Claire engages with duchesses.

Perry with the Duchess of Cambridge
Is he “a fully paid-up member of the Establishment”? Peter Hennessy offered some relevant comment in a recent extended essay called Establishment and Meritocracy:
I reckon there is a permanent element at the core of the British Establishment - a kind of gyroscope - which embraces the grand old professions like the Law and the Civil Service (though the latter is a tad tattered at the moment), the House of Lords (especially sections of the crossbenches where sit the former Cabinet Secretaries, Law Lords, Chiefs of the Defence Staff and Queen's Private Secretaries), the Royal Society, the British Academy, the learned societies generally, the scientific and engineering institutes and the great medical colleges. The reach and clout of these institutions and tribes may fluctuate but they never truly fade, let alone disappear. While around this rooted, inner core there swirl the transient elements in the media, the financial world and the celebritocracy in constellations that vary from generation to generation who can have a powerful, if often passing influence on the mood music of political and economic discussion, and in the case of celebritocracy, the norms of our wider society. (pages 14-15)
So I think it's almost certain that Perry, if not "fully paid-up" and only transiently, is one of the celibritocrats within the British Establishment - will his knighthood arrive before or after Tracey Emin becomes a Dame?

Who are you? continues at the NPG until 15 March


* Respectively, Royal Academician and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
** In January 2015 Perry was included as one of the 24 most influential people in Art (alongside Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Banksy and Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser, et al) in Debrett’s Britain’s 500 most influential people in 2015.



UPDATE 31 JANUARY

The London Evening Standard on 30 January carried an article by its owner, Evgeny Lebedev, describing how, as part of his paper’s ongoing campaign, he and Grayson Perry had met homeless veterans at a hostel in East London earlier in the month. According to the article, Perry has offered:
… to create a unique piece of art that would not only reflect the stories of those this campaign is helping but which we could also then exclusively auction to raise more funds for those who need it.
Also:
The CEO of Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, was delighted by the visit. “Welcoming Grayson to New Belvedere House was a real pleasure,” he said. “The staff and residents warmed to him immediately. 
“Grayson’s empathy, humanity, humility and genuine interest shone through. We were stunned to learn that he was prepared to create an artwork for us and immensely grateful. Many of the veterans we help have an interest in painting, ceramics, photography or some kind of creative activity so there was great curiosity and enthusiasm when his visit was announced.”


UPDATE 12 APRIL – ESTABLISHMENT MEN AT WORK

On 11 April Grayson Perry wrote a piece in the Guardian, My hero: Neil MacGregor The retiring director of the British Museum transformed a stately institution into a cultural powerhouse.
… Neil was the major museum director’s major museum director. He is effortlessly learned, an astute diplomat and above all a lovely, lovely man. 
I sort of engineered our first meeting [in 2008] after I heard him talk to a small group where he gently berated the clergy of St Paul’s for charging entry fees. Afterwards we all went for supper at Pizza Express and I spotted an opportunity and sat down next to him. As casually as I could, I dropped in that I had an idea for an exhibition. Neil said: “Send me a letter,” and three years later my show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, opened. It is still my proudest achievement and its passage through the souk of fiefdoms that is the BM I’m sure was much eased by Neil’s initial enthusiasm. 
… I have just been appointed a trustee of the BM; …




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