Grayson Perry answers questions about The Vanity of Small Differences, class, taste, and All in the Best Possible Taste...
You've created six tapestries called The Vanity of Small Differences. Why did you choose the medium of tapestry?
Tapestry because of its associations really, which are mainly with big posh houses. You see them hanging in the saloons of stately piles and they depict grand events of national import or mythological narratives and I thought it would be nice and poignant and maybe a little bit ironic to tell a commonplace tale of social mobility in average Britain in some ways with that grand medium. I always look to see how I can use a medium to add another layer of sly meaning, if you like, to this thing that you're looking at.
You say The Vanity of Small Differences tells a story of social mobility. Can you tell me in more detail what the story of the tapestries is?
They're based on Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. The hero of that is called Tom Rakewell, and my hero is called Tim Rakewell, and he starts as a babe in arms in Sunderland.
The first scene is in his great-grandmother's front room, where he's sitting on his mother's knee trying to get her mobile phone, because that's his main rival for her attention. She's just about to go out with her mates on the lash and they've just arrived to pick her up. Her grandmother's in the background, and it's about showing the taste of that nan's front room: the nick-nacks and the associations. And the big thing about working class taste is that it holds this ghost of heavy industry still, the social emotions are hangovers from a time when we had heavy industry, and they're changing very slowly, so they're not necessarily appropriate to the modern world but they're still there. The scene is called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters because it depicts two cage fighters coming up to Tim and giving him the symbols of membership of the tribe, which are the Sunderland football shirt and a miner's lamp.
The second image is called The Agony in the Car Park. It depicts Tim's stepfather doing a bit of singing and his mother enraptured by it, and Tim looking a bit embarrassed. He's almost crucified against an image of a shipyard crane because he's on the brink of social mobility himself - the stepfather - he's going to go into the call centre and become a manager there, moving away from the traditional jobs.
Then in the next tapestry they're on a nice private estate in a new development. One of those places with PVC clapperboarding. It's called The Expulsion from Number Eight Eden Close. It depicts our hero Tim with his girlfriend who he's met at university - a nice middle-class girl - having rowed with his mother because she thinks she's turned him into a snob. He's passing through that sort of miasmic barrier between the lower and upper middle classes to a certain extent, which is very much about education and culture and an understanding that yes, there are rules, but to be a true member of the middle classes we play with them to a certain extent.
So he's moving through to a dinner party in a nice bourgeois home with William Morris wallpaper and mid-century British paintings on the wall. He goes up into the quite chichi Islington world: the world of the Aga and organic vegetables.
His software company gets sold for an enormous amount of money and he becomes a member of the new upper class to a certain extent. Because he can't become truly aristocratic and upper class himself he witnesses the predicament of the aristocracy: this dying breed, and the final one is his death in a Ferrari smash as a kind of nouveau celebrity. There's a copy of Hello magazine in the gutter with him and his second wife on the cover.
You touch on the fact that he can't become genuinely upper class. A Rake's Progress is a downward spiral for Tom Rakewell going from wealthy to destitute whereas Tim Rakewell's going the other way. It seems like quite an optimistic interpretation of modern social mobility?
Well I think social mobility now is almost at a standstill. There's a kind of irony about it. And also, of course, what it depicts is maybe a kind of moral bankruptcy to a certain extent, in that we're in a time now where we've moved from a market economy to a market culture and the idea of celebrity and possessions. That's what the final tapestry's saying: he might have a Ferrari and he might be famous but he died just the same; if you don't do your safety belt up... I suppose if there is an over-arching story that's the one: it's not about getting money in the end. What is it we're getting?
To what extent do your own experiences of class, taste and social mobility inform The Vanity of Small Differences?
Hugely. I come from - I wouldn't say a poor working class background - but culturally definitely a working class background, and then through girlfriends and then my wife I've been almost forcibly educated in the morés of the middle classes and I can almost call a piece of cloth you have at the table a napkin without thinking about it, but in moments of panic I do still call it a serviette. I think the most precious commodity that the middle class have - and it's a very expensive commodity to attain - is confidence... that confidence that you see in the flushed faces of the front bench.
Could you envisage any of the tapestries from The Vanity of Small Differences hanging in a stately home?
Probably in a new money stately home, somebody who had made their money in their own lifetime, who had bought a stately home and wanted to decorate it and have an art collection, I think it would fit in a treat, because it would have a very ironic resonance in that environment.
Some people would say we're all middle class now...
The middle class say we're all middle class now. Most people are self-described as middle-class now. That's a fairly recent phenomenon, from the last two decades or so, with things like mass home ownership, the sell-off of the council houses, the type of jobs that people do now. I think you collect a certain number of Brownie points and you award yourself middle class status for that.
Do you think that has implications for taste and maybe increases snobbery towards the remaining working class people's tastes?
I think there will always be this barrier where there are people who are looking for rules. A lot of the lower middle class still need reassurance and clear rules, which they find in brands and in definite trends because they perhaps don't have the confidence to go on their own intuition and try something else out. So there's always going to be a large proportion of the population that have what they think is a very clear idea about what is good taste. But of course the good taste is just an illusion; it's just that they're obeying the rules of their tribe.
Do you think the gap between the lower middle class and the upper middle class is essentially as big a gap as between different classes in terms of taste?
The conclusion that I came to is that the real 'Berlin Wall' of the taste landscape is between the lower middle and upper middle class. It's made out of education, a kind of knowingness, an understanding, a bit of confidence, and ease with the whole thing. It's almost as if the moment you understand it you realise 'does it actually matter?' It's about awareness as well. If you're insecure about the track you're on, if you don't know what the landscape is either side of it, you're very desperate to stay on the track, but if you're confident you stride off into the undergrowth and say 'it's just as nice out here'.
A lot of people probably think they're displaying individuality when they demonstrate their taste but do you think they're fooling themselves?
I think there is an element of that. I think often when we think we're at our most individual we're most vulnerable to influence, and perhaps the hard-wiring of our upbringing comes into play; the material culture that one imbibed with one's mother's milk, that's the default setting on your taste, and often people don't even realise that's happening, when they make microscopic decisions all the time about what clothes to put on and how to decorate their houses.
Did the process of making the programme and creating the artworks alter any of your own preconceptions of taste and class?
Oh yes. I'd adopted many of the full-on prejudices and snobberies of an Islington middle class person, and enjoyed them. And now, I still see the differences, but I don't perhaps load them with the value judgements that I had before. I understand that if I see someone with a very big tattoo, it's not because they're a bad person, it's because they want to keep in with all the other people with big tattoos. That's their tribal badge, although, Of course, they'd be desperately keen to be seen as an individual.
And the eternal question: is taste completely subjective or is there such a thing as good taste and bad taste?
I think it's very similar to the way that the art world works. It's consensus plus time. If it's agreed amongst the tribe for a fairly sustained amount of time, then it becomes good taste. Of course there are always fashions and changes within the group but they're often quite slow-moving. The art world is just another tribe in many ways and has its own system. What's interesting about the art world, of course, is that that's its business. It's almost like taste and visual culture are its business and therefore it's very, very self-aware about that, and other fields are less self-conscious than the art world.
Finally, do you know how the people who you met during filming felt about how you portrayed their respective classes in the tapestries?
Delighted, I think, although some were slightly nonplussed. I've only picked on a few individuals who struck me while I was making the programme. Certain images burnt into my mind, like the club singer having his hand held while he sang in the club, which was like a Caravaggio altarpiece, and the metaphor of the hunted stag popped into my mind when I was talking to the resigned aristocrats, who said 'we've got to rent it out now to pay the bills and the barbarians are at the gate with their car parking and their flesh.'
You can see The Vanity of Small Differences at the Victoria Miro gallery between 7 June and 11 August 2012.