The Agony in the Car Park, 2012, by Grayson Perry (Grayson Perry/Victoria Miro Gallery, London)
As we oiks climb the greasy pole, we may pick up a deceptively authentic-looking set of middle-class predilections: a book-lined study, a modest grubby car, a full wine rack and original window frames. All the while, from deep inside our urbane metropolitan exterior, an embarrassing former self wails from his oubliette: “I want a gold Porsche.” Such a primal desire for the gewgaws of one’s culture of origin lead to the downfall of the hero of my tapestries, Tim Rakewell.
Class is something bred into us like a religious faith. We drink in our aesthetic heritage with our mother’s milk, with our mates at the pub, or on the playing fields of Eton. We learn the texture of our place in the world from the curlicue of a neck tattoo, the clank of a Le Creuset casserole dish, or the scent of a mouldering hunting print. A childhood spent marinating in the material culture of one’s class means taste is soaked right through you. Cut me and, beneath the thick crust of Islington, it still says “Essex” all the way through.
As with many aspects of our behaviour, a lot of the interesting stuff happens when we think we are not even making a decision. It’s those default settings we all have, those unexamined “natural” and “normal” choices, which often say the most about us: where and when we eat, when and where we might expose a bit of flesh, the kind of curtains we buy, what television you watch, how you bring up your children. We often become aware of these unconscious choices only when we move between social classes. I think my middle-class wife screamed when I first came into the kitchen without a shirt on.
In my series of six works, The Vanity of Small Differences, we follow the life of Tim Rakewell, from humble birth to famous death. The main thread of this journey is his progress through the social strata of modern British society. Nearly all of the places, people and objects that feature in the work were inspired by my televised taste safari.
We chose the three locations for our television series – Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds – because they are each already strongly identified with the social classes. Sunderland has a proud working-class heritage from its heyday as a mining and shipbuilding town. The phrase “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” – referring to a fictional writer of letters of complaint, invented by staff at the Tunbridge Wells Advertiser in the Fifties – makes this town almost synonymous with conservative middle-class values. The Cotswolds have also become associated with a deeply rooted, landed upper class, owing to the prevalence of mellow, limestone stately homes among the rolling hills of this scenic area.
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012 (Grayson Perry / Victoria Miro Gallery, London)
Within each social group, taste seems to play a slightly different role. When I asked club singer Sean Foster-Conley what I should feature in my tapestries to show working-class taste, he said “the mines and shipyards”. “But they no longer exist,” I replied. In a very important way, however, he was right. The heavy industries that shaped the north of England also shaped the emotional lives of the generations of people who lived there. Winding towers and cranes can be torn down in a day, but the bonds, formed through shared hardship working under them, live on. Taste is an emotional business; working-class people often talk of a strong sense of community, and taste decisions are often made to demonstrate loyalty to the clan. Now that those communities are no longer held together by working in the same mine, mill or shipyard, call-centre workers or spray-tanners pledge allegiance to a locale, to their friends and family, through football, soap operas, bodybuilding, tattoos, hot cars, elaborate hairstyles and the ritual of dressing up for a Friday night on the town.
Among the gentry, taste also binds the tribe, but not much personal expression seems to be involved. The word that kept cropping up with the people I met was “appropriate”. The owners of grand country houses were custodians of a scene that they were unwilling to let change. They felt deeply obliged to maintain these landmarks and the roles that come with them. Curiously, having to preserve these beautiful and costly piles has helped form the overriding aesthetic of the upper class – one of refined entropy. The houses are lovingly patched, a man wears his grandfather’s coat, the sofa collapses, and the creation of a museum of clutter is blithely encouraged.
Talking to Rollo and Janie Clifford, who own four Grade I listed properties in Gloucestershire, I thought they took pleasure from a crumbling stone staircase or her 50 year-old car, covered in stickers. When quizzed, they denied an attachment to hard-won decay and pleaded poverty. When I pointed out that Rollo carried around his papers held together by a metal clip attached to a stump of dog-chewed cardboard when he could probably afford a new clipboard, he very grudgingly admitted to an appreciation of patina. How much of this is due to lack of funds and how much to inbred taste I do not know, but, as an Englishman, even a jumped-up prole like me feels genetically drawn to crumbling, faded glory.
This elegantly arrested decomposition gives off useful signals. It says “We are not in a hurry to change and upset anyone, we have owned this for ages and therefore are not billionaire incomers, who would install a swimming pool and electric gates.”
The drama of taste really gets going when people betray their aspiration to a higher social status through their purchases. The broad swath of the British who describe themselves as the middle class are most aware of, and also the most anxious about, taste. At Kings Hill in Kent I encountered a set of unwritten rules. “Discreet branding” was a phrase that cropped up – Prada loafers with a little badge, a Paul Smith shirt with telltale eccentric buttons, a “low key” Rolex. Residents of these PVC clapboard houses sensed they had moved away from a tribe where crude bling gained respect, but they still needed the reassurance of an easily read code. Ostentation was still a difficult drug to resist – Range Rover Sports were everywhere and one resident poetically summed up the combination of pretension and banality when she described the estate as “the only place you would see a Bentley parked on a roundabout”.
The ambience of the estate was maintained by a mixture of contractual obligation (“no caravans”) and communal taboos (“no net curtains”). Talking to the residents, I found a genuine community spirit, but I sensed that for all of the convenience, security and luxury of their lifestyle, true middle-class status, if they actually wanted it, was beyond an intangible exclusion barrier. What that divide is made of, I think, is largely culture and education. The people basking on the sunlit uplands of the chattering classes have either passed through this miasmic barrier at university, or were born beyond it, where people just seem to know how to be fully middle class. Crucially, they understand that despite all the rules about taste that they have picked up by osmosis – when to wear shorts, what to name one’s child, what to serve at a kitchen supper – none of them matters; one can flout them all as long as, and this is paramount, everyone knows you are doing it on purpose. So I can buy a Porsche and have it gold-plated, but it has to be full of rubbish and dog hair, and I must NEVER, EVER wash it.
Another driver of taste that I noticed among the upper middle class was the desire to show the world that one was an upright moral citizen. In the past, a good burgher might have regularly attended church or done voluntary work; today they buy organic, recycle, drive an electric car or deny their child television. This need to pay inconvenient penance to society seems to come partly from guilt. The liberal, educated middle class have done well, but they must pay with hard labour on their allotment, or by cycling to work.
Professional aesthetes in deconstructed suits and statement spectacles would love it if there were strict overarching rules of good taste. I fear they search in vain. I started my research with a full set of prejudices about the “inferior” taste of the working class I had left behind. I now find myself agreeing with the cultural critic Stephen Bayley that good taste is that which does not alienate your peers. Shared taste helps bind the tribe. It signals to fellow adherents of a particular subculture that you understand the rules. Within the group of, say, modified hatchback drivers, there is good and bad taste in loud cars in much the same way as there is good and bad taste in installations within the art world. Outsiders may find it baffling or irritating, but that is of less importance to insiders than impressing one’s peers.'