My mum’s front room is crammed full of ornaments of which can only be described as either decapitated clown’s heads, or, ladies with billowy dresses which waft in a non-existent wind. I think they are horrific, she reckons they’re classy. The thing is, we all like to believe that our taste is exceptional, which we justify with a good old sneer at what we consider to be bad taste.
Channel 4 recently ran a three part series, All in the Best Possible Taste, whereby famous transvestite artist and winner of the Turner prize, Grayson Perry, journeyed through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds to immerse himself in some of the ‘taste tribes’ of our social spectrum. The aim was to try and get to grips with the complexities of taste, and understand what people say about themselves when they make certain choices. People he met, social rituals, objects, events and brands were then captured in six astonishingly vibrant tapestries to communicate and symbolise social mobility in 21st Century Britain. The tapestries, entitled: The Vanity of Small Differences, are on display in the Victoria Miro Gallery, London until August 11th 2012.
Taking inspiration from William Hogarth’s, A Rake’s Progress (1732-33), the tapestries tell the tale of the rise and demise of Tim Rakewell, from his working class beginnings, to his nouveau celebrity status after selling his software company for a huge amount of money. Tim eventually meets his death when he crashes his Ferrari, surrounded by products and brands reflecting what he has become. The tale is as much about the 21st Century cult of celebrity and possessions, with its Hello magazine front cover dream, as it is about class mobility. Ultimately, he concludes that on the one hand, taste is an unconscious decision influenced by our background, childhood and society, but is at is most dramatic when we want to make a conscious effort to change our social position or how it’s perceived. Taste can be as much about defining who you are, as it is distancing yourself from who you used to be.
It would have been so easy to spend the entire series massively sneering, but Perry’s non-judgemental and genuine approach challenged taste prejudices. Sunderland was portrayed as a working class town built on pride of place and community, based on a nostalgic sense of their shipping industry past. Taste is outwardly expressed in an almost ‘tribal display’ of pride, whether its a group of blokes mutually appreciating the craftsmanship of their pimped up Subaru’s, explaining the emotion behind their tattoo art, or strutting their cagefighter trained abs. On the opposite end of the scale, Perry challenges the perception of upper class taste as quintessentially British and the ultimate in what is ‘good’ taste. Instead, they are portrayed as a tribe weighed down with expectations of ‘appropriate’ taste which is dictated from beyond the grave due to ancestral pressures to maintain and continue the family legacy.
The most fascinating episode, however was the focus on the middle classes. Two thirds of the population now consider themselves as being middle class and as Perry suggests: ‘The important taste divide in British life is not between working class and middle class taste but within the different tribes of the middle class itself’ which he refers to as a ‘Berlin wall of British Taste’. First he visits King’s Hill, a ‘new upwardly mobile’ middle class estate of matching houses, tight rules of perfection and symmetry, shiny Range Rovers, Jamie Oliver Cookwear parties, pink champagne and cupcakes. The inhabitants express how they find reassurance by buying into specific brands or trends for validation. It’s about proving they deserve their status with brands as their badges of honour. By following certain rules set by brands selling the lifestyle they identify themselves with, they can rest assured under a blanket of aestheticism.
In Tunbridge Wells, Perry meets an ‘upper middle’ tribe who, rather than follow specific rules, they have more confidence in their own sense of style and choices, often based on cultural capital. They are just as comfortable choosing a William Morris Wallpaper and mid century British paintings, as they are hunting for kitsch and retro vintage finds in bric a brac stalls, or a bargain from TK Maxx. Taste is a means of self expression and perceived individuality, however as Perry suggests: ‘Everyone thinks that they are an individual, until they meet a load of other people who are just as individual as they are’.
Whilst I’d argue that so called taste tribes are not limited to definitions of ‘class’, whether we like it not, we’re all following the rules of our tribe and to sum up, ‘Good’ taste is that which does not offend our peers, or group’. My mums’ clown heads offend me hugely, however I do now have a distant appreciation for her taste and have stopped threatening to flog them on ebay. Instead I’ll put them in the downstairs loo, you know, in a kind of retro, kitsch way…
Living. The. Dream.
By Rebecca Wakefield