In Grayson Perry’s eyes we, as university students, are the epitome of social climbers. The tapestries which form his exhibition ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ shown at the NUA East Gallery, centre on the character of Tim Rakewell. Rakewell is presented as rising into wealth largely as a result of his grammar school and then university education. His working-class mother is depicted as someone who “could have gone to uni” but instead stays partying with her working-class friends, the spectre of a graduate portrait looming on the wall behind her. None of this is to say that university guarantees financial success, yet it’s probably fair to say that in attending, we exist in the sphere of middle-class thinking, a place which Perry admits he himself inhabits. It is this sense of cultural class which the exhibition centres on.
This does not mean the tapestries paint the working-classes in a negative light: quite the opposite. When filming the 2012 Channel 4 documentary series which inspired these works, Perry seemed to gain a new appreciation for the working-class taste he thought he had left behind. The women dressed up for a night out in the first tapestry, ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’ are rather lovingly presented as glamorous and proud of their appearance and status, while there is something touching about the portrayal of a club singer’s performance in ‘The Agony in the Car Park’.
It is the taste of the middle-classes which is almost mocked, although still generally in a loving way as opposed to a cruel way. The man Perry proclaims God of the middle-classes, Jamie Oliver, takes centre stage, an image of domestic perfection to strive towards, a theme which continues with the tasteful wallpapers, fresh food and well-placed book cover mugs. The middle-classes are perhaps more mockable for Perry because everything in those domestic scenes is designed to say something to the outside world. The people he presents in the middle-class tapestries are obsessed with external perceptions, in contrast to the working-classes who seem to focus more on their internal customs. As students we may not be the family units Perry presents, but the consumerism and ideal presentations he portrays would surely be recognisable to many.
The upper-classes seem to be examined in much less detail in the exhibition, and perhaps that’s because they’re largely cut off from the story of the social climber, and most of society in general. Tim Rakewell may be presented as rich, but in Perry’s words he is “new money”, not of the true upper classes, which are presented as a dying stag. Undeniably, there are still the rich and the poor in Britain, but traditional English aristocracy has clearly declined in the last few hundred years, and Perry is questioning how much relevance they have in today’s society.
These tapestries were created in 2012, and it could be interesting to consider whether recent years and the pandemic have changed what is presented, but the truth is the picture is still largely the same. We may have hoped living through such a traumatic time would have equalled out society, and perhaps it did for a period, but the reality is the divide between a traditional working-class, and the liberal middle-class is as prominent as it ever was. This work is important because, unlike lots of the art we see, it is a direct reflection of our current society.