[Essay] Grayson Perry and the Politics of Taste — Jonathan Webster

First broadcast in June 2012, All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry documented the research, sketching and stitching of six tapestries entitled The Vanities of Small Differences. During this process the 2003 Turner Prize winner travelled from Sunderland to (recently renamed) Royal Tunbridge Wells before ending up in the Cotswolds, exploring the differences in taste amongst different classes in Britain.

Perry chose these three locations carefully to represent working-, middle- and upper-class tastes respectively. However, Perry’s route becomes even more salient if you look at it in relation to Public Health England’s 2013 “Longer Lives” report that looked at premature and preventable deaths in England. Out of the 150 local authorities the report split the country into, Sunderland was ranked 132nd for premature deaths, Tunbridge Wells 53rd, and the Cotswolds 20th. Given this, the differences in taste that Perry looked at in different parts of the country and different socio-economic groups seem symbolic of something much more pertinent: profound and far-reaching health inequalities. In this article, I will look at the ideas explored in Perry’s tapestries, take a brief look at the evidence for health inequalities, and take data from the “Longer Lives” report and apply it further to the three locales Perry went to, before finally talking about class and taste more generally and thinking about its potential impact on health inequalities.

The Vanities of Small Differences consists of six tapestries loosely based on William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and telling a similar story of social mobility in the modern day. Perry follows his protagonist, Tim Rakewell, as he rises from his working class roots in Sunderland to a Cotswolds country manor, in order to dissect ideas of class and taste. He begins with a scene in a Sunderland living room where four girls and Tim’s mother are all dressed up in their finest attire for a night on the town and having, as Perry notes, already been on the “pre-lash”. Sartorially patterned short dresses dominate, and in the centre of the room, are two topless, tattooed mixed martial arts fighters presenting the child with icons of a Sunderland football shirt and a miner’s lamp, emphasising the North East’s industrial heritage. Tim’s father is notably absent, and on the far right of the tapestry Tim appears again on the stairs, according to Perry: “facing another evening alone in front of a screen.”

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters – Grayson Perry (2012)

The next tapestry stays in Sunderland, and has as its centrepiece Tim’s Stepfather, a working man’s club singer, atop the city. Below him stretches a scene of modern day Sunderland, a mix of heritage and modernity: the dockyards and cranes are still present however they are now competing with a flourishing music scene and young men with their customised cars they use as a “mating call.”

At this point, Tim begins the process of social mobility with a university degree in computer science and by dating a “nice girl from Tunbridge Wells.” He is expelled from Sunderland, where his parents have run into some money, which has been spent on a 4X4, an astroturf front lawn, and golf clubs, and walks into a dinner party with William Morris wallpaper, a Ben Nicholson-style artwork on the wall, red wine (which was not bought on the same day) on the table, all overseen by Jamie Oliver, the God of social mobility.

He continues his journey up the class ladder, moving into a plush rural middle class cottage of his own after setting up his own IT business. The house is filled with trinkets from their wide travels, references to their array of cultural experiences as well as a cafetiere on the table, or “the chalice of middle class England” as Perry calls it.

He soon runs into some serious money and moves into a huge country mansion, plagued by the hounds of upkeep costs, tax and social change.

The tapestries end with Tim’s death surrounded by symbols of the nouveau riche: a Ferrari, a glamorous wife and fame (with his photo on the cover of “Hello!” magazine).

The Agony in the Carpark - Grayson Perry (2012)
The Agony in the Carpark – Grayson Perry (2012)

The tapestries are huge, and full of minute details. They emphasise how differences in people’s taste comes down to how they project outwardly what they believe to be the “good life.” This varies between “taste tribes,” but also from person to person. For some it is money, for others it is education or experience, for some heritage.

Of the three definitions of taste in the Oxford Dictionary of English there are two which are often used interchangeably in the context of what I think Perry is trying to show in his tapestries:

1. “a person’s tendency to like or be interested in something.”
2. “the ability to discern what is of good quality or of a high aesthetic standard” OR “conformity or failure to conform with the generally held views concerning what is offensive or acceptable.”

The second definitions have a value judgement embedded into them, with the phrases “good/bad taste” being commonly banded around, and the first definition seems to follow on from the second, as people’s tendencies to like things is bred out of these “generally held views.” This is a point that Bourdieu elaborates on in his examination of the origin of taste, “La Distinction” (1979). In “La Distinction” Bourdieu famously coined terms for different types of capital: economic capital, cultural capital (culturally relevant information), and social/symbolic capital (one’s status/societal prestige). The lower classes are, on the whole, more impoverished in all types of capital, whereas the upper/ruling classes have a greater wealth in all of these. Bourdieu goes on to say that this imbalance of capital, coupled with his concept of habitus (that a person’s lifestyle and world view is acquired through their experience, which in turn is influenced heavily by their environment/field) has the net effect to allow the upper classes to enforce their own tastes as in “good taste” and devaluing lower class tastes as in “bad taste.” Bourdieu continues by arguing that although taste is perceived as a natural phenomenon it is actually reactionary. There is nothing inherently “good” or “bad” taste about anything. Class groups can be thought of as taste tribes, and use their choices simply to distance themselves from other taste tribes and fit in with their own.

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close
Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close – Grayson Perry (2012)

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno also talk about taste choices, introducing the concept of psuedoindividuality. They begin with the enlightenment; the age of reason, when, rather than being prescribed to by church or state, subjects began to be seen as thinking, autonomous individuals, who were responsible for their own actions. This change brought on a growth of individuality, however over time this individuality changed to ‘psuedo-individuality.” This is where, as the market grew in strength, we lost our freedom to truly express ourselves. Adorno and Horkenheimer suggest that nowadays we pick our individuality off a peg and thus slot ourselves into particular niches/taste tribes dictated by both society and the market. In reality there is very little difference between two brands of jeans for example, but Levi’s and Primark are differentiated by the market and subsequently society. The inequality here is generated by who has the ability to decide social norms/aspirations: the dominant, wealthy classes.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deall - Grayson Perry (2012)
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal – Grayson Perry (2012)

The effect of one’s social class goes beyond the ability to amass cultural capital: class has a direct impact on life expectancy. Life expectancy is shorter and disease is more common the lower your socioeconomic background is. This idea is one of the key aspects of the concept of health inequalities, which, in the UK, was pioneered by Sir Michael Marmott with his groundbreaking Whitehall Study. Marmott and his team studied 17,530 male British civil servants of all ranks between 1967 and 1977. He found that the mortality rates were higher in the lower grade civil servants than the people of a higher rank for all causes of death. More specifically with relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD) he found that the lowest ranking civil servant (messengers, doorkeepers, etc.) had a three times higher risk than the administrators at the top. Further analysis of the data revealed that people in the lower employment grades also had higher rate of risk factors for CVD such as: obesity, smoking, reduced leisure time, high blood pressure and so on, which could give a causal explanation. However, even after controlling (a process where two groups are balanced so that they are perfectly comparable except for one variable) for these factors, the lower grades still had a 2.1 times increased relative risk of CVD. This phenomenon has even been shown in the animal kingdom, initially, by Robert Sapolsky who in 1990 published “Stress in the Wild” which looked at stress levels of baboons in the Serengeti. He measured blood cortisol levels (which can thought of simply as a “stress hormone”), and looked at a number of social factors amongst the baboons. Baboons have a similar social hierarchy to humans, mainly because they spend relatively little time individually doing basic survival tasks like gathering food, and thus have more time to build social networks. Sapolsky found that the three most important factors in relation to increased serum cortisol levels were: friendships, the ability to tell if a situation was a real threat or not, and societal rank. He goes on to say that the biochemical changes from increased cortisol level, that are secondary to sociological stimuli, go on to have physiological effects that result in increased levels of illness in, amongst others, baboons of lower societal ranks.

We can relate these concepts back to the locations Perry visited as examples of different classes, and correlate it with Public Health England’s “Longer Lives” report. This report looked at premature deaths (defined as under 75), and preventable deaths (defined as deaths that given the “understanding of health determinants at the time of death, all or most of deaths from underlying causes … could potentially be avoided by public health interventions”). The report looked at the top 4 causes of mortality in England: heart disease and stroke, lung disease, cancer and liver disease in 150 different local authorities. The aim of the report was to highlight inequalities within the country, but also to stimulate local debate as health promotion becomes the responsibility of local authorities. Fig. 1 shows premature deaths, and looking at the three locales Perry visited:


Sunderland comes off worst, Tunbridge Wells second, and the Cotswolds best for every disease looked at. This theme is also true for preventable and premature deaths. Comparing these figures to the national average, in every category Sunderland is worse than average (in fact in PHE’s “worst” bracket comparing authorities nationally), and Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds are above average. In fact the Cotswolds is in PHE’s “best” bracket for all categories, and Tunbridge Wells is “best” for all except for preventable CVD, stroke and lung disease where it is “better than average.”

A link between social gradients and health outcomes has been seen in studies all over the developed world. However, to have any hope of changing these outcomes, proof of a correlative relationship is not enough—some idea of causal inference is required. In the final part of this essay I will put forward one idea as to why this is the case, specifically to do with ideas of taste outlined in The Vanities of Small Differences, and put forward that peoples taste and the perception of that is a legitimate cause of inequalities.

The Upper Classes at Bay - Grayson Perry (2012)
The Upper Classes at Bay – Grayson Perry (2012)

Taste, by its nature, is inexorably intertwined with consumer culture. Adding to the Oxford Dictionary of English’s definitions from earlier, taste can also be thought of as the “conceptualisation of the aesthetics of consumer culture.” If we buy into the idea that taste is not a natural concept, then it follows that taste has no inherent meaning; it is instead, just a vehicle for manifestations of people’s struggle for social distinction and status. The total set of commodified objects has been given semiotic meaning and then ranked by society. This battle for distinction, alongside social meanings/value judgements of taste leads to a cultural hierarchy, which widens social inequalities, which in turn can lower well-being. In other words, although economic capital is part of the issue, well-being is more closely linked to social status because that influences the way you feel about the economic capital you possess. This is a problem of modernity. Eckersley coined the phrase “cultural fraud” to describe this. He defined it as; “the promotion of images and ideas of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy, but do not meet psychological needs or reflect social realities.” All this leads us the then end product of decreased health and well-being for those at the bottom of the social pile. The same people who lack all forms of capital, the same people who have the choices they make dismissed as in “poor taste” (or “chavy”), and the people who die younger.

Perry’s tapestries highlight these issues, whilst also doing a small amount to help address them. While stitching the tapestries Perry spoke about the format itself: “the people who would have been depicted into tapestry historically would have been gods, and kings and saints, and here is a hairdresser from Sunderland.” Friere talks about what he calls “cultural action” and “consciencization” as ways of helping communities generate cultural capital and identity by articulating what is important to them via the arts. This process he says leads to a greater sense of belonging which can draw people away from the ideas of the ‘good life’ that they are sold, and allow them to truly self-express. Perry engages with this ‘cultural action’ with his tapestries. The research process for them led him to these places to find out what the local people held to be important. Perry aims to submerge himself in these respective cultures without judgment and, through his art, communicates and legitimizes these alternative forms of cultural capital. By immortalizing these taste-tribes Perry offers a recognition of different notions of taste, a recognition and legitimization that contributes in a small part to less striving, less stress, and longer life.

#Lamentation - Grayson Perry (2012)
#Lamentation – Grayson Perry (2012)


Jonathan Webster is an NHS doctor and artist based in Leeds, UK. He graduated from the medical school at Newcastle University and holds an MRes in Creative Practices from Glasgow School of Art.

1 Comment

  1. I’m glad you drew attention to the Whitehall Study, a particularly significant but under-reported expose of the self-serving claim that those in top executive positions need to be rewarded with disproportionately large income differentials to compensate for the supposedly elevated stress levels of their occupations. It helps to undermine widespread contemporary acceptance of that awful Parable of the Talents (Tony Blair’s favourite biblical story apparently): “To them that have shall be given…”
    Your analysis also chimes well with the critique of inequality in Wilkinson & Pickett’s “The Spirit Level”, where life expectancy and physical health levels are shown to be as much if not more correlated with inequality as they are with poverty in the entire developed world.

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