Grayson Perry wanders into anthropology.

The allusions Grayson Perry makes to anthropology in his recent three part documentary series on class taste in Britain struck me as particularly bold. In a later interview conducted for the BBC he admits that promoting oneself “on the telly” and other media platforms is something that modern artists have had to embrace, suggesting that the series was only carried out to promote his work, but he also hints that the series works as a piece in itself, a documentary-style film (with anthropological elements) that is separate to the six giant tapestries that he produces as part of the show. 'Celebrities’ can turn their hand to anything and it was only a matter of time before they started stepping on our patch.

To be fair, he only says the word ‘anthropologist’ once, but in claiming that he feels like one as he is chauffeur-driven up to Tonbridge Wells, the second of his three expeditions into the unknown in search of what he describes as the “taste tribes” of Britain, the word rings out across the rest of the three hours of footage. As does the word “tribe” which he uses a number of times to describe and group together all sorts of class, interest and other groups. Yet it is his mission to understand materiality and consumerism among these different tribes that leads him closest to the anthropologists' camp and open to our criticism. 

His object of study is the ‘objects of taste’ of the lower, middle and upper classes, which he finds in their homes and their leisure activities (nothing of work). Tied to the people of the different groups he visits through personal stories, he uses these objects to create a picture of why they might be thought of as ‘valuable’ or ‘tasteful’ within their respected class and in so doing reveals some familiar themes: The upper class’ attempt to shun valuation and ‘make do’; clinging on to the superior strain through avoiding the potential pitfalls of purchases (or new ideas) that might jeopardise the continuation of their status. The middle class’ liminality and uncertainty; stuck between a rock and hard place their attempt to differentiate themselves from the lower class leaves them without a base. And the lower class’ feelings of solidarity and warmth and the nostalgia for times gone-by through which these sentiments continue to find expression.

It is a great watch; a detailed, reflexive and endearing portrait of an artist at work interspersed with flamboyant transvestite outfits. The tapestries are stunning. Yet by evoking ideas of materiality and consumerism and the image of the anthropologist he has left himself open to criticism on the same grounds. It is thin on historical and geographical detail and as such cannot be taken as a serious study. His bright and playful technique on a stuffy and grandiose old form (tapestry) remains, like his clothes, a light-hearted critique of the things he himself is struggling to come to grips with.

I was reading Jeremy Prestholdt’s “Domesticating the World” whilst watching the series and it provided an excellent counterpoint. In his study of East African consumerism, Prestholdt treats us to an enormous amount of historical and geographical detail which helps situate the tales he recounts of the people of Zanzibar, Mombasa, Mutsamudu and the Tanzanian and Kenyan coast in much broader socio-economic processes. In doing so he is able to counter Victorian Britain’s claim to being the ‘taste’ maker of the world and make the important and interesting point that East African consumer culture, in mimicry and similitude of British ‘tastes’, was just as heavily involved in constructing ideas of what it meant to be modern. 

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Comment by Nathan Dobson on January 28, 2013 at 3:15am

Thanks Chelsea. I better change my mask/hat next time.

Comment by Chelsea Hayman on July 20, 2012 at 12:56am

Interesting post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Perhaps what Grayson Perry was trying to accomplish was something close to what Daniel Miller has already accomplished in The Comfort of Things? Or maybe I am totally off base with that. Although I like your final point that you conclude with and I think that's true. There really is a dialectic that goes on, as trite and overused as that term may be in academic literature, but I still feel it to be remarkably valid. This is also observable in many diaspora communities, particularly the African Diaspora and the influence of African-American hip-hop in West Africa in particular as well as West African dance and art in the Americas. It's an interesting circulation that goes on, although, some parallels that could be drawn between British and Kenyan tastes may be of a quite different caliber. Not sure. Have you read Crazy Like Us by American journalist Ethan Watters? Also another journalist acting as anthropologist. Most of his supporting information is directly from anthropologists. Actually a lot of the work that Watters does is very pseudo-anthropological. 

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