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Art review: The vanity of small differences
It is rare today for an artist's work to address the existence of class. The self-appointed arbiters of culture tell us that class is outdated and irrelevant save for the occasional, fearful, pause to shout 'chav' at working class youth.
Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry now tackles class with a series of tapestries collectively entitled The Vanity of Small Differences, based on "tribes" he met in Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds when making his 2012 TV series All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry.
Over six scenes Perry tells the life story of Tim Rakewell, from his birth to a working class single mother in Sunderland to country house riches as an IT millionaire and early death in a car crash.
Class is shown here by means of consumption and taste. In the first tapestry 'The Adoration of the Cage Fighters', baby Tim is offered symbols of north east masculinity while his mother prepares for a night out "on the lash".
This is a subjective view of class, not Marx's analysis of relationships to the means of production. There is no production as Tim's mother says: "there are no jobs around here anymore". Of course, IT millionaires try to keep as far away from production as they can.
Seeing class subjectively isn't necessarily wrong. It is how we all first encounter class and learn where we fit into society, but this is how these 'vanities' arise.
When Tim moves from working to middle class, in 'Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close', the gap between the real statuses within the system of his mother, who now lives with a Tory voter on a private estate, and that of his girlfriend's middle class family at a dinner party is little, but to those involved it seems massive.
Such vanity (and the fetishisation through consumption of small differences) are a massive help to the ruling class.
Despite being less than 1% of the population, they own and run society for themselves against the interests of the working and middle classes.
By the fifth tapestry, 'The Upper Class At Bay', Tim is part of the ruling class, but still haunted by status.
A protest camp is outside his country house, for he is a tax-dodging fat cat, but as "new money" he cannot join the landed gentry.
In 'Lamentation' Tim dies road racing in his sports car, surrounded by the detritus of capitalism: retail parks, gossip magazines and late-night fast food.
Notably, it is public sector workers who clean up the mess: a fireman, a nurse and paramedics.
The series can be seen as a massive six-panel comic strip, with references to past art, most explicitly 18th century artist William Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress' and religious works by old masters.
But it is accessible without knowledge of art history, as Perry presents Tim's life without condescension to either viewer or his characters.
Perry said he conceived this as a public artwork, and hopes "that wherever it goes it not only delights the eye but also sparks debate about class, taste and British society." This it will undoubtedly do.
The Vanity of Small Differences is at Sunderland Museum until 29 September and will tour to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds for the rest of the year.
In The Socialist 11 September 2013:
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