Issue Number: 115
On the premise that art has always provoked strong views, RA Magazine begins its new opinion column by inviting Grayson Perry RA to ponder our aesthetic values
Do you think you have good taste? Do you laugh at those whom you think don’t have it? When I mention that I am working on a project about aesthetic taste people smirk, raise their eyebrows and rub their hands together. They know there is going to be friction and embarrassment. Taste is a strangely fraught topic, every one has strong feelings about it, even if they are not aware of them.
This is why I wanted to make an exhibition and a TV series about taste. The things we buy, what we wear, live with, eat, drive or read, betray some of our deepest emotions. Ask people about their taste and they will often define it in strong terms by listing what they hate. But what they choose to have around them can reveal a very tender portrait of someone’s hopes and dreams.
Grayson Perry RA,'The Agony in the Car Park' (detail), 2012. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro/© Grayson Perry. The basic values that form our tastes are imbibed as we grow up. Like a deep-rooted family religion that informs moral choices, the cultural aesthetic we grow up around has a powerful effect on every taste decision we will make throughout our lives. We, especially the arts-loving chattering classes, like to think we are gloriously creative individuals but we are usually slaves to the emotional hard-wiring soldered onto our delusion of free will. The tastes of our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, colleagues and celebrities nudge us, constantly reinforcing or dissolving our taste.
Last summer I visited Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells, and the Cotswolds and talked to people from many strata of society. I have literally woven some of the characters I met into a narrative for a series of six tapestries partly inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.
They are in an exhibition which I have called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ because people often save their most spiteful denunciations for the tastes of those only slightly different from themselves. Like the toff, in his mucky Landrover with a black lab in the back, who inwardly cringes at the sight of a Range Rover Sport pulling into the electric gates of the country estate next to his.
In Britain, the most pervasive influence on the things we buy and do is social class. The values of the class tribe we grew up with often underlie every seemingly autonomous decision we make. These social forces often go unacknowledged. Some people I talked to for the TV series would refuse to call themselves middle class, yet their every vintage-organic-recycled-knick-knack screamed ‘bourgeois and proud’.
Even among the tribes of the teenager, middle-class taste is lurking in a more cotton-rich hoodie or a less extreme version of a haircut fashionable with their adopted working-class subculture. That bedrock notion of middle-class taste – restraint – is already there.
I think this buttoned-up refinement can be seen in some of my favourite paintings. Someone once described modern British art as ‘tightrope walking six inches off the ground’. I interpret this as an observation that British artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Ben Nicholson, even Francis Bacon with his glazed gold frames, did a polite, drawing-room-friendly version of Modernism, unlike those garish shouty foreigners with their café philosophy and angry politics. The shrine to this tasteful notion of bohemia must surely be Charleston in Sussex, the exquisitely faded farmhouse playground of the Bloomsbury group which has informed the splotchy bedroom colour scheme of many a lady sporting dangly hand-crafted earrings and a toning ethnic scarf.
I started my investigation into the field of taste with a healthy set of prejudices against the culture of the working class I had left behind but I have come to appreciate that there is no over-arching system of good and bad taste. Good taste is that which does not upset your peer group. Taste binds together the tribe. What people outside the group think of it does not matter. Among the customised-car community there are good and bad-taste modifications but to many people all such cars are a noisy, vulgar nuisance. Loud hatchbacks strongly divide opinion but the same could be said of Ikea furniture, football, Radio 4 or the RA Summer Exhibition. Personally, I think the world has enough life studies, drippy abstracts, and one-liner visual puns, but that’s just my taste.
I recently lunched with someone closely associated with the RA and she said she could spot someone on the bus who was off to an RA show by their outfit. She would enjoy their surprise when she asked them, apropos of nothing, ‘Off to see the Hockney?’