A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 23 August 2020- 9:00am and 11:00am- Summer Sermon Series
Galatians 3: 23-29 and Matthew 5: 1-12
Grayson Perry is well known to all of us. Apart from being a major artist- he won the Turner Prize in 2003- he’s also, somewhat unusually for an artist, a popular and well-loved commentator on current affairs. He’s written columns in newspapers and presented many TV series on Channel 4. The latest one, Grayson Perry’s Art Club, in which he constructs new art, that often features his teddy, Alan Measles, and invites members of the public to create art in their own homes, was a major hit during lockdown- a real example of the power of art to inspire and console us, and help us through difficult times, and of how the art that we create can reveal something powerful about ourselves.
Perry is the most well-known British artist since Lucian Freud and David Hockney. But his work divides opinion. In contrast with the more allusive and coolly conceptual vein of much contemporary art, Perry’s work buzzes with text and narrative; it tells stories about contemporary life and is crammed with snippets of popular culture. He aims to be accessible, in an art world where accessibility is often seen disparagingly as middlebrow and where, instead, intellectual difficulty and abstraction are highly prized. (see the introduction to Jacky Klein’s book, Grayson Perry, 2020 edition). Another controversial aspect of Perry is his transvestism. His flamboyant dressing up as Claire, Perry’s alter-ego, suggests a dangerous blending of boundaries between male and female, cerebral and erotic, serious and comic. Even more than his work, this has obsessed commentators, his cross-dressing presented as an amusing diversion at best and, at worst, as little more than a shrewd publicity stunt (Klein, p.10).
Perry’s work is thoughtful and provocative, not least about gender and sexuality. His artwork that’s now here on display in the Cathedral, “Death of a Working Hero” was part of a TV series Perry did in 2016, called “All Man” that explored aspects of masculinity and how perceptions of it have changed over time. Perry spoke to city workers, who in their grey suits he labels “Default Male”. And in the programme that this artwork comes from he went to the North East where he met former mine workers and cage fighters. With its rich colours and pain-staking attention to detail, this sumptuous work is a tapestry with a practical use, a banner to be carried in procession from its starting point at the back of the Cathedral- where- if you twist in your seat- you can see it now. It was inspired by the ceremony of the blessing of the banners in Durham Cathedral, a moving ritual which is part of the annual Durham Miners' Gala where trade-union banners are paraded through the streets accompanied by brass bands. The blessing of the banners in the glorious setting of the cathedral accompanied by mournful music, Perry writes, “seemed to me to be a funeral for a certain sort of man”.
The banner examines the different versions of masculinity Perry encountered in its making, all of which says he could also recognise in himself: the need to be tough versus the vulnerability that he witnessed. Salt of the earth characters come to mind when thinking about the miners, hard working men, which is why I picked the Beatitudes as the Gospel reading today. The words on the banner itself are elegiac, a contemporary re-writing of another text that’s regularly read out at funerals, the famous passage from Ecclesiastes: “A time to fight” and “a time to change”, and then in centre, intriguingly, “a time to talk”. In the middle, surrounded by hard-working men and the mourners, lads and girls dressed up on a night out, is a little boy holding a teddy. After the mines closed and they were no longer able to provide for their families, some of the Durham miners took their own lives, and the banner was also inspired by a woman Perry met whose young son committed suicide. Fun loving and enjoying life, he never seemed down, at all, she said: “I feel like he wanted to die in that moment, but he didn’t want to die for ever.”
The woman’s son, like the miners he and his friends were descended from, was not encouraged to be sensitive to himself or notice what he was feeling. 80% of suicides are male. For Perry, masculinity is a skin, a callus, on men that protects them from the hardships and pressures of modern life; the skin is the banter, the bravado, the tough protective layer that is built up with tattoos of the cage fighters he met.
Perry is not against masculinity, but he wonders whether being a transvestite and an artist have made him less invested in society’s ideals of masculinity, and more willing to question them, even in himself. With this banner, he laments the loss of a certain type of masculinity, but he also says that things must change. Men, he says, should be thanked for dominating and defending all this time, but just as feminine roles have adapted and changed, so traditional masculinity needs realigning with the modern world. This is not easy because of the social pressure on men to appear tough. But with modern, equal rights, he says, all male and female roles should in any case be open to everyone: “We should not deny males the opportunity to nurture and care,” he writes with characteristic humour in the introduction of his his book The Descent of Man (2017), “just as we should not deny females the opportunity to kill and maim in the name of Western democracy, if they fancy it.”
Religion, to Perry, is unfortunately more often part of the problem than the solution. Perry is, in a reversal of the usual phrase, religious but not spiritual. Religious ritual like the blessing of the banners inspires him, but the idea of God, invisible and ineffable, is too immaterial and abstract, religion too bound up with notions of permanence and patriarchy. Religions, for Perry, are too often clubs of the like-minded. Yet in the pages of scripture we do see glimmers of the kind of liberation of gender roles Perry reaches towards in his art. At times, biblical characters conform to the cultural expectations of what men and women should be like: David fights Goliath, Martha prepares food for her guests. But at other times they don’t fit the gender norms at all, with David also dancing, playing music and writing poetry, Mary learning as a disciple, Jesus welcoming children, Deborah leading a nation and Jael putting a tent-peg through Sisera’s head, hardly lady-like behaviour by anyone’s standards. Creativity itself, the making of art, is associated with the Holy Spirit- often seen as feminine- yet, in the book of Exodus it is the male craftman Bezalel who adorns and embellishes God’s house.
According to Perry, gender roles are performed, that is, they are to a large extent learned, and not innate or fixed. A more rigid or fixed view of gender- that there are innate tasks or roles distinctive to men and women- is one that we would more readily associate with the Christian Church, where arguments over women in leadership have probably led us to emphasise the differences between women and men too much. But a more orthodox Christian viewpoint is that our gender is only one part of what makes us human. In the letter to the Galatians that we heard, Paul writes that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. Sometimes when this text is quoted, it’s quickly followed by a “but” and it’s pointed out from other things that Paul later wrote that he never intended by this statement to change the structures of society, where primarily it was men who led and dominated. But here Paul, is in apocalyptic mode. He’s dreaming dreams, sowing the seeds of the inclusive kingdom Jesus spoke of. Paul wanted his followers to be free from the conventions of the law, and there is a sense of Gospel dynamism in his statement that relativizes male and female, some small stirrings of the kind of radical change and gender justice Perry challenges us with in his art.
Perry has challenged the art establishment with its desire to attract larger audiences and yet to not to be popular, to remain “elite”. “The art world,” he writes, “has its own set of values that aren’t necessarily the same as the values of a more democratic, wider audience” (quoted in Jenny Uglow, Grayson Perry: Meaning Making, 2018, p.10). Many people feel awkward when they enter a gallery, not knowing how to make sense of modern art. The same could be said of how many people feel when they enter a Church. How can we, in the Church, be more welcoming of all? If Claire, Perry’s altar-ego, entered our Cathedral today, flamboyantly dressed, would this make us uncomfortable? Or cause offence? Perry’s beautiful and detailed artworks challenge us to be more inclusive, more flexible in our approach, to make our churches places where everyone can tell their stories. What is important about a person is not their biological sex, but whether they belong to Christ: so may our churches be places where all can flourish and use their gifts, artistic or otherwise, and where diversity is celebrated and everyone in the human family is made welcome.