‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: A personal response by The Revd Stephen Tucker
In the Grayson Perry tapestries, ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, various religious paintings have influenced aspects of five of the six scenes from the life of Tim Rakewell. And that perhaps is one justification for showing them for the first time in a place of worship – a much visited cathedral with a tradition of engagement with contemporary art. A review of the exhibition in the Guardian tells us that, ‘Perry was not at the cathedral for the hanging but said: “It was conceived as a public artwork and I wanted to see the tapestries shared with very wide and varied audiences. My hope remains that it not only delights the eye and engages visitors, but sparks debate about class, taste and British society.” Which might lead us to ask what sort of debate should this give rise to in a cathedral? Does a place of Christian faith have anything distinctive to say about Perry’s depiction of class, taste and British society? Does such a place have anything to say about the kind of thinking which explores class and taste as a way of talking about people?
The Christian Understanding of Being Human
The Christian understanding of what it means to be human starts from the belief that we are all created by God and with something of God in us, something which enables us to be, to think and to relate in ways which no other creature can. God wills us to be; he wills both our shared humanity and our individual expression of that humanity. We can therefore see ourselves both as unique in time and yet also as part of the total human community through time. We have many things in common with other people and yet we also have our own story to live and to tell. Who we are is a compound of the influence of significant individuals and groups, and the experiences which happen to us in a unique way because of who we are.
The processes at work in this story are complex because there is a part played by the grace or influence of God and a part played by our own free will. The complexity resides in the fact that we find it difficult to distinguish between the roles played by God and by ourselves. The easiest (but perhaps not the most helpful) way of making this distinction has been to say that whatever is good in my life is brought about by God’s grace, and whatever is bad is the result of my free will. Nevertheless, while we cannot say that God is ever the cause of evil, we might not want to see ourselves simply as puppets doing whatever good God chooses for us to do. Such a view can for example lead to the corresponding idea that whatever I do that is wrong has been caused by the manipulation of an evil force – the devil or a demon pulling the strings.
Perhaps we might be helped out of this dilemma by a phrase from Ephesians 2:10, which says that we are what God ‘has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ In other words, there are good things designed by God which are out there waiting for us to perform them; God has written the script but we have to learn to act it out for ourselves, often getting it wrong. As GK Chesterton put it, ‘God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play: a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage managers, who had since made a mess of it.’ (Orthodoxy)
Accepting the beliefs (and difficulties) outlined above, Christians commit themselves to working out those beliefs in their own life through a process of self-knowledge, service of neighbour and community, prayer and worship. Prayer and worship might be seen as, in part, creating the space for self-knowledge.
One way of understanding this search for self-knowledge is to ponder the significance of the story of Adam and Eve. In Eden they are both vulnerable (they are naked and a prey to the serpent’s subtlety) and aspirational (they want to be like God). Their aspiration leads them to eat the apple which will give them knowledge of good and evil and so make them ‘like God’ (at least according to the lies of the serpent). Instead, they find that knowledge insupportable and so they hide, because they have become afraid of God and what he might do to them. They have learnt about good and evil but they have not learnt about God or become more like him.
And so, it might be said that their way forward is to be found by coming out of hiding before God. And in the process, they will discover that God is not, as they suppose, waiting to condemn them, but to recreate them if they are prepared to work with him. Honest self-knowledge is the process of coming out of hiding. And that process is made possible by the fact that God has given us a God-like life which we might put on – the life focussed by Jesus living such a life in a particular time and place which has to be recreated for us and in us by the Holy Spirit acting in our own particular time and place.
Perry’s Moral Purpose
There is much more that could be said about Christian belief but enough has been provided with which to explore the thoughts behind ‘The Vanity of Small Differences.’ For a start Perry invites us ‘to come out of hiding’ in terms of our own sense of the group/tribe/class we belong to. These things contribute to our sense of self identity but may also cut us off from other people, preventing us from understanding their way of life and causing us to criticise or despise it. The title of the exhibition is derived, according to Perry, from Freud’s phrase ‘the narcissism of small differences’, ‘alluding to the fact that we often most passionately defend our uniqueness when differentiating ourselves from those who are very nearly the same as us.’ Why, we might wonder, has Perry replaced the word ‘narcissism’ with ‘vanity’ in his title? Narcissism is a form of intense self-regard. Vanity, in this context, might have a double meaning: vanity as a form of self-regard, but vanity also as something futile or empty. These differences don’t matter and we ought to be spending more time contemplating what we have in common. And this might
therefore be one of the ‘moral’ lessons of this exhibition, which Christians would also uphold. We do not need to defend our uniqueness because we are upheld by God.
Besides the religious paintings which have influenced the visual structure of these tapestries, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress is an even more important influence. Hogarth’s central character is Tom Rakewell, Perry’s is Tim Rakewell. Tom, spends several fortunes on leading a reckless, fashionable life, gambling, and using prostitutes, which eventually puts him in a debtors’ prison. He dies in a madhouse. Perry claims to identify with Hogarth’s ‘Englishness, his robust humour, and his depiction of, in his own words, “modern moral subjects.”’
The story of Tim Rakewell’s life is very different, however, and has very little in common with Hogarth’s work, other than in depicting aspects of what is now deemed fashionable, and in raising moral questions. Perry’s principal subject is class and the way in which people’s possessions communicates where they want to fit into society. And related to class is the question of good or bad taste and the degree to which people care about it. ‘I think that – more than any other factor, more than age, race, religion, or sexuality – one’s social class determines one’s taste.’
There is, however, something problematic about Perry’s approach, and about the view point from which he looks at the subject. He describes himself as a working class, grammar school boy, who may have moved up the greasy pole to live in Islington, but is still deeply influenced by Essex. He can still refer to himself as an ‘oik’. The main difficulty, however, in talking about class is obviously the extent to which one’s own class influences the way in which one views the subject. Is it possible to talk about class, as it were from the outside, as an observer, as Perry seems to be doing?
And again, doesn’t the fact that we live in an apparently mobile society mean that there is, as in Perry’s case, a good deal of movement between classes, and therefore perhaps a confusion about class identity. To what extent are the things which I possess, enjoy, value and seek out, influenced by class or by individual choice? We seem to have here, another version of the free-will debate. In matters of taste and behaviour how much is conditioned by class and how much by free choice? Clearly self-knowledge may be important in resolving such an issue. And as part of the debate might we also challenge Perry’s assumptions about class? He has clearly grown up deeply conscious of class, but is our society moving beyond class as a significant factor in our make up?
Thinking about class in this way, older readers might be reminded of the Class sketch from the Frost Report in 1966 acted out by John Cleese and the two Ronnies. ‘Cleese: I look down on him because I am upper-class.
Barker: I look up to him because he is upper-class; but I look down on him because he is lower-class. I am middle-class.
Corbett: I know my place. I look up to them both. But I don’t look up to him as much as I look up to him (Cleese), because he has got innate breeding.
Consciousness of class (as demonstrated in that sketch) depended on growing up in clearly defined communities with barriers which were difficult to cross. For those who did cross them fitting in became important and errors of taste became a cause of deep anxiety. Nowadays the barriers of class have largely been replaced by barriers of wealth and education, and taste is influenced by the range of life styles available for view in advertising and on Instagram and the internet and television. Young people in Sunderland, Tonbridge Wells and the Cotswolds (the three places visited by Perry in the TV programmes which gave rise to these tapestries) are all being influenced by a much wider variety of things than those dictated by class. And the examples of class thinking found in those places might not be replicated in many other parts of England. No-one would write a sketch like the one above nowadays. The much more important barriers in our world are ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian, and economic.
The Story Told by the Tapestries
However, we now need to see how the tapestries themselves might influence our thinking. If, as Perry claims, ‘class is bred into us like a religious faith’ where do we see that exemplified in the tapestries, though these days, in British society at least, faith is rarely bred into anyone. Tim Rakewell passes through his progress in a remarkably passive way. As a small child (1) he seems subordinated to his mother’s mobile phone and her relationship with her working-class friends. As a teenager (2) he is deeply embarrassed by his mother and step-father and already shows signs of ‘geekishness’ with his computer magazine. As a student (3) he passes from the upwardly mobile ambience of his own parents to that of his girlfriend’s middle-class parents. (Here we might remember that it is Eve who persuades Adam to eat the apple which will result in their expulsion from Eden.) As a successful young businessman (4) he is seen embracing his baby while his white-haired female business partner announces their deal with Richard Branson. As a middle-aged mansion owner in the Cotswolds (5) he seems to wander aimlessly through his estate with his wife, trying to ignore the protest group and their posters. Only in the final tapestry (6) does he seem to have done something very active (though rather out of character), engaging in an urban car race, but even here he didn’t stand a chance because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt and he dies cradled in a nurse’s arms in contrast to the way in which his mother holds him in the first scene.
All the men in these pictures seem to exercise a rather subordinate or background role; the mixed martial arts enthusiasts (1) the failed pop singer step father (2) who becomes a golfer in (3). His father-in-law hovers in the background of (3 & 4), the dying stag representing the upper class at bay is male (5) and in the final picture there are in the background two firemen, a policeman and two male ambulance men.
Women on the other hand feature prominently and it is their faces we are struck by most forcibly. Looking at several of them, the eye is far from delighted as Perry wanted to be one of the effects of his work. How are we to read the face of Tim’s mother in the first scene? She is, we are told, ‘dressed up for a night out’, and the writing that winds through the scene, expressing the thoughts of Tim’s mother, says that, ‘My friends they keep me sane… take me out… listen…a night out of the weekend in town is a precious ritual.’ We are also told that Tim knows how to wind her up, and that her parents liked a drink and her father was ‘open with his love and his anger.’ We might set this against her unloving appearance, her preoccupation with her mobile phone and the presence of the four-year-old Tim in the back ground ‘facing another evening alone in front of a screen.’ To what extent is his mother’s lack of care influenced by her own background? If we are to show love, do we have to know what it is like to receive love? Tim does receive love as a child but from his great grandparents rather than his mother. And what have any of these crucial human questions got to do with class or taste? As moral failures they can be found in any class; they are part of what Christians would call human sinfulness, even though context may influence the expression of such wrong doing.
In the second picture Tim’s mother appears grasping passionately at the hand of the night club singer (and failed pop star) who is to become Tim’s step-father. Tim is covering his ears in embarrassment in contrast to the little scene behind his mother in which, in younger days, he plays happily with a model aeroplane provided by his great grandfather.
By the time Tim has become a student his parents have moved to a luxury home with an AstroTurf lawn and a Range Rover. His mother has a look of hatred and rejection on her face, which is matched by the extraordinary grinning skull of the woman seated at the dinner table who is to become his mother-in-law. (See the older version of her with yellow framed glasses and reddish hair in the next tapestry.) Why has Perry chosen to represent her in this repellent way, especially as we are told nothing about her?
In the fourth scene Tim’s wife is as preoccupied with her mobile phone as his mother had been, but the scene is dominated by Tim’s partner, a white-haired woman who tells us (via the board behind her) that she has worked with Tim for a decade, that he is a driven genius who never feels successful, who wants to be good, has had therapy and feels better since his mother died!
One wonders who is the driving force in this partnership, though we might also be struck by the tenderness with which Tim holds his baby, seemingly impervious to what he is being told about the ‘Virgin deal’.
The fifth scene might seem to have the least human interest. The title is influenced by Landseer’s ‘Stag at Bay’. The dogs attacking the Upper Class represent tax, upkeep, fuel bills and social change. In the background are posters attacking Tim’s wealth, and between the antlers of the stag we see a protester with a banner saying ‘No war but class war.’ Perry tells us that his position, glimpsed between the stag’s antlers, is a deliberate reminder of St Hubert (ironically the patron saint of hunters as well as mathematicians, opticians and metal workers, called upon in the past to cure rabies). Hubert was a wealthy man who went hunting on Good Friday and saw a vision of the cross between a stag’s antlers, before which he prostrated himself and asked how he should change his life. As a result, he gives up his wealth and position and becomes a priest and then a bishop, dying on May 30th 727. If Tim Rakewell had paid attention to the story of St Hubert, his life might have ended differently.
In the sixth scene we find the one example of genuine female caring in the nurse who cradles Tim’s dead body in her arms; his last word to her was, ‘Mother.’
The progress of Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell seems to have been influenced by his miserly father and in the course of his adult life women are simply an appurtenance. In Tim Rakewell’s progress, women are the dominating force, and the chief influence on his personality, and that influence is rarely benign. Why does Perry represent men and women in this way? And why does he do so with what some might interpret as a kind suppressed anger?
The Religious Background
While Hogarth is a stated influence in this work, so also are various early Renaissance religious paintings – as Perry puts it, ‘A very middle-class thing to do as it flatters the education and cultural capital of the audience.’ And that answers the question as to Perry’s expected audience for his work! But what is the point of such references, especially as they are often very slight, to the extent of being hardly recognisable? Do they have any religious point or is this just an intellectual game? It would seem not to be a game, because in contrast to the ironic comment about his middle-class audience, Perry also says, ‘I wanted to use the audience’s familiarity with the Christian narratives depicted to lend weight to my own modern moral subject.’ Does he overestimate familiarity with Christian narrative? And how does that narrative ‘lend weight’ to his moral subject?
Perry lists the paintings which have influenced him in the hard back guide book. Mantegna’s shepherds (Metropolitan Museum of Art) kneel before the Christ child but we see their faces, not their backs and the shepherds don’t bring gifts as in the first tapestry. The gifts offered to Tim by two cage fighters are a Sunderland football shirt and a miner’s lamp, both symbolic of the place where he is growing up. They play no part in his subsequent life. The relationship (2) with Bellini’s Agony (National Gallery) is hard to find except in the common posture of kneeling, and that with Grunewald’s Crucifixion (Colmar) is equally obscure unless the kneeling Mary is a prototype for Tim’s mother, while his future step-father is being ‘crucified’ by the failure of his ambitions. Grunewald’s painting of the suffering Christ was created for a religious community which cared for the sick, especially those suffering from various skin diseases. The plague like sores on Christ’s body may be intended to show that Christ shares the suffering of those afflicted by disease.
Masaccio’s Expulsion from Eden (Brancacci Chapel) is a parallel to Tim’s rejection by his family (3) overseen by Jamie Oliver, ‘the god of social mobility’, and raises the perhaps unforeseen question, ‘Is moving socially upwards a kind of fall – something from which we need saving.’ Three different paintings of the Annunciation provide elements of ‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’: Crivelli (National Gallery) for the vegetables (though in his work they are symbolic) Campin (The Cloisters N.Y.) for the jug of lillies (again symbolic in Renaissance art) and Grunewald’s altarpiece (Colmar) for the face of Tim’s colleague (though she is also given angelic wings whereas in Grunewald her face is slightly similar to that of Mary). There are no religious connotations to The Upper Class at Bay (though see The Stag at Bay by Landseer and Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, and the reference described above to St Hubert).
In the final tapestry the appearance of Tim’s body is, we are told, an echo of Christ’s body in Rogier van der Weyden’s Lamentation (Uffizi) though, more importantly, in the foreground of that painting is a skull which Perry here replaces with a smashed mobile phone, referring back to the first tapestry in which Tim reaches for his mother’s phone.
These Tapestries in a Cathedral
On the whole, then, as we have seen, the echoes of Old Masters are, in Perry’s hands, obscure, perhaps ironic, perhaps playful, and bearing little obvious reference to the actual meaning of the Old Masters’ work, unless the whole story of Jesus’ life is meant to stand in judgment over that of the unfortunate Rakewell and his family.
Or is that to take Perry’s work too seriously? Are these tapestries intended as travesties, cartoons or caricatures, mocking class consciousness and intending to make us laugh at ourselves? Or are they intended to be a serious contribution, albeit in a recognisable Grayson Perry style, to a serious debate about contemporary morality as corrupted by class and the kind of possessiveness, and prejudice that goes with its lower, middle and upper manifestations? What kind of moral debate is Perry looking for?
In the hard-back guide to the exhibition (from which all quotations from Perry have been taken) there is also an essay by the journalist Suzanne Moore. She refers to the sense of ‘loss and joy and a pervading sense of anxiety’ in these tapestries. According to Moore, we can all have an anxiety about ‘fitting in’. We all have a tribe we aspire to join. We are all overwhelmed by the choices we might make. We all have a fear of ‘getting it wrong’.
Of working-class taste, she writes that Perry sees that it is about ‘display and comfort and bling and play. Of course it is ridiculous, some of it. It is nasty and ostentatious at its worst and as sentimental as we see in his depiction of it (The Agony in the car park).’ That is a curious statement because Moore starts by seeing working class taste positively and then speaks negatively; but what is her stand point? What enables her to make these judgments? Is she speaking from self- knowledge as an insider seeing all these things in herself? Or is she standing from some objective outside position, somehow above all class and if so on what are her judgments based? What enables her to describe the last tapestry as sentimental when as we have seen it relates movingly to the first tapestry?
‘Judgment’ is a complicated word, both in a secular and a religious context. It can mean ‘passing judgment’ and ‘condemning’. Or it can mean trying to estimate the nature of something accurately as in awarding first prize to a cake.
In the gospels Jesus says, ‘Judge not lest you be judged,’ using the word in the first condemnatory sense. And that is the sense in which Christians should approach these tapestries and all questions of class and taste and social behaviour. We are not here to pass judgment but to understand even if our understanding may differ from Perry’s in some cases. Perry is trying to make judgments in the second sense – he is observing objects and actions and reporting them as accurately as he can. And yet, the question might sometimes be asked as to whether he abides by that. Sometimes, as in his presentation of Tim’s mother and mother-in-law and even his wife, we are left wondering whether we are being invited to pass judgment on them. In a cathedral, however, judgment is not based on class or taste. We try to make judgments on the basis of that way of being human which Christians believe is intended for us by God, and which is exemplified in Christ. In this way we may identify failures of humanity, failures which may in part be caused by prejudices inculcated by class, but by many other things as well, relating to our own personal experiences, our moral education, our social environment, our wealth or poverty.
So, the final and most important question these tapestries may raise for us is this: Can self-knowledge, encouraged by faith, make us more aware of the effect our background, education, tastes, and prejudices have on the way in which we view our fellow human beings? And can we, day by day, see our neighbours, here and all over the world, more and more as human beings with the same hopes, fears, joys and needs as we ourselves have?
The Vanity of Small Differences is jointly owned by the Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London and the British Council Collection. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, with the support of Channel 4 Television, the Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from Alix Partners.
The UK tour of the tapestries is supported by the Art Fund and the Sfumato Foundation.
Grayson Perry, The Upper Class at Bay, 2012, Wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry, Edition of 6 plus 2 APs, 200 x 400 cm © Grayson Perry. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro