Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, a monumental six-piece textile work to be permanently displayed across the UK in a touring public exhibition under the Arts Council and the British Council Collections, is extraordinary. The set of textile artworks constructed by Perry follow the ideas explored in All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, the three-part documentary series for BBC Channel 4 in 2012, and develops them into a visual narrative that explores the nature of taste and identity across social strata.
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The idea of “taste” as a controlling factor of aesthetic judgment has rather fallen from favor in the art world, which has largely dismissed the concept as a nineteenth-century ideal. However, despite its unfashionable status in critical circles, it is still prevalent in the world at large, being unequivocally tied to class and identity, to how we see ourselves, and to how others see us. Acknowledging this in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, Perry writes: “Class is something bred into us like a religious faith…we learn the texture of our place in the world from the curlicue of a neck tattoo, the clank of a Le Creuset casserole dish, or the scent of a mouldering hunting print.”
The Vanity of Small Differences is an artwork that spans art history and popular culture. It presents an ambitious conflation of the avant-garde and kitsch, referencing multiple art-historical tropes, modern social signifiers, and cultural icons as a commentary on class, identity, social mobility, visual culture, and personal histories, presented through the fictive narratives of highly colored textile pieces arranged around the walls of the gallery. The work encompasses a myriad of cultural references, such as the allusion to Sigmund Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences” in the exhibition title, or, in a nod toward the ubiquity of acquired cultural capital in today’s world, the iconographic compositions found in the paintings and religious iconographies of canonical artists like Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Matthias Grünewald, Masaccio, Carlo Crivelli, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyke, Thomas Gainsborough, Rogier van der Weyden, and William Hogarth. These highbrow cultural quotations exist as strange but alluring bedfellows, set against a plethora of material expressions of social identity, class, and status. The high-culture references to Old Masters coexist alongside pop culture artefacts such as Davy lamps, football shirts, Astroturf lawns, books, AGAs, “Penguin Classics” mugs, organic veg boxes, iPhones and iPads, tweed, Cath Kidston hold-alls and Louis Vuitton handbags. The narrative proceeds to move us through a detailed landscape of declining industry, dead shipyards, housing estates, bourgeois kitchens, stately homes, and industrial estate disasters under the golden arches of a well-known fast-food chain, all under the watchful, panoptic gaze and maniacal grin of Perry’s “God of Social Mobility,” Jamie Oliver.
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The textiles, with their thick, textural surfaces, blazingly brilliant color, dazzling patterns and fluid lines, are absorbing and captivating. Lines of script flow around the figures and settings, reminiscent of the sgraffito work on early altarpieces, giving the inner monologues of several of the characters of Perry’s social narrative, who explain aspects of the various scenes as they unfold. Constructed in the style of Hogarth’s epic morality...