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A class act : class and taste in the work of Grayson Perry

Walsh, Susan Jane


Susan Jane Walsh


Kathleen Lennon

Dawn M. Wilson


Part One (Chapters 1- 3) discusses the theoretical and historical development of our ideas about class and the intersections of class and taste. Part Two (Chapters 4-8) focuses on Perry’s work. Chapter One explores the differing conceptions of class that are used in contemporary theorising to form a background to my discussion of the role of class in the work of Grayson Perry. Chapter Two looks at models of class: the way in which class has been imaged/imagined in both the popular and political imaginary. The social imaginaries of class are an important context for the discussion of Perry, for his work makes use of and reinvents these models. This chapter also discusses how the language of meritocracy has shaped political policy and influenced how people perceive social mobility. In Chapter Three the focus is on class and taste with specific reference to Bourdieu’s work Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (1986). Bourdieu’s thesis draws attention to the way in which the exercise of taste (both in art and in the realm of everyday life) functions to reinforce and legitimate existing social divisions. Here, the aim is to highlight the way in which Bourdieu’s theory can throw an illuminating light on Perry’s position, as expressed in his Reith Lecture series and elsewhere and in his artistic practice. Taken together these chapters provide the context for the detailed discussion of Perry and class in Part Two of the thesis.

The chapters that make up Part Two are as follows. Chapter Four provides a biography of Grayson Perry. These details about Perry’s early life are important because it is here that we find the foundations of his future success as an artist. This chapter also discusses a selection of Perry’s pots. Chapter Five discusses Perry’s exhibition Unpopular Culture (2008). Based on a detailed discussion of selected exhibits my aim is to show that although Perry’s work is not explicitly political, it does carry an implicit politics of class. The influence of Walter Benjamin is important here. Benjamin recognized that ‘culture’ was not an ‘independent realm of values’ that gave representation to the nation as a whole. His aim was to find images that revealed ‘…the bald economic determination of existence’ (Benjamin, 1999, p: 43). I argue that we can find this same political sensibility in Perry’s approach. Many of the photographs in this exhibition reveal how class is an objectivist category anchored in material and social conditions.

Perry’s decision to define his role as an artist-ethnographer enables him to make work that is responsive to his subjects. Chapter Six focuses on Perry’s television documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste (2012) in which we accompany the artist as he travels to the different regions of Britain to find answers to the question of what people like and why. The answers he elicits to this apparently simple question form the basis for his tapestry series The Vanity of Small Differences (2012). Chapter Seven presents a detailed analysis of the six tapestries that make up The Vanity of Small Differences (2012). Taken together these tapestries reveal the ways in which class is both made and unmade through culture. Chapter Eight presents a discussion of Perry’s exhibition entitled Who Are You? The fourteen portraits that made up the exhibition were on show at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014. These works were also the culmination of a three-part documentary series Grayson Perry: Who Are You? Perry said that during this research he wanted to speak to people on a more individual level and to hear their personal stories. Here the focus was not ostensibly on class identity but on ‘modern British identity in all its complexity and diversity’ (Brown, 2015). But as we shall see, these complex identifications are always criss-crossed by class differences, not least because as Perry himself acknowledges, class ‘does so inhabit you’ (Perry 2016). This statement reveals what really lies at the heart of Perry’s art and his politics.


Walsh, S. J. (2016). A class act : class and taste in the work of Grayson Perry. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Aug 4, 2017
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Philosophy
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Philosophy, The University of Hull
Award Date Aug 1, 2016


Thesis (9 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2016 Walsh, Susan Jane. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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