Why I love Grayson Perry
Ok, so the title gives away the punch line somewhat here, but I have to come clean and state that I do indeed, love Grayson Perry. There are several reasons why I do, but interestingly (I hope) and primarily it isn’t the frocks (although I do, as a Lewis Carrol enthusiast love the Alice in Wonderland quality of the frocks) or hair (although I do find his hair a thing of wonder, dressed as either man or woman, it takes on a peculiar gravity defying life of its own). It isn’t necessarily the art either funnily enough, although I do like the art very much ( and found it wonderful to visit ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ whilst in Sunderland in 2013, a town I don’t equate with artistic riches, but that just shows what a snob I am and Grayson isn’t) and it (the art) is central to the thing that he does which as a psychotherapist I do truly love about Grayson Perry; which is, he reaches out to people and communities, to his public, to the subjects of his works (real people), to his country, and he provides something of a therapeutic function for these subjects. He is not in a self- made ivory tower like many of the clever young British Artists we hear so much about from the perspective of infamy; Perry speaks to us all. We are his people. This to my mind makes him absolutely relevant as the modern artist in our midst. He brightens up our lives on one level and allows us to mourn on another, more of which later. He has made a funny picture book house for us all to go and gawp at in wonder like children. On television panel shows like ‘Have I got News for You’ he is witty, clever and seems sane and reasonable despite his astonishing appearance when dressed up. He speaks to us, he speaks of us, but more importantly for me, he listens; he goes out into the world and meets his subjects face to face, soul to soul, and listens to their stories, provides them with a container or a transitional object with which they can integrate their emotions (a vase perhaps or domestic vessel of some sort, a tapestry or banner something familiar and understandable to us from our own worlds, such as when he appropriates a miners banner in his current series because he instinctively realises this will be meaningful to that particular culture); but more importantly he just listens in an interested sympathetic fashion and he seems to care; and in seeming interested in us and including us in his art he validates, gives voice to and an image of our modern world with all of its horrors and fears and also strengths. In making ordinary people his subjects in a way that allows those subjects to tell their stories and express their inner fears and loves he is creating a real living, breathing art that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary in a transformative way. Dare I say it, but what he offers to us as a nation seems to be something akin to a therapeutic process. At least it seems to be for those he includes in his process on the programmes and for those who watch it; and if I can assume I can’t be the only one to be moved by watching the process on television then his methods can be said to have a therapeutic impact in a wider, societal sense.
His latest Channel 4 show ‘All Man’ repeats what worked so well in 2013’s ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’, in which he goes into specific cultural habitats (in the current show this focuses on aspects of the North East of England’s macho culture, such as Cage Fighters and ex-Miners and the type of Geordie lads who go drinking ‘on the toon’ of a Saturday night as their cultural stereotype). In ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’ Perry looked at the differences in class tastes and attitudes, which did touch on entrenched working class attitudes in part, whilst the current programme is investigating masculinity particularly. It is made clear that Perry has discerned a crisis in masculinity, which is not exactly news to the mental health professional, but it is his delicate style of investigation and engagement with the men themselves that has become his trademark and which works so well. Watching Perry encouraging one of the North Easts toughest cage fighters (so therefore one of Britain’s toughest cage fighters) to talk about why he got to a point in his life where this brutal sport is his main form of self- expression is a thing of wonder as we see this toughest of tough guys break down in tears as he explores the back story that got him to where he is today. Perry’s great skill as a social scientist is to give his subject matter the right amount of space and attention to encourage an opening up and expression of emotion, often in the most unlikely of places. Being from the North East of England myself originally, I remember being particularly moved in the earlier documentary by not only Perry’s ability to communicate effectively with the toughest members of the working classes (such as the Sunderland Football supporters who ended up playing a central role in the documentary, and in the tapestry that Perry produced to document it, The Vanity of Small Differences) but by his ability to draw out a response from his subjects, who in their turn and much to their credit accepted Perry and played an important role in the development of his art by opening up and engaging with him without apparent prejudice (and you don’t see too many men dressed like Perry in Sunderland or Newcastle of a Saturday night). In ‘All Man’ there is a similar dynamic as we are back in the North East again with Perry face to face with some of its toughest customers as he attempts to dissect his way to the heart of modern masculinity, whilst making it abundantly clear in a non -judgmental way that he thinks modern man needs to make a journey into its feminine side and express some of those malignant and traumatic feelings. The statistics back him up it seems too as we hear that 80% of suicides in the area are male; a shocking statistic undoubtedly. Perry then meets the mother and friends of one such statistic, a local lad who did take his own life recently. This moving vignette shows us the understandable mourning of the mother, whose ultimate gratitude to Perry for listening to her sad story and including both it and a visual representation of her son into his artwork, is hugely moving and also highlights Perry’s skills as both an artist along with his decency and sensitivity as a human being. Something genuinely therapeutic happens throughout this story both for the Mother and for Perry it seems to me, who, in engaging meaningfully with this particular group and their specific tragedy (which in its telling is no longer a statistic but something real that happens to real people) seems to increase his humanity whilst simultaneously giving the participants a voice and a sense of inclusion in something bigger than themselves. The more suprising aspect of this particular story is the encounters Perry has with the young man’s friends, a group of typical young Geordie lads who are clearly still processing their own grief and guilt at their loss. One of the group (who are all captured, poignantly, in the pub where they had once drunk with their missing buddy) reveals his own way of dealing with the loss was through mixing emotion with artistic expression, via a tattoo on his leg of his lost comrade. Perry allows the mother and the group of friends enough space to express their grief movingly whilst eliciting enough information from them to piece together some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw and to give the story cohesion and wider meaning. To a man (and woman) they all tell us that he was the last person they would ever have expected to take his own life; he seemed the life and soul of the party; always up for a laugh. Yet on the other hand they all acknowledge a mysterious, secretive quality in this young man that in retrospect feels like something was withheld and unknowable. Maybe, they all realise now, there was something they should have intuited, but then again in this culture, these kind of men, the documentary tells us, cannot open up and talk about their emotional difficulties as this is not allowed or encouraged by the existing masculine code.
For being able to sift through all of this and facilitating some kind of visible therapeutic movement and growth for all concerned (not least himself), while telling some real truths about not only our culture but the crisis of masculinity at the heart of it, and whilst also making compelling art that has true meaning within the culture, Grayson Perry is my personal choice as a National Treasure for our age, where social and gender mores need to be explored more intelligently and openly, without shame. He is contributing something to our culture that transcends art and speaks to and of humanity, and for that we should all be grateful to him.
Don Butler - May 2016