Grayson Perry’s latest project looks to project the voice of the Brexit-affected masses, but if both sides of the vote profess a love for their country, was the makeup chair worth the effort?
Much has been written about the reasons behind the Brexit vote, including the determination of forgotten, post-industrial regions to be heard, the desire to protect one’s national identity in a globalising world, and the 20-year mind-bend by anti-EU Murdoch-owned media.
But the role of culture as the emotional engine that drove many personal opinions, attitudes and decisions in the final count has been largely ignored. This was not about Culture with a capital “c”, which energetic urbanites and other elites defend against government cuts while the rest are left to fight for their schools and NHS services.
Small “c” culture is part of a nation’s oxygen and can often be the fuel which drives people to the polling booth. The EU referendum was a cultural conflict, not a political one, and Brexit won through the greater power of its emotional appeal.
All the better that the British phenomenon Grayson Perry chose to explore this conflict in his television programme, Divided Britain. Standing on the cliffs of Dover dressed in a mix of Jane Austen and Little Bo Peep, it is hard to think of any other country that could produce this gifted artist, let alone take him seriously as a social commentator. His cheeky eye-twinkling and estuary cackle disguise his visceral understanding of the complexities of a class-ridden country and its changing demographics, as he swims through the undercurrents of traditional resentment and modern-day insecurity.
Responding to a nation that was left reeling from a referendum that demanded a yes or no answer to “subtle, emotional, philosophical, spiritual” questions, Grayson embarks upon an art project to measure the length and breadth of the tectonic fault lines palpable in a post-EU referendum Britain.
In it, he uses a collation of selfies and images of tattoos and beloved aspects of Britain, sent in by voters of both sides, to create two vases, one entitled “Leave” and the other “Remain”. With the hutzpah of a dinner lady and the discipline of a Renaissance old master, Grayson ingratiates himself into the intimacy of people’s thoughts. Believing that there are no wrong or right answers, he pokes affectionately at the irrational holes of both sides’ arguments, teasing out their contradictions and contextual ironies.
He refers to a photo of a Leaver standing in his garden holding a hammer as “Thor and his little patch of England”; he replies to another Leaver’s complaint that she is tired of being called a racist, with a sincere, “I bet you are”. He concludes that today’s wealthy, “Scandi box set” liberals, of whom he admits he is one, claim to think about values more than money, but as horrifying as it may seem to them, voted largely to preserve their material advantages.
Grayson’s cultural intervention reflects the ever-present danger of lapsing into past behaviour. Any future evidence of economic malaise will reignite the animosity of quietened Remainers, who feel betrayed by the political decisions that compromised their country’s integrity.
At a lunch with Leavers from a northern town with Britain’s highest Brexit vote, one of them wishes everyone “bon appetit” while celebrating the victory of “taking back control”. Grayson suggests to him that those who voted to remain felt that they had control already. In the expensively-converted attic of a once-edgy London neighbourhood he points out to a group of yoga-practising, mantra-chanting pregnant women that they are today’s establishment, not unlike David Cameron and George Osborne. In both interactions he elicits an intake of breath long enough to hear a penny drop.
His finished vases conclude what Grayson suspected all along. That what unites more than divides is the gentle ordinariness and relative banality of English identity – the Queen and tea cakes, the seaside, historic buildings, red post boxes, rolling countryside, the village pub, a Norman church. In the end, the vases are indistinguishable, both sides having chosen the same background colours and similar national brands and images. It is a touching moment when they reach out to each other, their commonality reflecting off the shiny glaze of what they thought would mirror the opposite.
Grayson’s cultural intervention, however, reflects the ever-present danger of lapsing into past behaviour. Any future evidence of economic malaise will reignite the animosity of quietened Remainers, who feel betrayed by the political decisions that compromised their country’s integrity.
And, hardly worse off even under the chill winds of a post-Brexit recession, Leavers would go back to their victory laps around the political playing field they levelled in June 2016. As one Leaver explains to Grayson: “What we don’t know won’t hurt us”.
After all, both sides voted to protect their way of life as much as what they love about their country, but from diametrically-opposed viewpoints. Those ill-equipped or averse to envisaging a future that extends beyond the safety of their own communities do not see the constricting effects of the Brexit vote on the nation’s outlook that Remainers feel so acutely.
Despite Grayson Perry’s admirable efforts, that divide persists and could enlarge or contract depending on whether today’s politicians prioritise the long-term good of their people or the concerns of their party and personal tenures.