The Bloke Who Came Fifth

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
    Penguin, 160 pp, £8.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 14 198174 1

John Maltby, the studio potter and sculptor, used to say that you can’t make a teapot about your father’s death. Grayson Perry’s whole career assumes the opposite, that you can express any amount of personal and social comment through traditional forms of craft, not just pottery but tapestry and textile design: the Tate sells a printed silk headscarf of his that wouldn’t look out of place in a county town on market day, but represents contemporary art as a sort of board game, with arrival at the Bankside holy of holies (above the cheeky caption ‘Tat Moderne’) the winner’s reward. He is still the only Turner Prize winner to use a medium associated with craft, with vernacular making, as much as high art.

Perry accepted his prize in 2003 cross-dressed, so that his art-making and his transvestism were announced to the public simultaneously. His company, or competition, as a high-profile cross-dresser is hardly extensive, but allows modest comparisons just the same. Eddie Izzard, two years younger, was established as a comedian before cross-dressing became an element of his persona, though not a predictable element. Izzard’s look refracts a wayward glamour, and he keeps his hair relatively short in a way that insists on ambiguity. His comments on the subject are inconsistent: sometimes he has claimed that his cross-dressing is essentially political, a superhero costume intended to highlight and contest prejudice against transvestites, at other times that his clothing choices are entirely spontaneous (though spontaneity presumably has to depend on what’s in your wardrobe). The element of aggressiveness integral to stand-up comedy can’t be expected to fade away entirely.

Perry is capable of dressing down, for instance when he received his CBE at Buckingham Palace, but also of adding to the transgression by incorporating such elements of little girls’ clothing as party frocks and ankle socks. In The Descent of Man he adds an extra layer of psychological strangeness by saying that his mother, who sent him to school carrying a satchel rather than a branded PVC sports holdall from Adidas, Gola or Puma, might just as well have dressed him ‘in white ankle socks and Mary Janes’, as if that particular combination was the most shame-saturated thing that could be imagined. The disturbingly mixed signals are neutralised to some extent by explanatory psychodrama. He gives his female persona a name (Claire), just as his childhood teddy bear is turned into a totem of masculinity – masculinity as imagined by a boy – and called Alan Measles.

Since 2003 Perry has established himself as an accomplished and adventurous broadcaster on such subjects as class and gender. His new book, The Descent of Man, isn’t designed to accompany the Channel Four series All Man, but reuses some of the material from those programmes. The book’s title, with its inversion of the title of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series of the 1970s and recycling of Darwin, seems uneasily grand and highbrow, particularly given that Perry’s argument is that traditional forms of masculinity no longer serve any useful function. Men must learn to give up their inherited privileges and fit in with a less confrontational, more consensual style of society. As he puts it with a final flourish of school speech-day jokiness, men ‘need to get over the unsettling “otherness” of a progressive man and start to see him as the new norm (not the one from Cheers)’.

In the past Perry has expressed reservations about art critics, saying they are writers rather than artists and may not have any particular visual sensitivity. The same style of objection applies to books written by non-writers, and The Descent of Man is cheerfully ramshackle, both rambling and repetitive, raiding the press and the internet for surveys and snippets without a thought for methodology or context, reporting for instance that married men live longer than unmarried ones, without considering whether women benefit in the same way (it’s doubtful). Perry sees the same virtues deriving from gay marriage – as opposed to less official arrangements? – offering no evidence beyond the observation that ‘men are more reliant on their partners than women are.’ Meanwhile ‘lesbian bed death’ – ‘where lesbians’ sex lives dry up because they choose a partner who is just like them and that does not result in a sexy power imbalance’ – is referred to as if it was a recognised clinical syndrome rather than an in-joke based on a half-truth. Passing observations are extended far beyond their general applicability: ‘Foppish flowery shirts, once the preserve of fey hippies, I now associate with aggressive banter as they are often sported by blokey comedians, maybe as a vaguely feminised camouflage to mask their boorishness.’ This is quite a lot of baggage for the likes of Sean Lock to carry.

There are familiar glimpses of Perry’s personal history, the working-class background, rejecting father and violent stepfather. He gives a sharp description of the vigilance required to perform a masculinity that draws no attention to itself, at a time when he saw no other option: ‘At 14 I studied every nuance of the style of slightly older boys. Collars in or out, ties fat or thin, baggy trousers short or covering the wedge shoes?’ In his adoption of a female persona he understands that authenticity is a mirage, saying that ‘as a tranny, “passing” as a woman is something I have worked very hard on, achieved and rejected.’ Even so, the atavistic sense that clothes must have a clear relationship with reality keeps coming back, with the suggestion that ‘someone wearing a leather jacket should have faced down the dangers of riding a motorcycle at speed and not just been shopping for vintage vinyl.’ He wears his leather jacket (or one of them, since he owns half a dozen) only when riding.

There’s a disconcerting suggestion that chance played a major part in Perry’s development: he didn’t think of art, as a focus and a career, until it was suggested to him, and a house move while he was a schoolboy made it impractical for him to continue in the cadets, so that joining the army, the apotheosis of passing-as-a-man, faded away as a possibility without needing to be rejected. If one of the benefits of literary professionalism is the ability to keep your contradictions out of sight, then perhaps Perry’s amateurism has its compensations. It’s bizarre for him to describe the police and the armed forces as ‘legitimised violent gangs’, as if voicing a radical analysis, then to lament on the next page that ‘national service was the last time we had a formalised coming-of-age ritual for a majority of young men.’ Yet the model of masculinity he proposes is one that doesn’t pretend to an explanatory authority, or a view of the world with the blemishes airbrushed out. He’s shrewd enough to offer an implicit defence of the bagginess of his book by saying that men ‘like a clearly defined mission statement, but what if the problem is that men like a clearly defined mission statement?’

The Descent of Man includes a dozen or so illustrations by the author, sometimes embellishing the text, like his fantasy advertisement for the Turbo 3000, a mop as it might be marketed to men, complete with ‘military grade low friction high absorbency head’, sometimes contradicting it, in the case of a page showing footballers wearing shirts with New Age slogans such as ‘After You Mate’ and ‘It’s Nice Being Nice’. In fact one of the book’s arguments is that sport is a legitimate area for the release of aggression, and Perry admits that he never feels so masculine as when taking part in physical competition. He first raced his mountain bike in 1992, and soon became obsessed. ‘After the race there would be a glorious rush of endorphins; sweaty, dusty men, all high on natural chemicals, comparing notes and battle scars. No one knew me as an artist; I was just the bloke who came fifth.’ Eddie Izzard has made his own curious raid on the prestige of athletic endeavour, when with no history of sportiness he started running marathons in bewilderingly rapid sequence, all for charity, so that the element of masculine self-assertion was transcended almost before it had begun.

Perry doesn’t say much about his art in The Descent of Man, though he describes it as a place where he can safely put his anger. Part of the paradoxical appeal of pottery for him was that, like sport, it seemed somehow ‘naff’, although he also chafes against its lowly status. He included in his 2014 book Playing to the Gallery a cartoon with three panels, labelled ‘Highbrow’, ‘Middlebrow’ and ‘Lowbrow’. ‘Highbrow’ is a urinal, presumably a transgressive modern installation or hommage to Duchamp (it looks more modern as a piece of plumbing than Duchamp’s Fountain), and ‘Lowbrow’ is a real, working urinal. ‘Middlebrow’ is a vase. Yet this overlooked intermediate space has its own privileges, and the lack of elite prestige may appeal to Perry’s consciousness of class.

Studio pottery (not Perry’s chosen medium) often seeks to compensate for its roots in craft, the shaming kinship with kitchen utensils, by cultivating a Zen humility – which isn’t humility at all but a stealthy appeal to the sublime. The contrast between Perry and the other pre-eminent British ceramic artist, Edmund de Waal, is positively caricatural, in both artistic and literary production. Sample sentence from The Hare with Amber Eyes: ‘In the ballroom, with its three great windows looking across the square to the Votivkirche, Ignace suddenly lets something slip.’ Sample sentence from The Descent of Man: ‘Fnurk.’ In what de Waal writes and what he makes, the emphasis falls on what is transmitted, on inheritance and continuity. Anyone who saw the exhibition Perry curated at the British Museum in 2011 will know that he too has a strong sense of the history of making, but the conversation he conducts across time and space can be boisterous and spiky. It isn’t necessarily carried on in well-modulated tones. (He juxtaposed two fantastical motorcycle helmets, made or adorned by himself, with a ceremonial headdress from Ghana.)

The Descent of Man is haunted by the knowledge that those most in need of its message won’t read it, despite a reassuringly sober black and white cover portrait of the artist wearing a (man’s) suit, his only sign of transgression the hallowed schoolboy one of letting the narrow end of his tie dangle below the wider front one. It’s true that the book has much less potential impact than, say, the author’s appearance on Radio 2 to discuss it. It’s partly that Perry’s speaking voice and the way he uses it, unafraid of leaving a standard male vocal register but sidestepping camp, is a vivid presence beyond anything he can make happen on the page.

The frustration he feels shows up in the book in the form of low-key aggression towards the reader, caricatured as middle-class and defective in a variety of ways (‘At this point, the parents of Islington rise up as one and refute my claim’). There is lazy provocation (‘When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs’) and much rhetorical sleight of hand: ‘before all you book-reading, middle-class sissies think that male violence is perpetrated by the “other” – the poor, the uneducated, the foreign – just ask a divorce lawyer’ (a divorce lawyer once told him that the middle classes know better than to leave bruises). This is disappointing displacement behaviour coming from someone who has had the luxury of exploring his feelings at length in a therapeutic environment. He may experience making art as therapeutic, but it isn’t sufficient; professionals must be involved. Therapy has taught him that you can change the way you feel about things, ‘even deep fundamental things’, but when he describes the resources that must be committed to the enterprise – ‘it just takes motivation, education and a good bit of time’ – he makes it sound like the most middle-class thing in the world.