Originally Posted on Skirt / Reviews

Anthropological Anxieties

I’ve been watching Grayson Perry’s series on the English class boundaries around ‘taste’ (titled helpfully ‘In the Best Possible Taste’). His research was ultimately aimed towards creating six large tapestries, but as the techniques he’s using to do the research are largely anthropological in nature it brought home for me again some of the anxieties of being an anthropologist. We are not unique but we are rare among researchers for having to worry about how the subjects of our research will feel about what we say about them. People studying rocks and books and old maps and equations and engines and wind tunnels and fish don’t worry about these things. We do.

I thought about this a great deal recently when I published my book. For the first time all the people I’d spoken to would be able to see themselves reflected in my work–and while I have no doubts about the honesty of my work, it somehow still made me feel very exposed. Perry also reflected anxieties about the reactions of the communities he’d studied to the tapestries. He said that this was the first time there was such a directly visible connection between his material and its inspiration, and moreover that he wasn’t used to being there when the people on whom he based concepts in his work came to look at it for the first time. An intimidating position; one he handled with aplomb. I fret about this endlessly.

I thought Perry did a brilliant job of encapsulating the strangeness of culture–that is, of bringing to the surface the symbolic nature of so many of our decisions and actions to do with ‘taste’. In fact so much of culture is like this; the great big stew called culture is based on a very self-contained sort of logic. I think it’s great to think about these things–not necessarily with the purpose of trying to undermine them (though sometimes that’s needed). I think more people should reflect on their cultural decisions, including those about gender (more on this in the next paragraph), in ways that are self-aware without necessarily being negatively judgmental. Perry was most at home amongst the middle class, and had a bit of a tendency to equate working class rituals with primitivism, which I felt was a dangerous slide. But on the whole he got people talking about the whys and wherefores of their cultural decisions without putting them as individuals on the defensive, which can be a very difficult thing to do.

My favorite bits (naturally, being a gender theorist) were those where Perry engaged with what he referred to as his transvestitism. How wonderful, to be able to explore all the many and varied methods and trappings of gendered expression without feeling restricted to just one part of the continuum. I think one of the great things about Perry’s approach to transvestitism is that once you realize how made-up (as in constructed) the ways that we define or express most aspects of gender are, especially those to do with attire, you can really feel free to play around with the dressing-up and the making-up. Being made up to go out takes on the double significance of making stuff up; of make believe.

On a personal level I can say for sure that some of that element of dress-up, of being much more feminine than I would ever be (or even want to be) in my real life, has always been one of my big attractions to belly dance. Certainly for a lot of people I interviewed, the costume was no small draw–it allows a boldness to explore that which we might otherwise not allow to become so amplified.

The end of each show culminates with a reveal of the tapestries created in relation to each echelon of society. They were so bright, so full of life–fabric is so rarely celebrated, I think. And I took solace from the positive response of Perry’s ‘research subjects’: maybe they didn’t agree with every choice he made, but something about the very fact of being involved, of feeling that their perspective was being valued, was meaningful–and moving–for a lot of people. It’s a nervous business, anthropology, but things like this remind me why it is so important.

(Originally posted on Skirt.com)