Grayson Perry’s new Channel 4 documentary on taste and class, In the Best Possible Taste, is an entertaining and informative look at the impact of class on taste in modern Britain. The programmes look successively at working-class, middle-class and upper-class taste as Perry researches a series of tapestries he is designing, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. This week Perry visited the stereotypically middle-class communities of Tunbridge Wells and Kings Hill (a Kent residential community). While he is analytical as he probes into people’s lives to discuss their taste Perry always does so in an affable manner and he deals with both working and middle classes affectionately. As he explains in his Five Minutes With interview he believes that there is no such thing as definitively “good” or “bad” taste, and this comes across in the documentary.
The series is especially interesting to me as it parallels the chapter of my dissertation that I wrote on taste and class in relation to eighteenth-century theatre. I argued that taste was currency in eighteenth-century London; the novelist Henry Fielding reasoned that “as it very highly adorns the present Age, so doth it in a more particular Manner distinguish what we call our great Men”. Status was derived from having taste and the ability to discuss the merits of various art forms. Increasingly “taste” was defined by a narrow group of elites, and while the lower classes may have felt no need to engage with the concept of refined taste acceptance into society’s elite could depend on an ability to engage with these ideas and standards.
Throughout the eighteenth century taste was used as a demarcation of class. The middle class’ less established status led to their rigid enforcement of taste in order to assert their worth, and their ability to fit into elite society. In turn the aristocracy felt the need to affirm their standing by conforming to the ideals of taste, in order to both demonstrate their ability to keep pace with the middle class and to redraw a distinguishing line between themselves and their inferiors. The reformulation of the divide between the classes that was beginning to occur in the eighteenth century is paralleled by the drastic expansion of the middle class in the last quarter of a century, with the number of people describing themselves as middle-class rising from 1/3 to 2/3 of the population.
In the Best Possible Taste suggests that middle-class taste is a reaction against working-class preferences; when asked why a tagine particularly exemplified middle-class taste, one interviewee answered “it’s just different… different from what a working-class person would have”. This particular tagine formed part of the Jamie Oliver kitchenware collection, a range which the ladies of Kings Hill appear to swear by; as one lady explains, it makes it look like she’s “got an eye for tasteful items around my house, except I haven’t because they’ve all come from Jamie”. The group relies on brands to reassure themselves that their taste is accepted, resulting in an identikit housing estate where people are happy to buy show homes fully decorated and furnished in order to ensure that their home meets the neighbours’ high expectations.
The second group that Perry visits live in Tunbridge Wells and relies less on brand identity, instead demonstrating asserting their individuality and “cultural capital” by carefully selecting their own trinkets to illustrate their education and awareness of culture. Similarly, the eighteenth-century middle class strived to achieve a well-rounded cultural identity, as taste became an increasingly prominent means for the middle classes to legitimise the status they drew from their newly-acquired wealth. Yet the Tunbridge Wells group, like their eighteenth-century counterparts, are still influenced by fashion; one lady admitted that “a lot of the time I don’t know whether I did like something before it became fashionable or whether it’s the validation that made me realise I like it”.
One man interviewed suggests that being middle-class is about aspiring to a better life but, as an anthropologist explains to Perry, this leave the self-made middle classes unsure of their place and feeling the need to prove they deserve it. This generates the middle-class angst that leads women to agonise over their kitchen utensils, one mother and her husband to trawl the internet searching for the fromage frais with the lowest sugar content for their toddler, and led the eighteenth-century middles classes to fastidiously construct an identity that conformed to the increasingly prominent concept of good taste. The middle classes have always aspired to and emulated their ideal lifestyle and it’s clear that this tradition is still going strong in Kings Hill and Tunbridge Wells.
Next week’s final instalment of Perry’s documentary delves into the taste of the upper classes and promises to be equally engaging.