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Review of ‘Grayson Perry: Divided Britain’

Chloe Etheridge, University of Warwick

One year on after the EU vote, Grayson Perry filmed his musings about creating art to challenge the divisive politics of a yes/no referendum. Enflamed passions were still burning in Boston and Hackney, areas of notably high leave and remain votes respectively and the two tribes appear to be sat on either side of a cultural gulf. But Perry tries to build a bridge through a shared British identity which transcends tribal markings.

Perry’s point is this: politics by plebiscite exacerbates cultural divisions. Brexit cannot be discussed without projecting one's own cultural baggage upon it. For most, it was not a dispassionate process of weighing up the pros and cons of the EU institutions then casting a ballot. One of the reasons parliament exists is to debate complex issues, attempt to find a middle way through thorny topics that are bound up in the general public’s varied identities, anxieties and hopes for the future. Voting in the EU Referendum was never a purely rational decision about membership of an economic union.

In Perry’s words, it touched upon ‘Subtle, emotional, philosophical, spiritual questions that can’t be answered by some simple bloody yes or no question!’. In this way, ‘remoaners’ are still in a period of mourning over an abstract ideal of peace and unity which the EU symbolised to them. 'Brexiteers’ can be viewed as angrily protesting an abstract ungenerous overeducated elite to boot. 

Pottery is Perry's celebrated artistic medium. Throughout the documentary, he creates two large ceramic pots to represent the two camps- which he hopes will ultimately be indistinguishable. Perry’s pots ‘Matching Pair’ are a symbol of what makes people who live in the UK happy. Stripping away the noise of tribal screeching leaves a shared sense of humour, love of family, pets, the local pub, the seaside, the Queen... He democratically crowdsources this tone from social media, asking 'the tribes' to send him snapshots of their lives. The portraits, logos and phrases he transfers onto the ceramic result in a layered cultural milieu, each pot is brimming with overlapping ideas meaning the viewer struggles to make clear-cut generalisations about each. 

Although the documentary is not just about fostering harmony, Perry cuttingly uses his role as cultural spectator to point out some of the paradoxes of the vote. Firstly, Perry notes the backtracking of modern left-wing protest. During the 1990s many on the Left opposed globalisation- think Battle of Seattle 1999. Instead, in 2016, lefties attending a family friendly protest in London grieve the loss of international economic integration the EU embodies. By contrast, the identity of some Lincolnshire residents is of a locally rooted, culturally homogenous self-sufficient farming community. But this is now kept alive by Eastern European economic migrants working in the fields. 

So can cultural spectators reveal what politicians cannot?

As an unconventional transvestite artist, Perry is often regarded by his interviewees as a bit odd. But in this way also unthreatening, he does not overtly proclaim allegiance to any tribe. On one hand, he classes himself as having ‘establishment values’, but on the other, is not afraid of checking himself or others privileged enough to indulge in ‘a bit of craftivism…then back home in time to watch a nice Scandi boxset’.

This is what makes this documentary so refreshing, it doesn’t re-hash the same tired arguments of either side’s campaign. Its strength is in asking more meaningful questions about why the self-professed tribes feel unheard, anxious, angry and helpless: feelings projected onto the EU referendum. Its warning is of the divisive impacts of partisan media and politics. Its moral to the liberal elite is to listen to those that voice their concerns and not label them unintelligent, intolerant bigots. Because the remainer subsequently complaining that ‘The things I hold dear feel like they’re changing and it feels like there’s very little I can do about it’, is an ironic echo.

Image: © Picture hills_alive, Flickr