The Art of Identity

The Most Popular Exhibition Ever! Grayson Perry, Serpentine Galleries, 8th June to 10th September

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J D Vance, Harper Press, 2016

I’ve come to these two examples of artistic expression a bit late, review wise. Markedly so in the case of the memoir which was published last year and is, in a way, yesterday’s news, or maybe yesterday’s sensation, given that it seemed to have had its moment of glory just as everyone was desperate to find out what on earth could be an explanation for Donald Trump, and maybe, just maybe, it was the hillbillies that did it.

‘Hillbilly’ is an identity of course. J D Vance now has a new identity: Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist, the pinnacle of achievement. Oh, to be a capitalist now the internet is here.

Grayson Perry has made a different kind of identity transition, but with, one imagines on the evidence here, no less pecuniary success. His pots, his enormous tapestries, his motor bike, all reek of wealth, of luxury, of the best of the best; the highest level of tat, fit for the most soaring of corporate foyers or boardrooms, able to decorate the most maniacal of any ego. Seasoned with just the right amount of transgressive urban aesthetic, you understand. These rich guys are right on, culture wise.

It’s tempting to say that Grayson Perry’s dalliance with the tropes of gender identity, drag in other words, is something of a gimmick. Perhaps that’s unfair. Or it’s devaluing what is a serious artistic point. But I’ll say it anyway. And I’ll also say that there are maybe one or two too many echoes of Jeff Koons and Damian Hurst to be comfortable with from the point of view of identifying an original and important artistic voice (which is Grayson’s real identity - famous and important artist, another, more exalted, kind of drag.)

Identity is our topic de jour, for our sins. Identity in the sense of ‘check your privilege’. Hillbilly’s are lacking in privilege. Why that is isn’t really in doubt here. Poverty creates a vicious cycle of drug dependence, family breakdown, teenage pregnancy, the usual suspects. J D Vance tries to get to grips with what to do about it. From the vantage point of an insider. This he does as a purveyor of a kind of Ayn Randian belief in dragging yourself up by your bootstraps. You’re poor? You’ve no one but your little old self to blame. However, these are his own relatives, his flesh and blood, his mother even, and so there creeps in a doubt, finally a hesitation, a reluctance to give his subject both barrels. Ultimately, between buying Christmas presents for children’s charities and mentoring hopeless, heartbreaking cases (an example is a boy he meets whom he realises, belatedly, is simply hungry) he doesn’t have any answers, apart from an acknowledgement that he was unbelievably lucky. In fact, the real take away is that he needed all the help he could get. And that help is simply not available to most of those hungry kids who will be hillbillies for ever.

J D Vance and Grayson Perry represent extraordinary examples of individual success, success beyond the imagination of those who struggle daily with the drawbacks and challenges of the identities they’ve been saddled with. Ultimately, their respective identities are irrelevant. If Hillbilly Elegy is about anything it’s about how J D interacts with the people and situations he encounters and how each and all of these create the person, or identity, he eventually embraces.

Grayson Perry’s art isn’t saved by anything quite so humble. If Hillbilly Elegy is just a little too much the story of an inner journey, told from the point of view of the personal just a little too unrelentingly, Perry’s exhibition is all him, all exhibitionist, all inner on display, nothing about interaction, simply a personal take on cliche, cliche on cliche, an unrelenting expression of identity as something which divides, which is simply everything in the world, now and forever, amen.

Identity is something which ought to be set aside. Yes, it’s always there, always with us, a burden we each have to bear, but to allow it to define us is simply self-defeating. Yet, and this is a paradox that art really needs to address, we live in a time when it seems the only possible subject for art, what art is, is an examination of the inner life, of which an obsession with identity is a large part. The artist is the art and vice versa. In fact this is nonsense. The artist is a person and the art is art. And there are much more important things than identity, whether as memoir or as fine art.

What Grayson and J D have in common is that they’ve created identities for themselves which have separated them from their origins. They are now individual geniuses. And rich to boot. What neither sees, or perhaps wants to acknowledge, is that this is precisely the problem. If you aren’t successful as an individual you are a failure and that particular and unwelcome identity is clear to everyone. If your skill, your talent, is for immersion in your social milieu, for collaboration, co-operation, for interaction, this will mark you out as having no hope, no prospects. Society encourages and rewards the individual genius. Everyone else can look after themselves. I’d like to see Grayson Perry put that on one of his pots.

Paul Corcoran