Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Man oh man

When it came to deciding upon a topic for Grayson Perry's third documentary series for Channel 4 - following in the footsteps of In The Best Possible Taste (on taste) and Who Are You? (on identity and portraiture) - masculinity must have been a fairly obvious choice. After all, as Perry himself acknowledged, his transvestism has meant he has been acutely aware of the significance of gender.

Over the course of three programmes, Perry ventured with a degree of trepidation (as someone who initially, at least, didn't consider himself to be a very "manly man") into three hypermasculine worlds: cage-fighting in the north-east, gangs in Lancashire and the financial sector in London.

As in the previous two series, Perry made artworks reflecting his experiences and perceptions and then presented these to the people who had inspired them - something that would be a daunting challenge for any artist, particularly when the subject matter is so personal to those confronted with his art. He may not have been attempting to capture individuals' essence in a portrait (as in Who Are You?), but creating and then showing pieces inspired by a young man who committed suicide to his grieving mother was arguably even more courageous.

She was touched and grateful for the tribute, but not all of those given a private viewing of the artworks they had helped to shape were so positive. In the final programme, one of the traders Perry had spoken to accused him of having an unshakeably prejudiced view of the financial services sector and those who work in it. He countered, justifiably, that he hadn't seen anything to make him change his view. Having preconceptions is inevitable, but any suggestion that he was unwilling to alter his perspectives was debunked in the first episode, in which he started out with a stereotypical view of cage-fighters but ended up seeing the sport as a positive form of release and its participants as generally thoughtful, self-aware and dedicated athletes rather than as violent, brutish louts.

If the cage-fighters' macho exterior frequently concealed a softer centre, then the opposite was true of the bankers and traders, whose expensive suits and talk of cool rationality and objectivity concealed a subtle and arguably more insidious form of masculinity that nevertheless boiled down to the primal desire to stand out from the crowd and from one's peers, to be the hunter rather than the hunted.

Throughout the series, Perry once again exhibited his skills as a presenter - whether putting people at their ease so they opened up to confess on camera to things that they'd never admitted before, even in private; asking gently probing questions and challenging arguments without ever seeming provocative or confrontational; or offering pin-sharp insights, such as the general observation "I don't think men know how to be sad", and the identification of humiliation or shame resulting from the emasculating effects of their environment as the root cause for gang members' behaviour.

I would have liked more consideration of the police in the second programme (Perry noted that the police and the gangs were effectively two male tribes on different sides of the law engaged in battle, but didn't pause to consider why men might be drawn to join the police in much the same way that they're drawn to join gangs). There could also have been greater linkages between the different programmes; for instance, the frequently laughable rituals of the bankers and traders (power yoga, fasting, meditation tapes) could have been compared to the fastidious pre-fight preparations undertaken by the cage-fighters (both seemed to see themselves as "warrior-monks").

But these are only minor complaints - my only other one being that the series could easily have been twice as long, with the worlds of heavy metal, top-flight football and the army all ripe for Perry to investigate. Maybe they're saving those for a follow-up.

No comments: