Grayson Perry graced television screens this week with the one-off Channel 4 documentary “Divided Britain”. Throughout this 45 minute showing the Turner Prize winning artist sets out to explore the divided nature of Britain’s culture in the context of Brexit and the general election.
The show opens with Perry, a Labour supporting remain-voter, laying his politics on the table, and claiming he will attempt impartiality. Whether or not this was actually achieved is highly contentious, and a quick search of yesterday’s headlines reveals either side of the political spectrum lauding the artist as a champion of their own cause.
Perry travels to Boston, Lincolnshire (the highest proportion of leave voters in the country) where he talks with ordinary voters and laughs along politely at casual racism in the bag of a minicab. This is contrasted against his trip to Stoke Newington, London, where he sips tea with a group of yoga mums and gently probes at the idea of middle class privilege. It is these attempts to characterise the ‘real voters’ that draw the biggest criticisms for the show. When approaching a subject as complex and difficult as the EU referendum from an art perspective Perry was always going to fail to capture the full sociopolitical context though his work. In depicting either side in such blanket terms the show sadly fails to reach any meaningful nuance in its political criticism.
As an attempt to actually better understand our political counterparts the show fails, creating instead a space for each side to self-confirm their biases. Instead what Perry achieves is a sort-of dissatisfying non-conclusion that provokes more questioning and exploration than it manages to answer. Under all this ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ it turns out we’re actually pretty similar, he concludes. Some people voted leave, some people voted remain, we all want different things and are willing to employ varying levels of hypocrisy to achieve them.
Divided Britain may fail as a hard-nosed investigation into the politics of Britain, but it thrives in the areas it does not set out to reach. As a platform from Perry’s endless personality, and as a gentle look at hypocrisy in our politics and the British culture it achieves so much more. The most valuable takeaways are not the quantifiable answers Perry attempts to lay down, but the artist’s look at our own lives that provokes further questions of our tribal thinking and position within society.
Grayson Perry: Divided Britain is available to stream online on Channel 4’s website.