Unpopular Culture: Nostalgia for the Bad Times

Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection and the British Film Institute National Archive.

Provocative as ever, the 2003 Turner Prize winner, Grayson Perry, takes on a new role as curator with Unpopular Culture, which recently opened at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park after launching at the De la Warr Pavilion earlier this year. To complement the show, Perry has selected a new programme of rarely seen films from the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive that will screen alongside the exhibition, for the first and only time. The selection, called Nostalgia for the Bad Times, references a bygone age of good manners, afternoon tea, seaside holidays and coal fires. Unpopular Culture is an exhibition that typifies the nostalgia that seeks to hail the past as the “glory age”.

Perry was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2003 when he won the Turner Prize for his delicate coil pots adorned with drawings and text suggesting a range of subject matter. Perhaps less well known is his work as a curator. Unpopular Culture highlights this aspect of Perry’s practice and offers his personal view of the Arts Council Collection: one of the foremost national collections of British post-war art with over 7,500 works. The show includes works by Kenneth Armitage, Frank Auerbach, Ian Berry, Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick, Barbara Hepworth, L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Eduardo Paolozzi, Martin Parr, Tony Ray-Jones and Homer Sykes as well as two striking new works by Perry himself, Queen’s Bitter and Head of a Fallen Giant.

Queen’s Bitter mediates a simplified version of the post-war years. “After the war there was a revival in English folk tradition. The piece is a bit like an elaborate beer bottle, with pictures of me wearing a headscarf. It’s a celebration of Englishness in the second Elizabethan age, and me wearing the headscarf is a symbol of womanhood during the period in which the show is set. I remember my aunty wearing a headscarf, knotted under the chin. It’s something that you don’t see these days.” Emotional sentimentality hankers the past by glossing over reality, somehow always making it look better than the present. In this transference the collective consciousness arguably looks to appropriate a wider degree of meaning dichotomised by “the good times” and “the bad times.” It’s the “glory age” that Perry is questioning. Was it actually that good and more importantly who is the judge of the past?

The contemporary art world yearns to be challenged, shocked and surprised, which Perry argues, “has become the headline”, and through Unpopular Culture he is seeking to redress the balance. He is looking at artworks from a time when “artists weren’t superstars with fabrication studios and weren’t people who did interviews with magazines, but were quiet bohemians who made art because they were passionate about it, because they never thought that they were going to make any money.” Obviously a wild generalisation, which Perry admits, but the attitude of this show offers something far greater than some of the more conceptual pieces of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Unpopular Culture invites sublime reflection about the symbols that create a national identity.

The artist-curator brings a new vantage point into art history and in particular a show of this magnitude, by providing a narrative unlike that of the full-time curator. However, Perry is cautious, he feels his “judgement is more naked” and that it’s not about his “skill but rather me as an observer of culture and what my taste is, and the history of art.” He finds there are presumptions about curating, and that “there’s a certain power in being a curator in the contemporary art scene.” Fortunately for Perry most of the artists in this show are either very old or dead. However, this sensibility and acknowledgement of the role of the curator plays with the inner workings of the arts industry. There’s honesty in Perry’s approach that makes this show resonate deeply in the subconscious of British identity. An identity with many facets, but ultimately, Perry thinks that “somehow people feel that they’re working towards a golden moment when everything will be all right” but that “it doesn’t exist and people need to be reminded that life is a work in progress and there isn’t any solution at the end of it.”

Unpopular Culture examines a period in history, which Perry argues was “before British art became fashionable.” The exhibition includes more than 70 works by 50 artists that encompass a variety of media; figurative painting, bronze sculpture and documentary photography. Spanning the era from the 1940s to the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s, the selection epitomises a time when we as a nation had a different sense of self, one less defined by interventions of television, mass media and digital communications. Perry was drawn to “three distinct categories of art, which are bound together both by the period of their inception and their ineffable sense of mood; subtle, sensitive, lyrical and quiet in contrast to today when much art can seem like shouty advertisements for concepts or personalities.” He also felt “a need to confront the hackneyed version of the recent past that is the default mode of the nostalgia industry. Take the swinging 60s – this psychedelic, mini-driving, mini-skirt wearing, Beatles-loving supposed glory age, which I suspect was really only enjoyed by a minority. This exhibition shows another side.”

Perry’s selection for Nostalgia for the Bad Times adds a new layer to the concept of national identity and personal narrative evident throughout the exhibition. Themes explored include war time propaganda in Springtime in an English Village (1944), which Perry says is “shocking”, as it shows “a little black girl being crowed May Queen, it was never shown in Britain, it was meant to be shown in the colonies, ‘look how nicely we’ll treat you when you come to England.’” By including this in the show Perry is commenting on the socio-political elements of the time, which sometimes are brushed aside in favour of romantic nostalgia of a “better time”. Another film included is New Town For Old, which is about rebuilding Britain after the war, it reflects positive idealism and a sense of community. While Lindsay Anderson’s film set in a 1920s funfair called O Dreamland (1953) is an experimental documentary which “comments on the mistaken dreams of people, and the scariness of popular culture.” There’s also an advert for Maypole Tea emphasising that noble English pasttime of afternoon tea, By the Fireside (1945). Unsurprisingly for an artist who has always positioned himself at the margins of the art world, Perry has found himself drawn to art that embodies a quiet nostalgia and restraint. There is a certain sense of dejectedness, but ultimately Unpopular Culture and Nostalgia for the Bad Times present an alternative view of British art, bringing a fresh, new perspective on this period.

As an artist who wants people to approach his work with “a chequebook”, Perry is acutely aware of contextualising the time period. Candidly, he states, “It’s called Unpopular Culture because these works are from an age when art was a rare activity, it wasn’t like Tate Modern now, with everyone going for the thrill ride. The interest in art was not high, and to make art was something unusual, whereas today, it is normal and part of everyday life.”

Unpopular Culture ran at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 25 October 2009. www.ysp.co.uk.

Cherie Federico