LONDON — Turner Prize-winning artist and media savant Grayson Perry recently wrapped up a BBC miniseries in which he discussed masculinity in Britain. Perry’s relatability, not to mention the perspective provided by his cross dressing, made him a natural for that kind of project. Perry hung out with people you would typically associate with hyper masculinity, such as knife-wielding street gangs and bare knuckle boxers, but he expanded that theme away from conventional subjects and surprised us by studying higher class targets: bankers.
Perhaps its our cultural programming to think of toxic masculinity as something that occurs within the lower classes of society, but some of the most shocking, Wolf of Wall Street-esque stuff Perry turned up actually occurred in skyscrapers, in rooms of very nicely dressed men. He told the Guardian:
“What I come away with I guess is that the higher up the power structure you go, the harder it is to spot masculinity,” said Perry. “If a guy roars past you in a white van and shouts ‘Hello darling, show us ya tits!’, that’s an easy spot, but I think the guys in the higher echelons of power in banking are operating in just as much of a gender-biased way. And their actions actually have much more serious consequences in society in many ways.”
And they were mostly men. Overwhelmingly men. In fact, out of all the people running FTSE companies in the UK there are fewer women than men named John.
So what does this mean for everyone else? What does it mean when a guy who would otherwise be fighting in unlicensed boxing matches and harassing women on the street is instead sitting with his finger dangerously close to the big red button of the financial market? You see, a thing that haunted Perry during the project was that, underneath all of the society and politeness, bankers (for the lack of a more acceptable term) were just swinging their dicks around. So all those bankers who insisted that the financial crash of a few short years ago was just a fluke, an aberration: was it really? or was it something much more animal? Is this a cultural problem in the financial sector and could it be corrected by watering down the testosterone?
What took me a few hundred words and Wolf of Wall Street a few hours to explain, Perry did with two visual images. The first is a work of contemporary ceramic art titled Object in Foreground. When asked to explain it, Perry said: “It’s a big cock.”
Well, yeah. It’s also adorned with bank notes, images of Londoners from the financial sector and conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. It reads quickly and easily. More than that, it uses humor to punch up. I’m reminded of an old Theodor Seuss Geisel cartoon that showed crowds of people laughing and thumbing their noses at a dictator. The caption underneath read: “As long as men can do this they will be free.” People in power, it seems, can’t abide a joke at their expense. It’s how Ai Weiwei runs gangbusters on every authoritarian who picks a fight with him. iNews wrote a little bit about the controversy (I guess I should call it a “row” since it’s the UK and all) surrounding the work:
One angry worker informed Perry the sculpture was “revolting”. Of course, one could counter, far more revolting is the boundless greed and recklessness that led to the deepest and longest financial recession since the Second World War. A more pertinent description would be “revealing”.
The macho culture and rampant sexism in the industry continues to go unchecked, despite protestations to the contrary. Seeing London’s hardened City workers, hardly known for their delicate sensibilities, react with such horror to Perry’s sculpture shows the artist has clearly touched a nerve.
Foreground… is a two-part message. It’s accompanied by a print called Animal Spirit which gives us Perry’s warning about trusting these jocks too much. In a way, it reads like a political cartoon, but that’s not a value judgment. We see a chimera-like beast looming over a barren countryside filled with oil derricks. The beast has horns, a ring through its nose, a whipping tail, enormous testicles and a scaly cock. There are carrion birds on its back. We see a cutaway into the beast’s organs, like the print is an old biological illustration. The organs are labeled with words like, “objective,” “serious,” “reasonable,” all things that are at odds with the nightmare that makes up the rest of the piece.
I assume most, not even many, financial workers don’t wake up each morning thinking that they’re going to rain hell down on the peasants. It’s far more likely that these guys have internalized those ideals, adding a veneer of ethics to what is otherwise a very dirty business. They’re objective, serious, reasonable. How could someone who is powered by those things possibly do anything wrong? And yet, it’s those very things that allow the beast to live, fucking and crushing everything that crosses its path.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this work of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.