There’s a big ‘no man’s land’ in British masculinity. In ‘Grayson Perry: All Man,’ the acclaimed artist treads some of that vast area, to meet men and create artwork that reflects their identity. He journeys alongside the communities of a mining town in County Durham, a housing estate in Preston and the financial City of London. The conclusion in the third and final episode seems somewhat inevitable: ‘Men need to look to the future, like feminists have been doing for decades’.
Rewind to the start and the series opens with timeless image, as Perry stands ringside at a cage fight. Moments later the violence Alex shows as a fighter is replaced by his martyrdom image, wrapped up in a towelling sarcophagus to sweat out the pounds ahead of a weigh in. Perry observes, learns and eases himself into the ritual and continues with the same sensitivity for the places and people he meets throughout the show.
|Grayson Perry talking to cage fighters|
It’s the self-realisation on camera that makes for an intriguing watch. The first two episodes focus on areas that show the male identity is in crisis: suicide and crime. He meets Thelma, whose son Daniel died from suicide aged 30. ‘Sometimes I think men don’t even know when they are sad’ comments Perry, a sentiment echoed by Daniel’s friends in the pub. Seeing their response and gratitude for the ceramic pot Perry made, inspired by Daniel and the community, is a joy to watch as creator and subject share the art together.
Yet it was the final episode, following men of the City that most captivated me. It started on the traditional noisy trading floor of London Metal Exchange, before showing a more modern City at work. The transactions, trading and technology are quicker, and the buildings shinier but the aggressive male identity hadn’t changed. As one ex-wife said, the ‘sensitive masculinity’ of the City men today was just a slick veil over the same power and aggression.
|‘Object in Foreground’ (2016) by Grayson Perry|
This led Perry to create the most controversial work of the series: a giant ceramic cock. And the bankers didn’t like it. While the mining and estate communities engaged with the art created for them, and used it to reflect and open themselves up for exploration, the City workers rejected it and defended themselves. ‘You haven’t been derailed from what you wanted to see’ said one. ‘That’s because I haven’t been derailed’ replied Perry. Perhaps there isn’t the same male crisis in the City. But the continued inequality of financial growth shows something’s not right.
No other artist could front such a beautifully shot documentary, and it’s given me a taste to watch Perry’s previous series for Channel 4. The portraits created doesn’t speak for every man, and the overarching generalisation of male aggression and one-upmanship didn’t resonate with me. But the need to look to the future, to see the old communities and old masculinity aren’t totally working now, is a message for everyone to answer.
You can watch all three episodes on All4.