Grayson Perry at the Cambridge Union in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images
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Grayson Perry: “I joined the cadets. I loved running around with guns”

The NS Interview.

Your latest work is a series of tapestries that explore class and taste in modern Britain. Why tapestries?
Do you want the real reason, or the reason that sounds really good?

Both, please.
One reason is that I could put on a large exhi­bition relatively quickly. It would take me two years to fill this room with pots, whereas the drawings for the tapestries took me three months. But I also chose tapestries because they were the status symbols of the super-rich, and they tell the stories of big national dramas and battles. I thought it would be interesting to show more everyday drama on them.

You have a reputation for being one of the least pretentious contemporary artists.
Sometimes people are scared of the truth. They are scared that it’s like The Wizard of Oz: that if they told the truth it would pull the curtain back and you’d find out they were just this little person who was making it behind. Trying to justify yourself with false intellectualism is one of the most annoying habits artists have.

Have you ever thought that a piece of contemporary art is just rubbish?
Oh, yes, all the time. Once I was listening to Bill Viola on the radio, years ago, and he was talking about a piece and he said, “It’s about the human condition.” It might have been about the human condition, but that’s almost like calling something profound – you don’t do it. You let people come to that conclusion themselves. Show not tell, as they say.

Is there an element of “emperor’s new clothes” about some art?
Artists are remarkably good at being the weavers of the emperor’s new clothes as well as being the emperor. Sometimes they clothe themselves in this stuff but they don’t need to. Often the best artists are totally honest about why they make stuff.

What is the most important aspect of what you make?
Being amusing is one part of it. I want people to be seduced by the material and to enjoy the colour and the texture, almost like the possess­ibility of the object and the richness of it.

Is there such a thing as good taste?
Everybody has an idea of good taste and it’s shaped by the group they are in.

So it’s just conformism?
It depends, doesn’t it? Some people’s good taste is more conformist than others’, because in the art world good taste wouldn’t be conformist. Good taste in the art world is to be quite revolutionary and innovative.

So you’re conforming by not conforming?
Yes. And that’s something I slightly trade on, because I slightly mock artists for their desire for novelty the whole time.

Is that why you use traditional media such as tapestry and pottery?
I don’t innovate. I never break the boundary of a tradition. My tapestries are not unusual tapestries; they’re the right shape, the right size, they haven’t got things growing out of them. I’m interested in the content, not the form.

By cross-dressing from an early age were you rejecting convention?
There’s an element of that. I think that’s why gay people often find it easier to be alternative in their tastes, because they’ve already been forced out of the convention by their sexuality.

Do you ever suffer from impostor syndrome?
I used to have it terribly when I first had exhi­bitions. I remember waiting in the foyer of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for the curator to come and pick me up to start organising a show. I had this strong sense that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “There’s been a mistake.” Particularly if you come from a working-class background, you have low expectations of yourself.

Your wife is a psychotherapist. Has that informed your art?
Hugely. I did therapy for six years.

How did that change how you work?
I describe it as somebody clearing up your tool shed – suddenly I had access to my whole personality.

Did you once say that you could have been a serial killer if you hadn’t become an artist?
Yes. I was quite an angry young man. I joined the cadets; I loved it. I loved all that running around with guns. I can understand how people end up like that. But of course I went to art school, so it was fine.

Is there anything you’d like to forget?
I can’t remember.

Are we all doomed?
Yes, we are, because human beings aren’t capable of acting in a cohesive way to solve something that they can’t see in front of their faces. Global warming and all that sort of stuff – it’s too abstract, isn’t it?

Defining Moments

1960 Born in Chelmsford, Essex. Starts cross-dressing at an early age
1982 BA, fine art, Portsmouth Polytechnic
1983 Moves to London and takes pottery lessons at Central Institute
2003 Wins Turner Prize – first time it has gone to a ceramicist
2005 Presents Channel 4 documentary on men who wear women’s clothes
2009 Thames & Hudson publishes Jacky Klein’s anthology of his work

 

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr