In this week’s New Statesman: Grayson Perry Guest Edit

Introducing our special issue probing the problem of the Great White Male, guest-edited by Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry.

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THE GREAT WHITE MALE

A SPECIAL ISSUE GUEST-EDITED BY GRAYSON PERRY

10 OCTOBER 2014

The Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry turns anthropologist to tackle the straight, white, middle-class men who dominate our culture. This powerful and privileged “tribe” has been “hiding in plain sight”, Perry argues; will the Great White Male continue to dominate, or are his days numbered?

WITH

MARTIN AMIS ROWAN WILLIAMS STEPHEN FRY

MARGARET ATWOOD MARY BEARD A A GILL ROXANE GAY

MARTIN PARR ROBERT WEBB KATE FOX

ALAIN DE BOTTON BONNIE GREER CLIVE JAMES

ANDREW MARR DYLAN JONES SUZANNE MOORE

Highlights from the issue:

  • Martin Amis visits our guest editor’s studio to discuss art, violence, understanding women, and the end of men
  • The actor and comedian Robert Webb on boyhood angst and the myth of masculinity
  • A manifesto for the new man: advice from Stephen FryMary BeardRowan WilliamsMargaret AtwoodTony Parsons and many more
  • The anatomy of the Great White Male: Alain de Botton on the pain of being bald and A A Gill on the alchemy of the tailored suit
  • Suited and booted: Martin Parr’s photo chronicle of the Great White Male from Shrewsbury School to Miami Beach
  • In The Critics: Rowan Williams in praise of Marilynne Robinson’s novel LilaCristina Ruiz reports on cultural diplomacy and the political influence of museums; and Mark Lawson sees Ai Weiwei let loose at Blenheim Palace in the “most arresting exhibition of the year”
  • “My Latest Fever”: a new poem by Clive James

GRAYSON PERRY: THE END OF THE GREAT WHITE MALE

In an extended essay to introduce his special issue, Grayson Perry argues that “Default Man” (straight, white and middle class) represents a powerful and privileged “tribe” so entrenched in our society yet unexamined, that it is “like a Death Star hiding behind the moon”:

Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky. Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artefacts of a remarkable tribe. We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination. In the UK, its members probably make up about 10 per cent of the population; globally, probably less than 1 per cent. In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged. And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight. I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM. “The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man.

Perry believes, however, that the Great White Male’s days are numbered:

. . . a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenalin addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement . . .

Read the essay in full here

THE NS INTERVIEW: GRAYSON PERRY MEETS MARTIN AMIS

Our guest editor explores the theme of his essay further in an expansive conversation with Martin Amis. Amis tells an unconvinced Perry that he believes Default Man is “heading for a time of comparative wilderness” and is now at a disadvantage in many fields, including the arts.

The discussion, which takes place in Perry’s studio, ranges from the way men and women write, to ideas of masculinity, to militant Islam, religion and violence.

Amis and Perry on Default Man:

GP How do you think we can tease out the cultural and political and gender influence of Default Man? Because he is a minority.

MA Well, I don’t think he should be persecuted on that account.

GP He certainly punches well above his weight, demographically, because historically he’s been given all the opportunities.

MA I think he’s heading for a time of comparative wilderness, don’t you? It’s a great disadvantage to be Default Man now.

[. . .]

GP It’d be a fun gentleman’s club game to rally round stories of the persecution of Great White Males – but it doesn’t look like that from the outside. It looks like they still have a monopoly on power.

MA On power, yes, but in art, no.

On masculinity and violence:

GP [. . .] I’m so interested in masculinity as a subject, because often when I’m looking at the news, I think, “Young men. Next problem: young men. Next problem: young men” – and it’s all young men. And I’m kind of thinking, surely it’s a massive problem; surely that’s the central concern. In society, it’s the way that we bring up men that is wrong.

MA Yeah. I think I said years ago, facetiously, that all men should be locked up until the age of 30 and only then let out, cautiously, on probation. Young men equals violence and violence is the huge category error of human history. It so seldom solves anything. All that is achieved by violence melts away.

Amis on men, women and writing:

MA In the written arts, I think there is a difference between male and female writing [ . . .] I spent my teenage years in a house that had a male novelist and a female novelist in it [Kingsley Amis and his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard]. And the difference I saw in them, their approach to work, was indicative of a divide. My father was a grinder; he used to go to the study every morning after breakfast, no matter how hungover, loath, and he just sort of ground it out. I would hear him laughing to himself if things were going well. Jane used to go restlessly around the house and smoke in front of the window and do a bit of gardening – and then, at a certain point, she’d go into her study and you’d hear a mad clatter. And she would come out looking rather sort of bashful, having written more in an hour than my father.

ROBERT WEBB: HOW NOT TO BE A BOY

The actor and comedian Robert Webb recalls his boyhood admiration of “real men” and action heroes, and the pain of discovering that he would never measure up to a notional masculine ideal:

I was a hopelessly conventional boy. The trouble was, in the real world, fulfilling those conventions was something at which I was hopeless. I gave lousy “boy”.

I was a weed. Legs like sticks, arms like reeds, ribs like the notes of a toy xylophone made of twigs.

Webb takes comfort in sending a fatherly letter to his 18-year-old-self:

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit. We are people, individuals comprising a variety of sexes, races, shifting sexualities and all the rest of it. Every convention that tries to reinforce this difference is a step back . . . the whole thing is – at best – just a stupefying waste of everyone’s time.

A MANIFESTO FOR THE NEW MAN

We asked friends of the NS and public figures to respond to Grayson Perry’s essay with survival tips for the Great White Male. Mary BeardStephen Fry and Rowan Williams are among those who offer advice. Andrew Marr defends his “old git” cultural habits, however, and Matthew Parris and Tony Parsons insist that the GWM has no need to change.

Mary Beard

I’m afraid that the Great White Male will have to leave his future to luck – at least until we decide to slap a preservation order on him. I would like to think that he could save himself by getting in touch with his inner woman, his sensitive side. But I have seen too many blokes trying a superficial attempt at that while remaining completely alpha male underneath. My hunch is that the best he can hope for is to end up in a zoo, as an endangered species. Or maybe we simply have to remember that extinction is part of nature’s grand plan!

Rowan Williams

Two fairly obvious remarks. The first is that most men need to discover or rediscover friendship – not the semi-competitive jostling of colleagues, but conversation, shared leisure, exploration of the world without the edge of anxious rivalry or obsessions with power. The second has to do with the number of men who never step up to adult responsibility. At one end of the social spectrum, this is visible in the devastated lives of so many younger men in a lot of communities who have no hope of stable employment or economic security and often don’t know how to approach the prospect of stable relationships.

At the other end, it comes through in the infantilism of many driven and able professional men who can’t, or won’t, take responsibility for building and securing the human environment of workplace or home, creating an emotionally nourishing setting. There’s a need to work at how we create and support a framework of basic trust and affection or affirmation. Seeing this as everyone’s job in a household or community or workplace is imperative.

Stephen Fry

As a forlorn and confessed member of that rotten, mushroomy class of white, British, middle-class males, fit only to be kicked over like wormy toadstools, I find my only comfort is in being proudly different in having a Jewish mother and a gaily gay sexuality. Otherwise, who knows how much more ghastly I would be?

Matthew Parris

For heaven’s sake, Great White Males, stay there. Stay strong, stay white, stay straight, stay boring and stay plonked slap-bang in the middle of that big, fat bell curve. Otherwise, what have the rest of us got to stand out from? When all are different, nobody will be different.

Andrew Marr

Be brave and be kind and if the two collide, choose kindness. What else is there to say? Granted, it’s not applicable particularly to a dying class of old, straight, white, middle-class men; but if any human being asks how to stay relevant, it’s the only place to start.

More than that, it seems to me, it’s about knowing when to let go and when to clench tightly. The world will be a better-run and kinder place when there are more women in charge, so let go of all that. The crimes my class are attacked for are mostly failures of kindness – greed, selfishness, homophobia – and of imagination.

So, as we try to be kinder, we have to remember that almost everything we believe will be shaken, challenged and eventually overturned. It’s called being alive.

But, knowing that, there’s also a lot to hold on to stubbornly – the old git culture I was brought up with. No one’s going to take away my old git reading habits: Proust, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce. Or my old git music tastes: Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Wagner. Or my old git drinks: IPA and Talisker. Or, certainly, old git trousers: the gigantic ones with braces that look hilarious and feel alarmingly comfortable. Keep your hands off those.

Tony Parsons

What has the Great White Male ever done for us? Shakespeare and Dickens. Picasso and Matisse. Morrissey and Marr. Jagger and Richards. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the inventors of the new century. The men who stormed the beaches of Normandy. The warriors who protected us, the fathers who held us. Hemingway and Fitzgerald. John F Kennedy and John Cooper Clarke. Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas.

White men, eh? What a waste of space!

I am not convinced that the Great White Male desperately needs a new male manifesto – the past thousand years have gone quite well for us without one. Here’s to the next thousand years, man!

You can read the new man-ifesto online in full here

THE ANATOMY OF THE GREAT WHITE MALE

A A Gill and Alain de Botton were invited to consider two defining aspects of the species: the suit and baldness.

An encounter with a Savile Row-suited Ed Miliband causes Gill to reflect on the mystical powers of the Great White Male’s uniform of choice:

Suits are malevolent magicians’ sleeves for socialists, full of patrician loops and tricks, small, embroidered, cryptic messages of deference and privilege. They are ever the uniform of the enemy. They are also the greatest British invention ever. That’s not hyperbole or jingotastic boasting. It’s the plain, double-breasted truth. Nothing else that comes from this pathetically stunted island has had anything like the universal acceptance, reach or influence of the suit.

De Botton, meanwhile, ponders the “terrible poignancy” of the thinning pate – one of the few chinks in the Great White Male’s armour:

Going bald as a man is a matter for public ridicule. Men are not meant to be vain; therefore, if they lose their hair, any sign that they mind their new appearance is proof that they are not deserving of pity. There is no figure more absurd than the man who goes in for the combover. “Just shave it off” is the mantra – and examples of implausibly beautiful bald men are typically wheeled in to support it, as though one would inevitably look like Sean Connery just by the act of shaving.

Baldness has been spun by its supporters as synonymous with exaggerated potency (as if lust and extra doses of manhood had pushed all one’s follicles out), but the bald know that, far from having the vigour of a skinhead, they tend to look like nothing so much as a fragile librarian.

Plus

Kate Mossman meets Jón Gnarr, Icelandic cross-dresser, comic and ex-politician

Helen Lewis on “affordable” housing and how home ownership became a fetish

Sophie McBain meets Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government’s high representative to the UK

Caroline Crampton on why we should revisit Virginia Woolf’s lectures on women and fiction

Michael Brooks explores research hoping to find a cure to some of the most painful medical conditions