A discussion of taste and shame in fashion in relation to the perception of the feminine-grotesque in Richard Billingham’s work.
In Ray’s a Laugh, Billingham’s mother, Liz, serves as a visual representation of many white working-class women. The working class materialised as a social label through middle-class interpretations, conceived by their desire to maintain social hierarchies. These middle-class ideas often dictate the criteria of femininity and the ways in which it is seen as acceptable, and respectable, to appear and behave as a woman. It is a habit of the middle-class to judge everyone by these set standards, and in many cases, this can leave working-class women ostracised.
Disconcertingly, femininity is as inconsistently fluid as it is specific and rigidly defined. These ideas are enabled by the ‘classing gaze’, a term defined by Finch (2007), in that it is strictly ruled by middle-class expectations and limitations. So-called acceptable femininity is heavily characterised by exclusivity, which is determined and impacted by class status. Working-class women are subject to intersections of sexist and classist oppression.
In order to fit in with society’s ideology, people will often adopt the characteristics of their expected gender role. This can include typically feminine presentations of women, and those that do not conform are viewed as deviant – an epitome of the feminine-grotesque.
The figure of the female grotesque is a woman who is valued as less than, due to a lack of conventional femininity. In Richard Billingham’s photographic work, his mother, Liz disrupts the status quo of feminine ideals without intentionally protesting patriarchal standards; she is a symbol of the deviant feminist. To be insufficiently feminine is deemed as a failure on her part, to ‘look after herself’ or present as acceptably sexualised…of course without pushing over the invisible expectational barriers of then becoming a slut…
Cultural politics refer to the manner in which culture – including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts – shape society and general political opinion, and give agency to social, economic and legal realities.
Many critics’ opinions on the class status of the Billingham family are influenced by the evident material culture e.g. the objects they own, how they dress, the décor in their house etc. and the connotations associated with these items. However, Liz’s identity is further invaded upon, as all kinds of assumptions have been made about her purely due to her chosen presentation of femininity. Liz’s persona is almost solely defined by critics due to her appearance. On regular occasion, unpleasant and insulting assumptions are made about Liz without due evidence. This occurs in Haughey’s review of the series as he describes Liz’s “heavily tattooed arms ready to thump her husband” (n.d.). He brashly claims that “violence is evident” (Haughey, n.d.).
Hatherley’s essay A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque in the photographs of Richard Billingham, perfectly defines femininity as “a concept formed by structures of class difference: to be ‘feminine’ is to fit into an idealised higher-class position. Working-class women, without the financial or cultural capital to successfully perform femininity, are regularly cast down into the realms of the grotesque” (Hatherley, 2018).
This writer takes an ethnographic approach in exploring a rare feminist narrative within the series Ray’s a Laugh; this reading of the work opposes much of the classist and misogynistic writing surrounding the imagery. The author focuses on Liz and the effect of her rejection of a class-passing feminine aspiration in terms of her appearance. The author questions femininity itself, by challenging the typically classist, negative attitudes towards working-class women. Hatherley describes the cultural material depicted in the imagery including Liz’s bright dress, her colourful tattoos, kitsch décor and velveteen sofas, all of which she had only ever previously witnessed in other working-class households.
Hatherley admires that Liz made no attempt to pass as middle-class, as her dress does not connote style or wealth to audiences. However, as with Liz’s ornaments, this does not mean that it lacks the potential to be visually beautiful, which is the conclusion that many critics jump straight to, as they describe the dress as shapeless, drab, tacky and hideous. However the garment has an exciting floral design in bright colours which indicate a fun and adventurous persona. But this is unimportant to those critics, purely because the dress reads as poor.
Through dismissal of Liz’s taste in fashion we are missing out on the pleasure, imagination and creativity that could be explored. The value in working-class taste is cast aside in order to shame Liz for not adhering to bourgeois-defined standards. Despite the classism, misogyny and body shaming that Liz was subject to, her ability to reject femininity does still rest on white-privilege, as a working-class woman of colour in the same position would be met with the added stigmatisation of racism.
Hatherley’s concept of the rejection of the typically enforced feminine aesthetic is empowering and rebellious. Many critics reduce the imagery of Liz to descriptors such as ‘loud’ and ‘tacky’, but there is beauty in these images, and joy from Liz’s enthusiasm in pairing colours, textures and patterns in her fashion and home decor. Unfortunately, “this aspect of meaning is overlooked by reviewers in favour of classist stereotypes of fat working-class femininity that fall in line with narratives of lack of control, tastelessness and excessiveness: her body, her dress, her home does not fit within bourgeois notions of feminine discreetness” (ibid).
These critiques of Liz are problematic because they become moral deciders of who deserves respect. The societal enforcement of femininity as a normative value is maintained so that any deviation from this can be used to punish and nudge us back into line. Liz has consciously assembled her look and taken time and enjoyment in creating bright and fun outfits, only to be perceived as monstrous, shocking and grotesque by voyueristic middle-class onlookers.
This vilification of working-class women due to dress is produced through visible disgust reactions. Most of the language used by critics to describe Liz, merely invalidates her, and undermines her as an individual, because it is all based on her appearance which is deemed inadequate.
It is evident that, as a woman, Billingham’s mother is heavily criticised, based solely upon her physical appearance. Liz is met with disgust reactions and she is not respected due to falling outside of middle-class standards for femininity. In many reviews of the work, this has resulted in the general reception of Billingham’s family being that of distaste due to their class status. This is as opposed to the understanding and empathy required to understand the imagery, which would lead to a deeper personal investigation into the work itself and the knowledge that could be gained through understanding Liz’s creativity.
Davis, F., 1992. Fashion, culture, and identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Finch, J. (2007). ‘Displaying Families’. Sociology, 41(1), pp.65-81.
Hatherley, F. (2018). A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque in the photographs of Richard Billingham. European Journal of Women’s Studies, [online] pp.1-16. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1350506818764766 [Accessed 11 Oct 2018].
Full original text below
Class and Gender in Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh
By Érin Hanlon
A Dissertation submitted to:
The University of Brighton
BA (Hons) Photography
|1. Discussion of class formation and class-consciousness relating to Billingham’s work|
|2.a. Discussion of prejudiced and problematic reviews of Billingham’s work|
|2.b. Discussion of politically progressive reviews of Billingham’s work|
|3. Discussion of Liz’s alternative femininity in relation to the feminine grotesque|
Richard Billingham’s photographic series Ray’s a Laugh (2000) has been a popular subject within art criticism since the imagery’s public exhibition in the 1990s. Billingham’s photography depicts his working-class family member’s everyday lives within their home; particularly focusing on his parents, Ray and Liz.
Once this work arrived within the context of the art world, many critics appropriated the intention of the imagery and authored prejudiced texts. These reviews harshly critiqued working-class people, based upon their presentation of wealth, and the levels of taste those authors perceive from their lifestyles. This style of writing is very common amongst journalistic articles.
However, there are a smaller number of academic articles that present far more politically progressive accounts of Billingham’s work. These texts tend to be written by members of the working class and are more thoroughly and appropriately researched.
The artist’s mother, Liz, receives heavy criticism from many writers, due to her lack of traditional femininity. As a working-class woman, she is subject to intersections of classist and sexist oppression.
This dissertation seeks to explore various artistic critic’s interpretations of the photographic series Ray’s a Laugh (2000) by Richard Billingham. The investigation will bring together critiques of Billingham’s work involving the subject of class, some of which are prejudiced or problematic accounts, and others which are politically progressive. The discussion will aim to conclude upon whether there are enough positive reviews of the work and if this influences the general reception of the politically powerful and emotionally charged series of photographs. There will also be focus upon Billingham’s depiction of his mother and the ways in which her identity is received; this will call for research into notions of the feminine grotesque, in correspondence with British attitudes towards working class women.
In addition to photographic knowledge and research, this analysis of Billingham’s work will require historical sociological investigation into the formation of class, class consciousness and the psychology of class identity. Further to this, the investigation of Billingham’s depictions of his mother will entail research into the idea of femininity, identity and representation.
This essay will examine the manner in which some readings of Billingham’s work function in oppressive ways, that demonise working class people and the council housed population of the UK. The research will take into account the historical background of the development of the British Working Class, as it evolved over the 20th century, prior to the creation of Ray’s A Laugh in the 1990s. This time frame witnessed a widely influential change in the political context of the country, as the transition from Thatcherism to a Labour Party Government was taking effect. This switch from a conservative political climate to a left-wing one undoubtedly affected the lives of the working class, including Richard Billingham’s family and their circumstances.
The text will uncover the prejudices behind certain upper-middle class critiques of Ray’s a Laugh, which highlight distaste towards a representation of the working class that has been brought into the realm of art and art criticism. The approach of many critics is tainted by the bourgeois gaze and a voyeuristic attitude towards Billingham’s work, which they may view as a form of reality television culture. Viewers and writers have endowed Ray’s a Laugh with social relevance and political weight, despite the fact that Billingham himself stated “it’s not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political” (Billingham cited in Rickard, 2010).
Many critics have re-appropriated Billingham’s work and perpetuate their own interpretations of the lives of the less privileged. The upper-middle class critics’ unwarranted abilities to shout louder, so to speak, than others, has resulted in the most commonly spread readings of Ray’s a Laugh not necessarily being the most positive and progressive, in terms of attitudes toward the British working class. This will require discussions on the concept of otherness.
To counter this, certain interpretations of Billingham’s work are far more empathetic to the artist’s lived experiences and are not as demeaning as the aforementioned critiques. Many of these readings come from members of the working class. These interpretations are more sensitive in regards to Billingham’s depictions of his everyday family life.
The discourse surrounding the imagery of Billingham’s mother, Liz will explore the ways in which different viewers may perceive her identity. This will take into account the vast number of appearance-based assumptions that have been made about her family values and competency as a mother, based largely upon her chosen presentation of femininity. The investigation into Liz’s defiance to outwardly present in many traditionally feminine manners, as expected by the middle class, will require research into the feminine grotesque, as discussed by Frances Hatherley.
1. Discussion of class formation over the 20th Century, class identity and consciousness, in relation to Billingham’s circumstances and depictions of this in his work.
Firstly, it is important to outline a history of the formation of class in Britain, taking particular focus on the class consciousness and identities of working-class people and their circumstances, in order to understand how this came to influence both the creation of Billingham’s work and the work’s reception from viewers and critics.
The Making of the English Working Class by Edward Thompson provides information on British social history following the Industrial Revolution, and the events that lead to significant class division in the UK. This book informs us that the formation of class was an active process, and there are notable differences between using the terminology working class, as opposed to working classes. The latter is a more loose and descriptive term, which is not as useful to an in-depth critique of the functions and effects of class systems. In contrast to this, the term working class allows a discussion to evolve around the historical phenomenon that class is merely a manner in which we are socialised, and it is constructed by society itself.
Similarly to religion and politics, class is not physically real, however the consequences and effects of such systems have very real impacts on people’s lives. These systems benefit some people with privilege, whilst others are disadvantaged as a result. Within the subject of social constructionism, Ralf Dahrendorf tells us that “class membership is derived from the incumbency of a social role” (1959), this occurs due to the fact that “classes are based on the differences in legitimate power associated with certain positions, i.e. on the structure of social roles with respect to their authority expectations…an individual becomes a member of a class by playing a role relevant from the point of view of authority” (ibid). Therefore holding a set place in this social organisation, in turn, permits you a class label.
Suzanne Keller reviewed Dahrendorf’s book and added the integral information that, the role of a social class functions in a dynamic manner in a capitalist society, and this must not be disregarded. Whilst authority is a large factor, the role of class positions in industrial societies are influenced by economic means of individuals and groups of people. This is backed up by David Harvey who notes that “Marx considered the concept of capital foundational for modern economics as well as for the critical understanding of bourgeois society” (Harvey, 2017: 8). To ignore this factor of capital, may lead to the “crystallisation of privilege or of deprivation along class lines. (Keller, 1960: 277).
This means that class is less of a structure or a category but is more accurately “something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships” (Thompson, 1963: 8). In addition, it is said, “the finest meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class” (ibid). This indicates that class is a complex idea that exists only due to civilised society and the ways in which people interact with one another; it is not possible to pinpoint class with certainty. It is infeasible to stop at any given moment and attempt to fully analyse the total workings of class. Social constructionism assumes that people create their understandings of the world and the meanings they give to socialisation, also it “assumes that they do this jointly, in coordination with others, rather than individually” (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2016). The relationship between class and history is a deeply complex sociological dependency.
Class consciousness is related to class struggle, and refers to self-understanding beliefs held by people about their own status, due to their class status or economic rank in society. This term was explored in depth by Karl Marx, who believed that the working class needed to develop class consciousness, in order to spark a revolution in the system that could potentially take down capitalism. Marx utilised the example of two hostile classes – the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, to illustrate his theories on class that the “oppressors and oppressed have always stood in direct opposition to each other” (Marx and Engels, 1886).
He argued that this struggle will be continuous until either a revolution in the structure of society occurs or the conflicting classes are deconstructed. Hindess reinforces this with the point that those in power “typically seek to exploit the resources that they can command in order to preserve their superiority” (1987: 3) and would not give up these positions of power without conflict. Marx recognised that the proletariat, being the lower class, created wealth for the bourgeoisie; the capitalists that exploited this. This model gives us an insight into how the upper classes remain in power and the lower classes continue to struggle due to inequities in power distribution. Marx also noted that this has occurred in almost every historical epoch imaginable – society becomes divided into different classes or castes and this distinction leads to great power for one group of people who profit from the exploitation of another.
David Harvey analysed Marxism and concluded that it is in some ways, more relevant now than at the time it was theorised; what was a “dominant economic system in only a small corner of the world now blankets the earth with astonishing implications and results” (Harvey, 2017: 8). The existence of economics as a concept was a far more open debate in Karl Marx’s time, but it has grown into a legitimate area of study, seen as a true science, for understanding the world we live in and the manner in which society functions.
The most relevant time period to explore in relation to Richard Billingham’s work is the political economy and class struggles from the 1980s until the present day. The early 1980s witnessed an economic recession in Britain that resulted in high levels of unemployment. This loss of jobs affected 10% of the British population, according to Government statistics the number of “unemployed people in the UK peaked in 1986, at just over three million” (Hicks and Allen, 1999: 24). Manufacturing was hit hard by this deficit and many typically working-class jobs such as labourers or factory operator positions were lost, this resulted in a loss of capital, meaning that poverty amongst the working class was elevated.
A classical liberal analysis of class shares a respect for liberty and equality with Marxism, but differs in that it “is fundamentally a worldview based around values and idealism, with an emphasis on understanding political, economic and social phenomena from an individualist perspective” (Ahluwalia, 2018). This means “issues in society are often given disjointed solutions that focus on individual behaviour. As an idealist worldview, liberalism sees ideals like liberty and equality as things to strive toward” (ibid). In contrast to this Marxism is based on a materialistic worldview “with a systemic approach to understanding political, social and economic phenomena. This means that issues in society are understood in their relation to the structure of society, and proposed solutions take systemic issues into account” (ibid).
As a result of the theories differences in methodology, “Marxism understands the issues of capitalism to be structural in nature and accordingly advocates for systemic change” (ibid). Marxism strives to be scientific; whereas Liberalism “might not be concerned with structural issues because their worldview prevents them from readily identifying any structural issues with capitalism” (ibid), therefore on occasion potential reforms “treat symptoms rather than underlying causes and sometimes create new issues of their own” (ibid).
Wright informs us that “Marxist tradition is a valuable and interesting body of ideas because it successfully identifies real mechanisms that matter for a wide range of important problems, but it does not constitute a fullblown “paradigm” capable of comprehensively explaining all things social or subsuming all social mechanisms under a unified framework” (2015). This means that Marxism can be utilised as a tool to understand certain aspects of class, without the concept enveloping every social construct, and diluting the core ideas that are being broken down. Although, Hall argues that Marxism’s faults lie in the fact that the theory’s central questions themselves, came from a point of privilege as Marxism “reflected the general isolation of Western European Marxist intellectuals from the imperatives of mass political struggle” (1986: 28). However, Wright elaborates on his point that “pragmatist realism does not imply simply dissolving Marxism into some amorphous “sociology” or social science. Marxism remains distinctive in organising its agenda around a set of fundamental questions and problems which other theoretical traditions either ignore or marginalise” (2015).
Marxism is “distinctive in its normative commitments to class emancipation” (ibid) as well as “identifying a specific set of interconnected casual processes relevant to those questions and emancipatory ideals” (ibid). Many approaches to class discussion are relevant to a capitalist society in order to comprehend the full extent of economic inequality and its consequences, but in considering “how non-Marxist ideas relate to what the author calls the Marxist tradition” (Lane, 2017: 432), it can be understood that “class is ‘a salient causal structure’” (ibid). This analysis allows for the exposure of capitalism’s “harms and contradictions, and the possibilities of its transformation” (Wright, 2015).
In the early 1980s, controversial Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was in power and re-elected by a landslide in 1983. This election benefited the Conservatives with doubts on the Labour party’s competence with the economy as well as defence during the Falkland’s war. Thatcher’s government began radical privatisation and deregulation in the country, as well as a trade union reform and tax cuts. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher was elected for a third term, however much of the British public opposed her policies and believed that she divided society, as “millions are excluded from societies benefits and they now amount to an underclass” (Kaufman cited in Mann, 1992: 1).
This notion was backed up by the judgement that “Thatcher has created an alienated underclass who take out their resentment in crime and vandalism” (Mann, 1992: 1). This means that much of the cementation of the working class as an underclass was blamed on Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative policies that afforded privilege to the middle class, as “intra-class divisions may be reinforced at legislation, if they are economically or politically advantageous to capital” (Mann, 1992: 3).
The result of Labour’s loss and the ongoing nature of Thatcherism “was increased sectional divisions, the fragmentation of the common working-class way of life, and an atmosphere that hindered unified class action and threatened the solidarity of the labour movement as a whole” (Dworkin, 2007: 115). In The Making of an English Underclass, Kirk Mann notes “Murray’s version of the underclass…takes the marital status of a child’s mother, violent crime and voluntary unemployment as the definitive indicators” (Mann, 1992: 106). These are factors which could be explored in relation to Billingham’s life and how he would be affected by judgement as a result of these. Some critics such as Anthony Haughey, interpret Billingham’s work as violent imagery, as well as being heavily critical of Billingham’s mother.
Margaret Thatcher, who was widely perceived as distant and domineering, resigned in 1990 and John Major took over as British Prime Minister. This continued the Conservative government in the UK until the 1997 election, which brought Tony Blair and the Labour Party into power. Blair was re-elected in 2001 and again for a third term in 2005. The Labour Party remained in power until 2010, when the Conservative party came back into office, continuing until the present day. This switch from the highly influential and change-inducing Conservative power of Thatcherism to the Labour Party election in the 1990s will have affected Billingham’s family circumstances significantly, and subsequently had an impact on the photographic work he created at the time.
In New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques predicted that upon entering the 1990s “Britain will be a capitalist society, riven with enormous inequalities in income, wealth and power” (1989: 23). They hypothesised that the Left’s agenda should revolve around the twin themes of renewing confidence “that collective social action is accountable to, and designed to fulfil, individual needs” (1989: 138) and to “renegotiate the contract between those who finance collective services, those who provide them, and those who consume them” (ibid). Classes are regarded as important in relation to politics as they are seen as “major social forces that arise out of fundamental structural features of society and they are supposed to have significant and wide-ranging social and political consequences” (Hindess, 1987: 1). Evans and Tilley’s A New Politics of Class informs readers that despite the shrinkage of the working class over many decades of the 20th Century, the social inequalities are actually growing.
For the duration of Billingham’s childhood and adolescence, his father Ray, was suffering with alcoholism and Billingham’s family including his mother and brother, endured the consequences of this addiction. Ray’s alcoholism worsened following his redundancy from his job as a factory worker. As a result, Billingham’s parents’ finances spiralled out of control and they were forced to move from their terraced house, to a council flat in Cradley Heath, Birmingham.
The number of council rented properties has not changed significantly from 1999, when legislation put in place throughout the 1980s and 1990s meant that “market forces largely determined housing trends” (Hicks and Allen, 1999: 12), at this time it was 18% of homes in the country, compared to the present day at 17%. This indicates that the demand for social housing in the UK has not significantly decreased over this period, despite the shrinkage of the working class. However there has been a noticeable drop in occupied subsidised housing since the early 1980s, suggesting that the turnover from Conservatism to Labourism in the 1990s may have accounted for this. Although, it is arguable that this occurred due to the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme, and the reason for this change is actually that there is less available subsidised accommodation for people in need of housing, because “currently there are 1.2 million households on waiting lists for social housing” (National Audit Office, 2017).
In Britain Divided, Alan Walker and Carol Walker argue that The Conservative party left behind a huge amount of poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, due to engineered mass unemployment that “targeted the most vulnerable and politically expendable” (1997). This book provides information that “Britain leads Western Europe in its poverty” (ibid) as “a quarter of households existed on less than half of the national average income, after housing costs, in the early 1990s” (ibid). Child support payments were only equalling just over half the estimated cost of raising a child at that time. The writers add “this poverty is dynamic, but largely untouched by wealth trickling down from above. Employment can abolish it, but many who can find only low paid work will relapse” (ibid).
This institutionalised poverty was not largely solved by the Labour party as “policies against poverty proposed by politicians are superficial, while the problems are complex, profound, and entrenched” (ibid). This is unhelpful because “the causes of poverty are overwhelmingly structural, yet solutions are still seen in individual terms” (ibid). According to a paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies “the position of low-income families with children in the income distribution improved considerably in the late 1990s and early 2000s, recovering much – though not all – of the ground that they had lost on the rest of the population during the 1980s” (Joyce, 2014: 3). During the 1990s, Billingham’s family fell into this bracket of a low-income working-class household.
2.a. Discussion of prejudiced and problematic reviews of Billingham’s work, in relation to their discussions of class, including ideas on representation, taste and shame.
Richard Billingham’s status as a member of the working class, and the imagery of his family’s low-income, council housed lifestyle has attracted critiques of varying agency. Some of these critiques show tones of negative middle-class attitudes towards the working class; influenced by their often-prejudiced preconceived image of poverty, which they may view as being confirmed in Billingham’s work. On the other hand, there are a number of politically progressive accounts of Billingham’s photography in terms of the ways the author addresses the subject of class within the imagery.
The book Looking at Class: Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain edited by Sheila Rowbotham and Huw Beynon, details a study conducted into the depictions of working-class people in various media formats over a number of decades in the 20th Century. This investigation concentrated primarily on uncovering the motivations including personal, cultural and political influences, behind filmmakers taking an interest in creating material about the working class. The study begins looking at the 1950s and 1960s and progresses to exploring the late 1990s, around the time Billingham’s work was created. It is noted “almost every portrayal of working class people in the story-film is either as creatures of fun, Cockney half-wits, or as dishonest rogues, tramps and pick-pockets” (Rotha cited in Rowbotham and Beynon, 1936: 2). These elitist film institutions failed to portray diversity of character within the working class. The study uncovers that the work made in the 1950s and 1960s centred around anger, and a sense that society was on the verge of a change for the better. In contrast to this, the material created in the late 1990s was far more pessimistic as “they portray a world of disintegration where characters survive against the odds through humour or a desperate tenacity of spirit” (Rowbotham and Beynon, 2001: 2).
Voyeuristic interest in the lives of the working class hit a high in the 1990s, around the same time that the popularity of reality television culture emerged. This satisfied the needs of the middle-class to pry into a world of otherness from their own, and to cast judgement on the lives of working-class people. Billingham’s imagery feeds the voyeuristic appetites of the bourgeois gaze for many middle-class viewers that have not looked beyond the surface of the imagery. The artist notes “there are very few people…that get beyond the subject matter and can identify the artist’s intention” (Billingham cited in Corby, 2008) as “they just like to look at my mum’s tattoos or the stains on the wallpaper or the dirty floor” (ibid).
One such account of the work immediately negatively labels the main subjects as the “alcoholic father” (Caplan, 2010) and “obese mother” (ibid). This journalistic critique written for Time Out, was authored by Nina Caplan in 2010, when a curated collection of Billingham’s work was being shown at the Reynolds Gallery. The writer thoughtlessly compares the imagery in Ray’s a Laugh to Billingham’s later series Zoo.
She characterises Billingham’s family members as “inmates of that council flat” (ibid), yet the animals in the zoo are categorised as “inhabitants” (ibid) of their environment. A more animalistic term has been used for the people than the creatures in the zoo. The carelessly selected term refers to entrapment, which is more closely connected with a zoo than a home. Caplan states that the work Zoo does not “sit oddly with the images of family life that surround them” (ibid), in fact she believes they work together and have similar themes, as she describes Billingham’s work involving his family as “feral” (ibid), furthering the connotations with animals.
Caplan consolidates this association with wild beasts, when she notes that the all of Billingham’s photography creates “the sense that there is no escape, for men any more than polar bears or wildcats” (ibid). By interpreting imagery of people living in an elaborately and vibrantly decorated council flat, embarking on ordinary everyday activities, as animalistic, Caplan displays her true distaste towards working-class lifestyles. Caplan’s writing uses any signifiers of a working-class life to convey her total distaste towards the Billingham’s family’s circumstances.
There are many visual signifiers of a working-class household within the imagery, one being the ornaments on the walls (fig. 1) which are received by critics as “cheap chachkies” (juxtapoz.com, 2014). These collectable trinkets may be read as cheap due to the abundance of them, and their failure to coherently correspond with any planned designs in the interior space. When ignoring Liz’s creativity and love of vibrancy, this is read as poor as it would not require a middle-class income to put this arrangement together. The stains visible on the wallpaper in the background (fig. 1) is again perceived as a signifier of a low-income family because it is outside the realms of middle class taste and respectability.
Though it was likely due to necessity, in an almost cyclical manner, as Billingham depicted scenes that were to be perceived as cheap, he consciously “chose to shoot the images on the cheapest film he could find” (ibid). Billingham very successfully created photographs that are raw and confrontational in their presentation of honest reality; his use of a strong flash and imposing angles “add to the rawness and candidness” (ibid) of the photographs.
An article posted on an online art review blog, Camera Historica invalidates Billingham’s mother and father’s presences as individuals. The article states “isolating Ray and Liz as individual characters presents a difficulty as they almost become caricatures of their environment” (Camera Historica, 2015). This article directly references class as the author uses rather intolerant language to describe Ray as one of many “despondent individuals who are identifiable as a member of ‘the underclass’” (ibid).
This article shows very little empathy with people of the British working-class, as the writer presumes that the images leave “a sickly unease in the eye of the onlooker, like a bad taste” (ibid). This is quite an extreme interpretation of the work that is written from a very voyeuristic viewpoint, in which the writer has not even attempted to look beneath the surface of the imagery before making a judgement. The author continuously mentions the link between Ray’s a Laugh and the idea of a family photo album, as they go on to state that the work creates “some notion of familiarity” (ibid) and “the expectation is one of comfort, the domestic setting mundane and ordinary” (ibid). This could signify that the author has a difficult time associating their own family life with Billingham’s depictions of his ordinary, and this exposes the writer’s feelings of separation from the working class as they view these people as other.
The notion of being other is related to the concept of self; labelling subordinate groups as other stigmatises the idea of being different. Sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos tells us “the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power” (Zevallos, 2011). Class is a part of a person’s social identity which individuals or groups internalise as a societal category for which they fall under. The “ideas of similarity and difference are central to the way in which we achieve a sense of identity and social belonging” (ibid) and dichotomies of otherness are deeply embedded in society and strongly affect the flow of social interaction between individuals and groups of people.
These systems allow certain groups hierarchy of status, resulting in power over others. Andrew Okolie adds “identity has little meaning without the “other”” (2003: 2). This is because of the implications of power involved, meaning that the groups do not have equal abilities to “define both self and the other” (ibid), ergo “the consequences reflect these power differentials” (ibid). Stuart Hall’s book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices informs readers that otherness is a compelling and popular subject matter within art, and he supports the argument “that visual representations of otherness hold special cultural authority” (Zevallos, 2011).
Accounts of this nature provide space for “a middle-class view of the irredeemable, changeless, undialectical everyday of a degraded working-class world” (Dave, 2006: 131). Paul Dave tells us that Billingham’s representation of the everyday creates an exotic spectacle of the ‘underclass’ for many writers that critique Ray’s a Laugh in a problematic manner in relation to class. Julian Stallabrass perceives the subjects of Billingham’s work as members of a “lumpen underclass” (Stallabrass cited in Dave, 2006: 131) that “subsist on welfare and home brew” (ibid).
Stallabrass furthers these presumptions with the sentiment that the family are an example of “violence and degradation” and seem to be “without the possibility of change” (ibid). Stallabrass claims that “there is an implied snobbery in this line of appreciation” (Stallabrass, 1999: 252), as the “status of the artist (and of the gallery-going public) ensures distance” (ibid) between the subjects and the viewers. This writer elaborates on this point as they note the use of material culture and the recurring depiction of objects, functioning as class signifiers to viewers, that are associated with “the urban environment, which are made to speak in place of people” (ibid). This transposition is thought of as a class issue as it signifies the “way of life of an unreconstructed working class” (ibid).
Michael Tarantino’s book Richard Billingham provides an essay reviewing the series Ray’s a Laugh. Paul Dave’s critique of the writer tells us that Tarantino’s account centres on respectability; concerning how groups of people living in poverty manage to maintain their perceived decency and respectability, this separates those people from the ‘underclass’. This reflects the ways in which “the New Right has relentlessly politicised poverty” (Dave, 2006, 131). Tarantino sets up a distinction between a poverty of surroundings and a poverty of life, claiming that Billingham’s work depicts the former yet avoids the latter.
Paul Dave labels Tarantino’s work as problematic due to his “limited conception of the political in terms of a ‘liberal justification or a plea for understanding’” (ibid). Dave writes, “the defensiveness of this argument is in itself a capitulation to well-established reactionary positions on poverty” (ibid). Tarantino comments that Ray’s a Laugh, as well as the 1998 television film produced around the same theme Fishtank, are ways “of documenting three lives (four if we count Richard), a way that is both intimate and distanced” (Tarantino, 2000: 87). Tarantino highlights the intentions of the photographer, who stated that his family are not shocked by the imagery’s direct nature as they are “all well-enough acquainted with having to live in poverty” (Billingham cited in Tarantino, 2000: 87). Billingham goes on to point out that “there are millions of other people in Britain living similarly” (ibid).
Tarantino utilises Billingham’s dismissal of political associations with the work, to his own advantage, as he claimed it was not his intention to “sensationalise, be political” (Billingham cited in Rickard, 2010). However, as an outsider it is more problematic for Tarantino to diminish the lived experiences of the working class, down to people that “just seem to get on with it” (Tarantino, 2000: 87) as he continuously inaccurately denies evidence of poverty in the Billingham family’s lives.
In the run up to the release of Richard Billingham’s feature film in 2018 entitled Ray and Liz, Tim Adams reviewed Billingham’s work for the Guardian, immediately labelling the subjects as having lived a “dreary, drunken existence” (Adams, 2016), as Billingham captured the “squalid realism” (ibid) of the environment. This writer does however point out that the work functions as “a study of the depiction of poverty in British culture and the ethics of intrusion” (ibid). In the 1970s and 1980s “the fracturing of the working class and the rise of a marginalised urban poor does much to explain why there is so little positive, non-sensationalist work…that engages with class” (Stallabrass, 1999: 253). In many ways it is problematic to critique the work of Richard Billingham when commenting from a stance influenced by the bourgeois gaze and middle class values. Elizabeth Ho writes, “the Billingham family, along with their pets, their tattoos, their décor and their sedentary and often inebriated lifestyle, was regarded by some critics as the embodiment of the “underclass” habitus entrenched with Thatcherism” (2010, emphasis added).
Public interest in the imagery is fuelled by a widespread voyeuristic curiosity surrounding poverty, and the photographs contained “a double trope of both shame and shamelessness, a complex which may throw light on the continuing centrality of the “underclass” in British media culture” (ibid). This is evident within reality television programmes popular in the present day such as Benefits Street, which follows the real life of the actor who has portrayed Liz in Billingham’s current film. Similarly to politically prejudiced accounts of Billingham’s imagery, these emblems of domesticity amongst the working class are often translated into a “problematic articulation in many political discourses” (ibid); they reinforce many middle class expectations of the working class as lacking in taste; they are repeatedly negated as other.
In the case of Ray’s a Laugh, “the images were considered to epitomise the shameful ineptitude or even neglect of the socially excluded in social policy during the final years of the Conservative regime” (ibid), additionally “there seemed to be something shameless in the exhibition of the damaged family, the public exposure of the private realm and also in audiences’ fascination with the “train wreck” culture of “underclass” living” (ibid). This was problematic when Ray’s a Laugh was created, as the “image of a social divide re-entered the middle ground of UK politics in the late 1990s, with the Blair government’s emphasis on the problem of social exclusion” (Woodward, 2000: 108).
In the 1990s as well as today, it is apparent that Britain already “displays a growing polarisation between a relatively affluent majority and a large excluded minority” (ibid). This sentiment can be reinforced through art criticism based on middle class ideology in discussing the representation of working-class people. Prejudiced perceptions of working class identities reinforce widespread inequality and exploitation. This will do little in the way of political progression and has the potential to perpetuate the oppression of the working class.
2.b. Discussion of politically progressive reviews of Billingham’s work in relation to their discussions of class, including ideas on respectability, representation and identity.
In contrast to the exploitative interpretations of the work, there are a number of critics with viewpoints that more sensitively empathise with the working class. These writers have created dialogues surrounding the work which deal with class politics in a more tolerant and progressive manner. The series Ray’s a Laugh was created as references from which to paint, but the connection to the art of painting runs deeper, as the formal qualities of the photography were inspired by work from British fine artists such as Sickert, Bellany, Auerbach, Kossoff and Bacon.
This is evident, for example, in that certain compositional parallels can be observed between Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope and Billingham’s image of Ray laughing (fig. 2), used as the front cover to the Ray’s a Laugh photobook. In addition to the influences from painters, photographer Nick Waplington’s work in the 1980s depicting domestic interiors entitled Living Room, provided some inspiration for Billingham’s style of working. This can be seen in “the consistent and single use of an insular environment, the home as the theatre in which humanity is truly revealed and explored” (Camera Historica, 2015).
These factors were part of developing Billingham’s practice as an artist, subsequently his work very quickly made it into the world of art criticism and exhibitions. This resulted in photographs of working-class people’s private lives being viewed by the generally middle-class, gallery going public. Only certain critics were equipped with the understanding and knowledge to effectively comment on the work without enforcing prejudiced preconceptions about the working class. The work is open to engagement with viewers as the corresponding text “invites intimacy, encouraging the viewer to relate to the family by their first names, disguising the real distance between them and us” (Haughey, n.d.).
Historically, “documentary photography has tended to define poverty, hardship and social problems in terms of ‘pioneering reform’ or representing people as powerless victims” (ibid), however Ray’s a Laugh has provided viewers with an insight into the normality of working-class lifestyles as a reality. Imagery designed with the intent of touching middle-class consciousnesses is not made for those that it represents.
Billingham indicates that “the camera acted as a mediator” (Billingham cited in Adams, 2016) between himself and his family, whom he describes as always remaining the same in every way. They had predictable routines, and habits of socialisation, even down to always watching the same television programmes. Stallabrass evaluates this constancy as satisfying, in that it is “without the possibility of change, and there is a certain paradoxical comfort to be gained from their constancy, even if it is a constancy of degradation” (1999: 252). This constancy translates as stillness and makes the family a ‘perfect picture’, one which many art critics have commented upon.
The images depict closeness literally, as well as psychologically, and “at a metaphorical level, Billingham’s extremely close-up images and the resulting blur effect suggest the impossibility of closeness. The mental or psychological closeness is unreachable no matter how close one is physically” (Remes, 2007). Stallabrass elaborates upon the original point adding that this stillness is part of “a particularly British stoicism and resilience, in the face of the tempest of modernity” (ibid). It is evident that there is a “paradox in the ‘closeness’ through which these pictures are structured. For although ‘the camera has been implanted, and the family tissue has grown around it’ the ‘human catastrophe – cycle of chaos, neglect and abuse’ that it represents to the viewer: is utterly unaffected by what must have been persistently intense, intrusive scrutiny” (Corby, 2008).
In art criticism it is “important to make a distinction…between what we can know through experience and verbal language and what is specifically visual” (Keys, 2018), as political ideologies are not “visual but you can photograph people and events that illustrate them” (ibid). It is then imperative to approach these images equipped with the necessary education and awareness to create positive discourse around them with regards to the people represented by the work.
An academic article by Janet Finch “proposes the probability that the sociology of contemporary family relationships should be developed to recognise the importance of ‘displaying’ family as well as ‘doing’ family. This theory argues that the concept of ‘display’ adds to the sociological tool kit” (2007: 65). This display of family function, or perhaps dysfunction, is often put out into the world in the hope of gaining validation from others.
There is another dimension added to this concept when trauma is consciously and openly portrayed; Matthew Smith draws parallels between Billingham and Belliveau, as artists dealing with similar topics. In commenting on the trivialisation of working-class struggles, Smith tells us that both artists “use their family’s trauma as a meaningful source of subject matter” (Smith, 2014). Also, “these artists are in the contradictory position that many autobiographical photographers encounter: they experience trauma while recording the traumatic experiences of others” (ibid). However, “as literary theorist Leo Bersani makes clear, it is important that audiences do not reduce trauma to points of aesthetic concern” (ibid) as “to do so suggests a troubling lack of empathy and marginalises the real life suffering that undercuts their photographs” (ibid).
Robert Frank acknowledges the chaotic nature of Ray’s a Laugh, whilst also appreciating that the “images still manage to show tenderness, and even joy” (n.d.). This contrasts with many other critiques of the work, which note the portrayal of chaos and trauma as they label the imagery as involving “violence” (Haughey, n.d.). It is then, one wonders if the same level of distaste and blame would be placed upon a middle-class man suffering with addiction. It is clear that as these images circulated the art world they were bound to meet the criticism of countless middle class viewers, as Ray and Liz appear to function to them as “actors in some surreal avant-garde stage performance” (Frank, n.d.). This is allowed to happen because “little differentiation exists between an individual and their environment” (Smith, 2014).
To merely acknowledge the multi-faceted dimensions of working class individuals and accept that the imagery depicts the ordinary and everyday, which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes mundane, is a step beyond the prejudiced approach of the bourgeois viewer. These viewers reduce working class lives to simply messy and violent existences. A wide variety of emotion and characteristics are depicted within the imagery, including tender moments and joyous ones.
One photograph (fig. 1) shows an interaction between Ray and Liz in which they are exchanging a smile. Remes comments on this as she wrote “the spectator is given access to all occasions and moments in their life: their happiness, their sadness, and even their boredom is recorded on film for a period of six years. Thus, it becomes difficult to maintain a distance from the Billinghams. Like old acquaintances, they appear less strange and more ordinary” (2007). Remes underpins this by reminding readers that “Billingham is not an interloper but someone who grew up in working-class culture, he differs from the Arbus/Parr/Waplington tradition of photo documentary. However, this does not exclude the possibility that Billingham, from his “privileged” working-class perspective, wanted to draw attention to the unregarded proletarian subject matter” (ibid).
Ray’s a Laugh is often viewed in a similar manner to reality-television, in that people will function as outside spectators, fascinated by working-class lives. The “spectator consumes the family scene and is seduced by their impoverishment. The “Ray’s a Laugh” series reveals our shameless curiosity in poverty” (Remes, 2007). This is confirmed by the title of the series as “Billingham’s father Ray exists to amuse the spectator” (ibid). Ray is a “representation of working class masculinity within a domestic space” (Newbury, 1999: 36). This is unusual because “images of working class men have predominantly been either directly or indirectly about physical work” (ibid). It is “significant in a period in which traditional manual employment has been in rapid decline in Britain” (ibid) due to the rise of unemployment following Thatcher’s government, that Ray’s a Laugh represents “working class men almost without reference to work” (ibid).
This critic notes that the series functions as “part of a visual polemic dialogue about contemporary society” (ibid). Billingham claims to have been “somewhat embarrassed about the state” (Billingham cited in saatchigallery.com, n.d.) of his family, therefore he was apprehensive about revealing his close relation to the subjects of his photography to his college tutors and peers. This was due to his fear of being judged, as he believed that the other students were “all from much more financially and spiritually secure family backgrounds” (ibid). However, Billingham found that once he was honest about his family’s presence in the imagery he could “relate to people naturally” (ibid). Since then, he has made further work about his immediate family as an attempt to comprehend himself and them on a deeper level.
Critic Charlotte Cotton believes that Ray’s a Laugh redefined contemporary narratives surrounding representations of working-class people in art. This body of work “has become a symbol of just how vital photography’s narration of true experience can be” (Cotton, 2014). During the creation of his imagery, Billingham was totally unaware of “the possible potency of his photographs within the rarefied context of art” (ibid). Cotton’s essay emphasises the point that Ray’s a Laugh is a very intimate and deeply personal series of photographs.
The cache “embodied many an overwhelming sense of the many angry, observant and affectionate moments in a young man’s life” (ibid). A viewer who is open to the multi-faceted and dynamic nature of the series will recognise “the spectrum of emotional projections and speculations that Ray’s a Laugh engenders in us” (ibid). Richard “Billingham’s art practice was his way to scrutinise and also attempt to transcend his situation” (ibid). However, through strong judgement assigned by the bourgeois viewer, the work becomes very political in nature, and class is a thematic issue portrayed in it. The editors of the Ray’s a Laugh photobook, Michael Collins and Julian Germain “were acutely aware of the potential consequences of the release of Billingham’s photographs as a book and also exhibition prints into the cultural realm and, specifically, how the depiction of an impoverished and chaotic family situation would be read” (ibid) in the context of the art world.
Steve Middlehurst establishes his review of Billingham’s photographs, by stating that they “are a vivid and detailed exposé of the inner workings of a poor family living in a tiny, high-rise flat in a depressed area” (2014). The series intimately reveals details of the family’s lives such as “Ray’s severe alcoholism and Elizabeth’s obsessive collecting of pets and cheap chachkies paired with the poverty they have been forced to live in as a result of Ray’s addiction” (Hodsdon, 2014). The snapshot style imagery is highly saturated and Billingham “used a harsh flash to add to the rawness and candidness of the series” (ibid). Throughout his account, Middlehurst puts forward the argument that the theme of class functions as a backdrop for the imagery, rather than a central topic.
However, class became impossible to diminish to merely a background factor as soon as the photography entered “the space of culture and art and ‘posh’ people” (Hatherley, 2018: 3). So, “one wonders whether Billingham’s series is a critique of working-class poverty, the hierarchies of the capitalist society, or, more generally, if it reveals the unbridgeable gaps in human relationships” (Remes, 2007).
Documentary photographers “are often seen to be giving greater weight to the visual at the expense of the subject” (Newbury, 1999: 39), however “support for Billingham’s family pictures seeks to extricate it from the charges of exploitation that marked its early critical reception” (ibid). Jim Lewis reasoned that “photography is almost automatically exploitative of its subjects’ yet these pictures manage to ‘bear the weight’ of the contradictory states of either ‘devouring’ or ‘adorning’ its subjects” (1999). Documentary photographs generally “derive at least part of their significance from their social reference” (Newbury, 1999: 39), which means that “visual representations have historical and cultural depth” (ibid). When these images depict sensitive topics such as class, it is often seen that viewers will other working-class subjects as “art critics like to discuss “their” rather than “our” poverty (Remes, 2007).
3. Discussion of Liz’s alternative femininity in relation to class passing and the feminine grotesque, and how she is received by critics.
In Ray’s a Laugh, Billingham’s mother, Liz, serves as a visual representation of many white working-class women. The working class materialised as a social label “through middle-class conceptualisations. These conceptualisations were produced from anxiety about social order and through attempts by the middle class to consolidate their identity and power by distancing themselves from definable ‘others’” (Skeggs, 1997: 4 emphasis in original). These middle-class ideas often dictate the criteria of femininity and the ways in which it is seen as acceptable, and respectable, to appear and behave as a woman. It is a habit of the middle-class to judge everyone by these set standards, and in many cases, this can leave working-class women ostracised.
Femininity is “an exasperation, a brilliant, subtle aesthetic that was bafflingly inconsistent at the same time it was minutely, demandingly concrete, a rigid code of appearance and behaviour defined by do’s and don’t-do’s” (Brownmiller cited in Holland, 2004: 8). This writer also states it is a “nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations” (Brownmiller cited in Holland, 2004: 7). Femininity is subjective, fluid and intangible; “fixed definitions reduce femininity to an inappropriately static phenomenon for something lived by millions of women who are constantly changing and evolving” (Holland, 2004: 35). However, femininity is also heavily characterised by exclusivity, which is determined and impacted by class status.
These ideas are enabled by the ‘classing gaze’, a term defined by Finch in that “the range of chosen concerns through which middle-class observers made sense of the observed, including references to: living room conditions…drinking behaviour…language…and children’s behaviour” (Finch cited in Skeggs, 1997: 5). It is noted that these “were moral, not economic, references” (ibid). This moral categorisation “placed women at the centre of the discursive construction because it was women who were predominantly observed” (Skeggs, 1997: 5). Their behaviour was generally “interpreted in relation to their role as wives and mothers and based on their responsibility, the control of their sexuality, their care, protection and education of children and their capacity for the general surveillance of working-class men” (ibid). For these women, “observation and interpretation of the sexual behaviour of working-class women on the basis of their appearance was central to the production of middle-class conceptualisations” (Skeggs, 1997: 5 emphasis in original). Working-class women are subject to intersections of sexist and classist oppression.
In order to fit in with society’s ideology “people often adopt gender-typical behaviour to form and fit with the identities that they construct. Identity is not something we achieve, nor something that is just thrust upon us; it has elements of both” (Woodward, 2000: 53). This can include typically feminine presentations of women, and those that do not conform are viewed as deviant; a feminine-grotesque.
The figure of the female grotesque is a woman deemed by society as falling “outside the respectability granted by femininity” (Hatherley, 2018).In “disturbing and subverting common-sense stereotypes which oppress women, we are proving that our subordination is socially constructed. It is not natural or biological” (Brunt and Rowan, 1982: 11). Liz disrupts the status quo of feminine ideals without intentionally protesting patriarchal standards; she is a symbol of the deviant feminist. In many ways, “feminism has broadened and transformed the definition of what is political” (Brunt and Rowan, 1982: 12). To be perceived as insufficiently feminine “is viewed as a failure in core sexual identity, or as a failure to care sufficiently about oneself” (Brownmiller cited in Holland, 2004: 40).
Liz is only visible in fourteen of the fifty-five images in the series, however “her presence is felt in many of the photographs taken in her domestic space, with pets and possessions often shown closing in on Ray” (Cotton, 2014). Ray’s character is somewhat inferred from the situations he is pictured in; however, Liz’s persona is almost solely defined by critics due to her appearance. On regular occasion, unpleasant and insulting assumptions are made about Liz without due evidence. This occurs in Haughey’s review of the series as he describes Liz’s “heavily tattooed arms ready to thump her husband” (n.d.). He brashly claims that “violence is evident” (Haughey, n.d.). Despite instantly judging Liz’s character with a narrow view based solely on her body, this critic states “Billingham’s photographs have a formal awareness, which belies the casual snapshot feel, using symbol and metaphor to construct meaning from what anthropologists call material culture” (ibid).
Cultural politics refer to the manner in which culture – including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts – shape society and general political opinion, and give agency to social, economic and legal realities. This is essential as “cultural politics are crucially important to feminism because they involve struggles over meaning” (Brunt and Rowan, 1982: 37 emphasis in original). Many critics’ opinions on the class status of the Billingham family are influenced by the evident material culture e.g. the objects they own, how they dress, the décor in their house etc. and the connotations associated with these items. However, Liz’s identity is further invaded upon, as all kinds of assumptions have been made about her purely due to her chosen presentation of femininity.
Hatherley’s essay A working-class Anti-Pygmalion aesthetics of the female grotesque in the photographs of Richard Billingham, perfectly defines femininity as “a concept formed by structures of class difference: to be ‘feminine’ is to fit into an idealised higher-class position. Working-class women, without the financial or cultural capital to successfully perform femininity, are regularly cast down into the realms of the grotesque” (Hatherley, 2018).
This writer takes an ethnographic approach in exploring a rare feminist narrative within the series Ray’s a Laugh; this reading of the work opposes much of the classist and misogynistic writing surrounding the imagery. The author focuses on Liz and the effect of her rejection of a class-passing feminine aspiration in terms of her appearance. The author questions femininity itself, by challenging the typically classist, negative attitudes towards working-class women. Hatherley describes the cultural material depicted in the imagery including Liz’s “garish dress…her colourful tattoos and kitsch décor; greyish velveteen sofas” (ibid), all of which she had only ever previously witnessed in other working-class households (fig. 2). Hatherley expresses “the mixed emotions of the sublime, of pleasure and discomfort” (ibid) in viewing the work, as she had never before seen a “contemporary representation of a working-class white woman in photography” (ibid).
Hatherley admires that Liz made no attempt to pass as middle-class, for example “the dress does not connote style or wealth for many of today’s audiences, as well as for those in the 1990s” (ibid). However, as with the ornaments, this does not mean that it lacks the potential to be visually beautiful (fig. 2), which is the conclusion that many critics jump straight to, as “they described the dress as shapeless, drab, tacky and hideous. Yet, the dress is in lush bright colours, with bold and lively floral designs” (ibid). However, in reality, these “positive attributes are not taken into account because the dress reads as poor” (Hatherley, 2018 emphasis in original).
The author informs us that if, similarly to Liz, we treat “the varying aspects of working-class taste and culture as of equal value to those of the hegemonic, white and bourgeois-defined standard: we can explore the pleasure, imagination and creativity present in working-class lives” (Hatherley, 2018). Hatherley emphasises that “the working-classes in Britain are not a white whole, nor are working-class experiences universal” (ibid), and her critique acknowledges that despite the classism, misogyny and body shaming that Liz was subject to, her ability to reject femininity does still rest on white-privilege, as a working-class woman of colour in the same position would likely be met with the added stigmatisation of racism.
Hatherley’s concept of the rejection of the typically enforced feminine aesthetic is “empowering and subversive” (ibid). Many critics reduce the imagery of Liz to descriptors such as ‘loud’ and ‘tacky’, but “there is beauty in these images of Liz, which show her evident joy, imagination and creativity in pairing colours, textures and patterns in her clothing and surrounding home space” (ibid), as well as her participation in hobbies such as puzzle making and her love of animals. Unfortunately, “this aspect of meaning is overlooked by reviewers in favour of classist stereotypes of fat working-class femininity that fall in line with narratives of lack of control, tastelessness and excessiveness: her body, her dress, her home does not fit within bourgeois notions of feminine discreetness” (ibid).
These critiques of Liz are problematic because they become “moral judgements around who deserves to be seen and exist publicly” (ibid). The societal enforcement of femininity as a normative “gender presentation for women…must be maintained for women to be considered ‘correct’: any deviation carries a cost” (ibid) of being disregarded as faulty and unfit to be classed a woman; “impacting one’s status, rights and respect” (ibid). Hatherley focuses on how Liz’s “body has been received as grotesque, monstrous and shocking” (ibid), nevertheless, this writer views her as “a woman who has chosen and created the way her body looks” (Hatherley, 2018 emphasis in original).
The “vilification of young white working-class mothers….is produced through disgust reactions” (Tyler, 2008). Most of the language used by critics to describe Liz, merely invalidates her, and undermines her as an individual, because it is all based on her appearance. One “of the ways in which social class is emotionally mediated is through repeated disgust for those deemed to be of a lower class” (ibid), this is due to “the imposition of standards by others who could judge the working class as deficient” (Skeggs, 1997: 44).
Though unintended by artist, Richard Billingham, the photographic series Ray’s a Laugh deals with class as a sensitive political issue. These visual representations of working-class people and their lifestyles became exposed to the world of art and the bourgeois gaze. It is then art critics’ individual responsibility to deal with this topic in a rational manner with due awareness and education on the subject.
According to research conducted during this essay, there are an abundance of prejudiced accounts of Ray’s a Laugh available. Most of these articles criticise the artist’s family based upon their home, physical appearance and any signifiers of a low-income lifestyle. For the majority, these tend to come from journalistic sources. Whereas, the small number of politically progressive accounts found were generally peer reviewed academic material. These essays had been thoroughly researched; therefore, they are more reliable and trustworthy sources. The lack of progressive critiques of this work, in terms of quantity of essays, in addition to the fact that they are not as readily available or as easily accessible as the more publicised journalistic articles, may skew the general understanding of Billingham’s work for many people.
It is also evident that, as a woman, Billingham’s mother is heavily criticised, based solely upon her physical appearance. Liz is met with disgust reactions and she is not respected due to falling outside of middle-class standards for femininity. This may result in the general reception of Billingham’s family being that of distaste due to their class status. This is as opposed to the understanding and empathy required to understand the imagery, which would lead to a deeper personal investigation into the work itself.
In many cases, the journalistic writing has missed the nuances of class politics. Within the realm of documentary, “photographic representations both draw from and contribute to a social and cultural imagery that is part of a broader public dialogue about society” (Newbury, 1999). However, as the creator of the work, it is not Billingham’s moral obligation nor social responsibility to educate middle-class critics on how to appropriately deal with the photographs.
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