At the age of eight William Blake said he’d seen angels in a tree over Peckham Rye.
To many of his contemporaries he was just another eccentric, sitting naked under trees reading the classics, taking long walks around London and combining his artisan craft of engraving with lyrical songs and illustrations penned himself. But with time we have come to realise that he was not only an astute judge of his own times but a true visionary, imagining a better future for everyone.
In his ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ Blake is acutely aware of the injustices perpetrated against victims of child labour and slavery in late 18th century British society. Yet through his imagery there emerges a voice of freedom, and of humility. Blake offers us a vision of a different path, in which we are wary of both innocence and experience, and proceed to walk in the light of the sun.
In his latest book ‘The Descent of Man’ Grayson Perry does much the same.
Besides superficial comparisons between the two artists, both working predominantly with traditionally artisan crafts (engraving and pottery), coming from relatively humble backgrounds and having penchants for brightly coloured clothes, it seems that their works are essentially of the same kind. ‘The Descent of Man’ is not only a keen analysis of masculinity as it stands today but offers a rhizome of possibilities for those looking towards the future.
‘The Descent of Man’ is very crudely put, an argument that men should give up any attachments they have to traditional images of masculinity and adapt what it means to be a man given the nature of society as it stands today.
Grayson Perry writes convincingly of the perils – for both men and women – of not imagining a new future for masculinity. Gang culture, religious extremism, domestic violence and suicide are all too often a product of outdated views of what it means to be a man. If men were better able to talk about their emotional experiences and felt less pressure to conform to expectations of strength and resilience in the face of changing family dynamics and working lives, then perhaps everyone would be a lot happier says Grayson Perry.
A prototype of this idea can be found in Blake’s writing. In ‘The Poison Tree’ in ‘Songs of Experience’ Blake writes:
‘I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.’
The ills of society are often rooted in repressed emotional expression. As becomes clear in Blake’s poem, it is important not only to openly discuss our emotional lives but also engage with our enemies. ‘The Descent of Man’ offers a means for men to do so. Once we realise that a large part of masculinity is simply an act then we see the possibility for change. Whether this change happens anytime soon is perhaps unlikely, but the process would certainly be sped up if more people read ‘The Descent of Man’.
Buy the book HERE.