Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition (continues in London until 31 August 2014, then moves to Compton Verney in Warwickshire) is one of the most inspiring collections I’ve seen in this country recently. I dislike terms like “folk art” or “outsider art” because to me if they’re art then they’re just art, but I acknowledge that these terms can have their uses. This is a minor quibble anyway, in the context of a show that clearly celebrates and validates the umtrammeled creativity of ordinary people in an intelligent and unpatronising way that few of our large art institutions would even bother to try. Most of the objects come from the often sorely underappreciated museum collections in places like Beamish, Norwich, or Tunbridge Wells, which I hope will encourage more people to visit them. It becomes terrifyingly clear that the collective memory of society is very short and full of holes. For example, who knew that male soldiers dug needlework so much and were so good at it, even as recently as WWI? Where did all our dressed wells, Obby Osses and Gods in bottles go?
On the day I went there were a lot of delighted and interested people of all ages very vocally and visibly enjoying the items on display. How often does that happen in an art exhibition nowadays? Such a contrast to the arid I-don’t-even-know-if-it’s-conceptual-or-what of Phyllida Barlow in the hall right alongside British Folk Art. Barlow’s work always reminds me of my dad’s penchant for keeping old bits of wood, obsolete plumbing and old tarpaulins stacked up against the back of our house, just in case they were ever needed… which they never were. And they weren’t art, either. Criticising Barlow is apparently a no-no because she’s a professor and she probably taught a lot of artists and so nobody ever does. That good old art world omerta. I’ll assume she’s fine as a human being until I hear anything to the contrary, but I get absolutely nothing from her work, or from the work of her numerous imitators and fellow travellers. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? What am I supposed to think or feel here? I think and feel nothing in front of this work. Worse than nothing, actually, because on balance I’m slightly annoyed by it. I’d enjoy throwing it in a skip and seeing it hauled off by a lorry, but I’m into a good tidy up anyway and I wouldn’t credit Barlow for the pleasure.