8 Aug

Clockwise from top left: “God in a bottle”, chimney sweep trade mannequin, soldier’s pincushion, boody (broken china) mosaic tray with doll, papier maché meat from a butcher shop, carved bone chicken.

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.


This brings me to a great quote that’s used in British Folk Art, one that to me could be describing a kind of the primal scene for (so-called) Fine Art in Britain; the traumatic, schismatic instigating event that continues to haunt the making and showing of art to this day.

“In 1769 when the Royal Academy [note: of Arts, nowadays best known to the general public for its Summer Exhibition] was established, there was a desire to distinguish the fine arts from crafts, so that ‘no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles shall be admitted.'”

Obviously snobbery about art and mass taste are neither new nor uniquely British, but nonetheless this diktat represents the London art world’s year zero for the still very prevalent status anxiety about what is and is not Fine Art. The superficial traits of critically approved art may have shifted with time (e.g. Barlow and the lumber-n-tarpaulin Homebase school of artists who follow her are now firmly established as “proper” contemporary art by the establishment. The straightforward, non-conceptual portraiture prevalent in the 1770s is kitsch, beneath critical concern, or even– ironically– regarded as “folk art” if a living artist practices it in the 21st century), but the idea of there being an orthodoxy has survived every single style, movement and revolution in art. If you didn’t go to the right art school (or any at all) or you refuse to play the game, then if you’re allowed any kudos at all it can can only be as an outsider, a “folk” or an amateur artist and not as an “artist” plain and simple, without prefix. Or, as the curators of British Folk Art astutely point out, you can play at being folk or outsider– be folkier than folk or more outside than outsiders– for the benefit of art world grandees who think they’re being edgy. The grandees and the proper artists still get most of the credit though. They take you up and celebrate you. Never the reverse.

British Folk Art turns a lot of this snobbery and disdain on its head, not to mention whole swathes of academic claptrap about gender and social identities in historical art. When the RA is your yardstick, of course your history of art and artists looks terribly askew because it is askew. Men and women of all classes and backgrounds used to unselfconsciously make art all the time, in spite of the the RA and no matter how fervently Royal Academicians ignored their work. It’s time for the two aspects of art’s shattered psyche to be reintegrated, because the current art world is sick and twisted. Maybe one day art can just be art again, judged on its ability to make us feel something or think something instead of being prejudged because of who made it, or what we think about where they came from or what we think they are. Art as an expression of creativity and emotion, and not as a blunt weapon to hit other people with so they know how terribly clever and sophisticated we are.

Pedantic, person-who-works-with-galleries-and-writers-on-clarity-for-the-general-public PS: The wall text and supporting written material is admirably unpretentious and uniformly clear in its content, but that beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep every few seconds of somebody inadvertently crossing the security beam is the sound of the type being too bloody small and badly lit to read comfortably.

Update, PPS: I’m going through the exhibition catalogue now, and Jeff McMillan’s essay in it contains this gem:

“[Exhibitions of outsider art like Souzou] are important because they counter a tendency in the art world to favour increasingly younger artists who often pursue an obscure and theoretical practice. As the art critic Dave Hickey succinctly puts it, ‘Today, anybody can make a work of art that nobody understands.'”

I’d like to kiss Jeff McMillan for this. Dave can have one too, if he likes. At last, somebody who gets it. Is this not what I’ve been saying for years now on this blog and in my other writing? Obscure and theoretical seems to be winning, to nobody’s benefit but the obscurantists and the theoreticians themselves. It’s frustrating for anyone who actually cares about being good at what they do and connecting with the public instead of baffling them.


  1. Annie (@Camerashakes) 09/08/2014 at 10:09 AM #

    Hey Alistair. Delighted to have found your blog, and especially love the Artbollocks Theatre.

    I loved this show too, it was just too short. As a latecomer to making art, and because I study at City Lit and not at one of the posh London art schools, it’s encouraging to see this great work and people who have just got on with making it, outside the establishment.

    The friends on my course and I are struggling with the rules of the art world – none of us can really afford to study for a full time degree or MA, but it seems you have to pay up for a degree at one of the big schools to be taken seriously.

    I think sometimes you could just offer them nine grand just to say you went there, so you can put it on your CV… We’re all older and just coming to realise how much of the contemporary art world is geared towards supporting young uns coming up through that system… all the prizes and residences are for recent graduates, what about us oldies who can’t go to art school?

    So anyway, I found this British Folk Art really refreshing, just like your blog. Looking forward to reading Career Suicide too x

    • anitachowdry 09/08/2014 at 12:29 PM #

      I agree to some extent with Annie’s comments about the big London art schools – and I did eventually cobble together the fees to do an MA at Central Saint Martins, aged 50-something. It really was worth it, both from the point of view of the kudos, and also the resources and creative/intellectual environment the college provided, and it has really helped me to re-shape and focus a previously flagging art career. Nothing wrong with City Lit though – you should feel proud to be a part of it.
      In the end no college can give you the personal drive to develop and push your art career – you have to do that all by yourself!

      • Alistair 09/08/2014 at 12:59 PM #

        This is true as well. Make the most of where you are, take everything that’s on offer, even if it isn’t very much. Most students from CSM and its ilk don’t make it as practising artists for more than a year or two, either. Until they’re forced to get real and keep a roof over their heads, basically.

        I don’t know if there are actual figures available, but I daresay over a 5-10 year postgraduation period there are so many former art students shaken out that where you studied has a relatively minor or even negligible impact upon whether you can continue to practice as an independent artist.

        Where your place of study probably does make a difference is if you want to go straight back to teach art, which is how a great many “successful” artists sustain their careers instead of actually having to battle through and live by their art alone. I’ve taught art and I know people who do it, though, and neither I nor they ever had much space or energy to actually be artists. Obviously it seems logical to do something art related as your day job if you’re an artist, but my observation and experience doesn’t really bear out this conclusion. If you need a day job I would recommend you get one that’s totally outside of the arts and/or doesn’t tax the bits of your brain you need to be creative. I think teaching art is the worst, most masochistic and blocking thing an artist can do.

        PS/caveat: Unless your career as a working artist is essentially over, in which case teaching is ideal. I know it’s hard to tell online, but I’m not being sarcastic. Seriously, senior artists who’ve done it all and are old hands should be teaching at the ends of their careers, rather than mid-career artists whose practices are so precarious that they can easily find themselves competing with their own students for opportunities.

      • anitachowdry 09/08/2014 at 1:08 PM #

        “I think teaching art is the worst, most masochistic and blocking thing an artist can do” – explains exactly why my art career of 25 years was flagging, and what motivated me to go back to university. My work was mostly in museums, schools and cultural institutions – I felt drained, used and abused, and relegated by the establishment to the ‘department of second-rate-artists’.

    • Alistair 09/08/2014 at 12:45 PM #

      The UK graduate and PG educational system in general no longer makes sense, art schools included. If they’re going to run it as a grubby, mercenary business for profit then they should go the whole hog and charge students much more to attend the ones with better courses, a better rate of graduate employment and/or more prestige. If you can only get into one that isn’t so good, for whatever reason, you should get an appropriate discount. That’s how free markets are supposed to work, as people on the right never tire of telling everybody. Just like a handbag from Louis Vuitton costs exponentially more than a 90%+ similar unbranded one from Matalan. Branded “designer” and unbranded “budget” goods are frequently made on the same production lines, either legitimately or during secret (and splendidly named) Ghost Shifts. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in China.

      The Vuitton bag isn’t substantially better in any objective way, or at least not enough to logically justify the price differential. You’re paying for the name and the brand’s carefully constructed identity, and for the reification of your self-image as the kind of wealthy person who wants and can afford expensive status symbols. So if education is being run on this basis– and it apparently is– then why should one person pay £9K PA to attend Oxford or the Slade, with all the additional opportunities, resources and kudos they have, while another person of equal merit has to pay £9K PA to study in Bargain Bins like Ipswich or Hull*?

      Of course the humane solution to all of this nonsense is that nobody should have to pay for their education or vocational training at all– at least to undergraduate level– because it’s a basic human right, and everybody should get the same quality of education and be judged on their individual merits regardless of where they went to school or college.

      You’re right about the art world obsession with youth. It’s now reaching hysterical proportions (as noted in the Jeff McMillan quote above); not least among young artists themselves, some of whom are in despair because they’re 23 and not megastars. I’ve met these kids– yeah, I said kids– corresponded with them, taught them. It’s tragic. I was successful very young, without the “proper” education too, but this is a total aberration. I didn’t seek it actively, either. I couldn’t have engineered it if I wanted to, it just happened because my precocious work was genuinely good enough to be professionally produced, published and shown. That’s the secret, if there is one, ambitious kids: BE GOOD. If your work isn’t good enough and you’re not ready then exposure, fame and even praise are all highly toxic and corrosive, however much you might think you want them.

      I’m in my prime now, and I have no hesitation in saying that my work is better than the work of that 20 year old kid I was. The stuff I did then was good work, but it was the work of a kid. Luckily I learned from being rewarded early instead of being damaged by it, as many young creative people are damaged when they’re overexposed too soon, having worked a lot but not really lived. I consider myself extremely fortunate never to have been fashionable or the sensation of the moment or one of the hottest 10 whatevers under whatever in some stupid magazine. Because guess what? If you’re in fashion, that inevitably means sooner or later you’ll be out of fashion. You’ll seem less novel than you were, even if your work is better. Or you’ll just grow up. Journalistic hype-merchants and fashionistas hate it when people they “discovered” grow up or grow old. Soon you’ll be totally replaced, supplanted and erased by whoever’s fashionable this year. Think of poor old Orson Welles, who by the early 70s was lamenting that he’d started at the top then spent the rest of his career working his way downwards.

      Anyway, my advice is don’t bother with the rules. An artist with any worth or self-esteem at all makes their own rules and sticks to them. That includes some of the well-known artists who are popular with the very same art world that does draconian policing and blackballing of most other genuine dissenters and critics. The strictness of the art world’s rules and the massive sticks up the arses of the art world’s elite makes the whole structure eminently playable.

      * PS I know somebody who graduated from Hull, I come from Suffolk and I know several people who teach or have taught in Ipswich… trust me, they wholly agree that these are among the Bargain Bin institutions.

  2. anitachowdry 09/08/2014 at 12:55 PM #

    “Of course the humane solution to all of this nonsense is that nobody should have to pay for their education or vocational training at all– at least to undergraduate level– because it’s a basic human right” — that must be the most pressing issue of all! My generation did get good quality free education, and I have always believed that to be a basic human right. Is there now a danger that the top universities will become little more than finishing schools for the international elite, leaving many of the gifted young and not-so-young unable to even get a foot in the door?

    • Alistair 09/08/2014 at 1:06 PM #

      They already are, as even the top universities themselves acknowledge. Art History courses in particular have for many years been notorious as finishing schools for posh girls who don’t really need to think about getting a job after they graduate. See Kate Middleton.

      • anitachowdry 09/08/2014 at 1:11 PM #

        I prefer not to see Kate Middleton!!!

      • Alistair 09/08/2014 at 1:15 PM #

        Obviously it’s better to avoid it if possible. Steer clear of Art History courses, too, because they’re full of Kate clones.

  3. alisonsye 18/08/2014 at 7:06 PM #

    Brilliant post

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