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.