Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition is one of the most inspiring collections I’ve seen in this country recently. While I dislike terms like ‘folk art’ or ‘outsider art’ – to me if it’s art then it’s just art – the show clearly celebrates and validates the untrammelled 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 collections of often sorely under appreciated museums 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 the first world war? And where did all our dressed wells, Obby Osses and Gods in bottles go?
On the day I visited 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.
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 get absolutely nothing from her work, or from the work of her numerous imitators and fellow travellers. I think and feel nothing in front of it. Worse than nothing, actually, because on balance I’m slightly annoyed by it.
Art and taste
This brings me to a great quote that’s used in British Folk Art, one that to me could be describing a kind of 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 [of Arts] 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 school of artists who follow her are now firmly established as ‘proper’ contemporary art, while the straightforward, non-conceptual portraiture prevalent in the 1770s is kitsch, beneath critical concern, or even 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.
Snobbery and disdain
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 amateur artist and not as an ‘artist’ plain and simple.
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 (and really is) terribly askew. In spite of the RA, men and women of all classes and backgrounds used to unselfconsciously make art all the time, no matter how fervently Royal Academicians ignored them.
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.
British Folk Art continues at Tate Britain, London until 31 August 2014, then moves to Compton Verney , Warwickshire.