Friday 28 November 2014


(Stop the presses! Still on at Compton Verney in Warwickshire until 14th Dec)

“Here in Britain... [we] are more concerned with the great country house and its contents, and the indigenous culture of the ordinary people has until lately been largely disregarded.”
- James Ayres, 'British Folk Art', (1977) as quoted in this exhibition

(Reader, can we pretend I posted this directly after the Comics Unmasked exhibition, as originally intended? Things might even make some sense that way.)

Against All Authenticity

On my blog page devoted to visual arts, I casually bundled together folk art, outsider art and comics into one group term. A bundle which perhaps needs unpicking, and this could even be a good place to start.

The connections are there, clearly enough. Folk art and comics are scarcely interchangeable. But, particularly before comics contained credits and came to be built around a fan base, there's a fair measure of overlap. Characters and motifs can leap from one to the other, such as cartoon waster Ali Sloper reappearing on a piece of embroidery here. And they align still closer when you get to the way 'proper' art treats them. Mostly they exist as fodder to be 'Lichtensteined', the act of appropriation from them becoming a sign of a great artist's individual genius.

But something happens along the way, where all those appropriations finally reach a critical mass and the source material itself finally reaches the curators' attention. It's like taking so many fish from the water that finally the river changes direction. The Tate have made a point of spinning this show as the first major gallery exhibition of folk art, like the villagers have finally broken into the great country house and left their muddy prints on the fine carpets. Which puts it several years behind their foray into comic art, something perhaps significant in itself.

Like folk music, folk art may suffer the most from its seeming friends. At it's worst it's merely part of the heritage industry. The patronising “it's so quaint” becomes the inevitable flip side of “aren't we so modern?” But let's keep the focus on how it fits into galleries. If its so often marginalised without ever quite being excluded, that may contain a logic of sorts. Folk art is taken to be the childhood or perhaps even the subconscious of art, something vibrant and unmediated, the creative hand untroubled by the brain, the doodle before it became the picture. Which of course is pretty much the way rock fans can regard folk, blues or any of its other cousins.

This can sometimes be expressed in the most celebratory of terms, how 'free' folk art is and so on. But it's like talking about how women can be so intuitive or how black people can be so emotionally expressive – its taken to be because at heart they're so irrational. Like all such apparent flatteries, what it actually does is corral – makes folk art into a mere adjunct or preparatory step towards other, more developed and sophisticated, styles of art.

Whereas it's 'freedom' is actually a matter of it playing by an altogether different set of rules. It's true that folk is too broad and amorphous to be seen as a movement in art, but that's because it's actually a meta-movement, like Romanticism or Modernism. It doesn't lack traditions or conventions, it has whole sets of them. So many that they can sometimes clash.

The exhibition opens with the words “folk art is an elusive, contradictory and contested term”, and a firm undertaking not to try and pin it down any further. This is effectively the curators throwing up their hands and saying all the works contained herein were labelled folk before we got here, so the management can't be held accountable. Which is exactly the correct approach to take. Attempting a clear-cut definition for folk art would be a classic fool's errand. Things are always going to blur around the edges, the ducks never lining up in a row.

Much of the impetus towards definitions, you can't help but suspect, comes from canonisation concealed as semantics. People try to build a club house which admits their mates while keeping out the riff raff. True, a whole lot of people make a living marketing kitsch crap under the label 'folk' which might more honestly be called 'folksy'. So the righteous sternly decide to exclude from the labelanything tainted by commercial production. But then you would also exclude many fine things from this exhibition. You'd need to strike out, for example, anything Alfred Wallis painted (see 'Blue Ship' (c.1934, below) after the moment Ben Nicholson discovered him.

But there's a neater solution. Just be straight up about it. Just like the stuff you like. The folk art which appeals to me isn't the whole of folk art. But then neither is the Modernism I like the entirety of Modernism.

Not only does it resolutely refuse to build up any definition of folk art, at times the show seems keen to break down any lingering notions you might have that such a definition might exist somewhere. It would rather test the borders of the term than obsess over the 'authentic'. We're shown (with, you can't help feeling, some glee) 'An Exact Representation of the Game of Cricket', a naive-looking Eighteenth century work now known to be an early Twentieth century forgery. Its like the aim is to disgorge you at the end feeling like you now know less about folk art than when you first went in. Which is – and I expect you are ahead of me here – exactly the right approach to take.

So instead of a historical overview the show promises “a series of encounters with different sorts of object that already have a history as folk art”. Which is in itself probably very folk. The hang is refreshingly disorderly, piling works up on walls rather than arranging them in neat numbered lines. They're patched and juxtaposed according to broad themes, but from there we're pretty much left to make up our own minds about them. Rather than the usual respectfully neutral cream the walls are bedecked with deep colours – luscious greens, salmon pinks, vibrant yellows.

Placing these works on the walls of the Tate inherently involves wrenching them from their original context. There is no way around that. But this slightly haphazard arrangement allows them to feel at least a little at home, like transplanting plants but leaving some of their home soil around their roots. The result is that folk art becomes presented as something bright and simple-seeming, but inherently indeterminate, awkward, slippery and even self-contradictory. Lovers of precision, enter at your peril.

That's Art, Folks

Fools rush in, however, so let's abandon the curator's sensible caution and look at what underpins folk art. If there's no fixed and discernable style, there may be at least a set of recurrent features which can be noted...

Folk art is perhaps most associated with it's naïve qualities. Black Adder once famously jeered at Baldrick “to you the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people”. And it often feels like folk art responded the same way when its refinements rewrote the basic rules of art. Which is to say not at all. The folk sky just carried on being opposite the folk ground. We may see it this way because we still see folk art through the prism of Modernism, which saw in it a route back to the primitive. It seemed a way to escape all those Renaissance conventions, which had become so entrenched they'd stopped seeming like conventions and were now almost inimical to seeing.

Whereas in fact, something stranger is afoot. The Renaissance had happened before most of these works were made. No small number of them are from the Twentieth century. So, and perhaps unsurprisingly, perspective isn't unknown - but its rules are considered to be eyepoppingly optional, often followed and then not in the very same picture. In for example 'The Hunt' (Anon, c. 1780) the huntsmen are seemingly placed behind the house in the composition, yet are its height. It may look peculiarly haphazard, some strange hall of mirrors. But that's because we're missing something more central to folk art.

The very first two works we see are a collection of trade signs – keys, locks, shoes and hats inflated to gargantuan size, like Monopoly counters for giants (above). Of course they weren't originally designed to be shown in such close proximity, though they may well have once lined a street. However they're placed next to the Bellamy quilt (1890/1, detail also above) by Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Alice Springnall, and the similiarities become striking. If only one is actually a mosaic, both take that form. They're accumulations of iconic objects, either placed on the surface in patterns or with a scene standing behind them - like a theatre flat.

Objects are often sized according to the relative significance rather than their physical size or place in the composition. (Notably, within themselves, figure are normally proportionate.) James Williams' Patchwork bedcover (1942/52, detail below) for example shows a human figure interacting with animals, all of which - even the giraffe – are squashed into equivalent size to him. Gravity also can be treated a little like this; some figures and objects hugging the ground, paying due reference to Isaac Newton, while others seem free to merrily float. It's all a reminder that it was those Renaissance rules that brought the trick to art, not the other way around.

Another frequent feature is the incorporation of text within the frame. As the images are so often icons and symbols anyway, there isn't the same requirement to separate them from text as there is in more 'representational' art. In for example 'Three Sober Preachers' (Anon, c.1860, below) the text doubles as parchments hung on the wall behind them, something within the scene, and as speech balloons, commonly thought of as floating spectrally above the characters' heads. The words are there to represent the Preachers as much as the objects on the table or mantlepiece. Similarly, those oversize shop signs were often literally a substitute for words, in times when not necessarily all your customers were literate. (And when not all shops could afford glass for their windows, with which to display their wares.) They're the web icons of their day.

And put these elements together and what graphic elements in today's world do they most resemble? Maps, of course. And maps, or at least works in some interchange between maps and aerial views are everywhere. There's 'A Birds Eye View of Market Street, Wynondham, Norfolk' (c. 1850), 'The Farm Called Anrolds in the Parish of Stapleforth Abbey' (c. 1790) or 'Eastwood's Crown Brewery' (FL Carter, 1898, below), though there's no need to stop counting at three. Of course these are not the dispassionate measuring devices of Google maps. They work more by a kind of sympathetic magic, owning a depiction of something and owning the thing itself came to be associated. Maps were power totems rather than handy street guides.

Another prevalent, if not ubiquitous, feature is the extemporised use of non-art materials. George Smart's 'Goosewoman' (c. 1840, below) was one of many works he made of scraps left over from his primary business as a tailor. Smart then sold the pictures as a secondary business. Waste not, want not, after all. At other times, 'boody' or broken china becomes an art material. (With a look that's almost proto-Dada.)

However, while folk art's recycling of what might otherwise be waste or scraps can often seem creatively utilitarian, in other times it seems to actively embrace the juxtapositions. We can see a giant key made from wood without much of a problem. For to function as a key, that's not a part of its purpose. It exists to be a symbol in the wider world. Yet with those same shop signs there's some wilful games played. Some shoe signs are wood, while others are essentially giant shoes, made from leather, lace and nails. While elsewhere in the exhibition we encounter other purposefully non-functional objects, papier mache meat or leather Toby jugs. There's a bone violin made by a French solider imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (1797/1814), which seems little short of a Cubist guitar. (I preferred this image to the bone chicken used for the poster image, but alas couldn't find a shot of it on-line.) Which might lead on to the next point...

Strange Goings On

More nebulously, less consistently but perhaps more importantly there can be an uncanniness to folk art. Jesse Maycocks' straw effigy of King Alfred (below) feels almost like a totem of the old weird Britain, even if it was created in 1961. Its making is clear-cut and foregrounded, the undisguised twine holding it together, the nails for eyes and so on. Yet it looks more than a mere effigy, it has a strangely life-like quality. Its as if made to be a prop in some fantasy film, designed to come to life. It couldn't look more straightforward yet it doesn't resolve in the mind, can't be assigned a category. It's a work which reflects an animistic world-view, where crops could be personified in figures such as John Barleycorn. The King and the land are so associated as to be almost as one.

Even after the arrival of Christianity, this animism continues to lurk. With the tendency towards icons, signs and symbols its less concerned with depicting things than capturing the spirit of those things - spirits it then arranges in symbolic maps. Folk art retains something of primitive times, when artworks were magic objects more than something decorative. In some ways its therefore naïve to call folk art naive, or at least in the literal sense of the word. It a piece of folk art seems to lack, for example, perspective that's less to do with a failing than its having a different purpose.

This leads to a feeling of 'unheimlich' or strange familiarity when we look at folk art, something often taken up by British Modernists, such as Paul Nash. Rather than use art to extend our knowledge or experience, it instead pulls the rug away from under us – defamiliarises us from what we thought we already knew, our own home turf.

It's tempting to note this strangeness and file it with the unfamiliarity of outsider art. Yet while I enjoyed the British Pathe film 'The House That Jack Built' (1958) of “English eccentric” Jack Punter's building of his outsider art envrionment, particularly when the patronisingly enthusiastic voice-over pronounced it “do-it-yourself gone mad”, it seemed the one time the show made it's margins too elastic. Overlaps there may be, but there's important distinctions between folk and outsider art.

The glue that sticks folk to outsider art is of course their mutual tendency to use naïve forms. But, as argued after the 'Art from the Margins' exhibition, when we talk of outsider art as a style rather than a form of production we're often talking about the depiction of compulsivenss – obsessive detail, heavy use of repetition etc. This can appear in folk art, such as the bone chicken and violin of the French prisoner of war. (Most likely because he deliberately chose a 'long haul' project to while away his detention.) But folk art doesn't need to have this element. It's not there, for example, in those shop signs or ship figureheads.

At its epitome (or more accurately nadir), the fetish for outsider art falls for the notion of the outsider genius, who has escaped impregnation by their surrounding culture and is instead in touch with a timeless spirit. Of course that's too silly for words. Outsider art is more often about creating a micro-world the artist can control which is... well... outside of this one, while folk art is about objects which exist in the world. And while the culture around folk art may have fallen from familiarity to us, this is through the distancing effect of time. As the show itself says, “traditional crafts express communal feelings and beliefs”. It's a quite separate, perhaps even contrary, thing to the private mythologies of outsider artists. With folk art, we're the outsiders.

While several works on display here were effectively produced comunally, its a series of old photos of folk events and rituals that most bring this element home to you. (For example a Well Dressing in Tideswell, Derbyshire from 1979). Ironically, these are placed in the same room as the Jack Punter video. But my personal favourite – not just of these photos but one of my favourite items from the whole exhibition – is a 1984 photos of an old lady from Sheffield. She's in her 'Old Horse' costume, yet the photo's taken not at some folk celebration but at home. As she sits in front of her TV the box of the black-and-white set, the dull carpet, remind you of the sheer drabness of the Eighties. Part of the bizarreness of the juxtaposition is that neither element now seems familiar to us, it's one other country at odds with another.

Such photos mostly remind us that those old masks and costumes held no magic transforming powers. In a classic case of existence preceding essence they did not create the communities that used them - they grew out of them. The masks and costumes have their significance, they're indicative of place and culture. But they mostly signify that people were willing to gather and parade together in the first place. The masks and costumes sit upon a social glue. And glue, once set, becomes invisible, leaving only the objects its bonded. The very word 'folk' means 'people', but in a specific sense - of community rather than an atomised mass.

No Folk Remedies

It is of course easy to slip into romanticising folk art. Particularly when surrounded by today's art market, with bling-encrusted works created solely to reflect the good taste of their super-rich purchasers, folk art can seem its very antithesis – like a folk remedy, something which can make it all better. But romanticisations should always be suspected. Folk art is not a demonstration of how nice everything was in the good old days, because that's something it was never intended to be and besides they weren't. Mourning the mirage of a lost innocence will only leave us feeling more marooned in the age of the selfie.

It's not communist art, in fact in many ways its almost the definition of conservative. To misquote 'League of Gentlemen' at times it looks very much like British folk art for British folk. When you see works featuring the 'Blackamoor', a kind of compound savage made by mixing together stereotypical African, Turkish and American Indian features, there's a tendency to try and conceive of these as aberrations (“they didn't know better then” and so on), exceptions to an art that was in general unifying. But that merely leads to the question, how is it unifying? In naïve art people very often are what they do and that is all. Fisherman fish, farmers farm, they're not intended to have any other existence. Agency is slaughtered on the altar of custom.

And to blithely talk of folk art as “the art of the people” is to throw up a misty-eyed haze that often obscures its actual production. We shouldn't forget that craft industries are still industries, that much of this stuff was produced not out of great naïve bursts of untrammelled creativity but to client requirements in exchange for cash. (Those oversized shop signs should be big enough to batter that idea home.)

But folk art is comparatively 'free' in two ways in that it escapes two associated traps that we have – its art that isn't based around individual self-expression and it has little or no concept of intellectual property. Nowadays, people tend to assume individual self-expression is what art is. Art tends to not just be a commodity on the market, but a perfect example of a luxury product – created to reflect the good taste of the purchaser. That Rothko on the Hollywood star's wall is simply there to brag. But because this purpose has to be concealed art's very use-value also has to be concealed - art is often defined precisely as something that doesn't do anything. Art is seen as the antithesis of labour, produced not for a function but out of some inner artistic compulsion. It's the exception to the rule of commodity production. Which, of course, is another way of saying it's the exception designed to prove the rule. Brit Art is the risible cumulation of that trajectory. But its a fault-line that's there from the beginning, Modernism tried to break free from its tram lines, but found it couldn't.

Folk art doesn't necessarily have to be made anonymously. There'd be no harm done if we were to find out who made this work or that. But neither do we need to know. If a recently discovered unsigned Fauvist painting were found (in many ways stylistically similar to folk art) it would be a loose piece in the puzzle, a stuck-up nail. Experts would rush to attribute it, so that everything might settle again. The artist is the hook which allows us to slot the painting in place in the world. Consequently, art buffs come to spot different artists' styles like food and drink bores learn to discern the taste of different wines. Recognition alone becomes a signifier of taste. I do this myself all the time, often on this very blog.

Whereas any piece of folk art, as soon as created, effectively becomes common property. Anonymity, where it occurs, universalises. And attribution, where it occurs, is often incidental. It's not about what makes the artist special or different, in the way that even (perhaps especially) outsider art is. Its inherently a piece in the bigger picture. Each individual work becomes like a leaf on a branch, attached to a trunk, itself part of the wood. You need to see, to coin a phrase, the wood for the trees. This is found at its most literal in the room devoted to ships' figureheads (example above) and trade signs, which comments “all have been transformed. A feature of not just these but of much folk art is the repainting or remaking by many hands over time”. With the de-emphasis on individual expression comes the corresponding de-emphasis on the definitive work of art.

But beyond that, anonymity... well, it anonymises. And, particularly in our self-fixated culture, that can be a destabilising force. The political group Anonymous currently have some cultural traction, probably well in excess of their actual numbers, for that very reason. Similarly, when the indicia of exhibitions cease to be handholds, festooned with reassuring names, dates and contexts, expertise deserts us and we are left on our own.

And this lack of interest in individual expression, this group focus is the reason folk art can appear so bountifully creative - because its inherently a commons rather than an enclosure. Folk culture works like open source software; the fact that anyone can get their hands on it makes it stronger, more vibrant, more adaptable. Everything created is just added to the feast, able to inspire everything else. Compared to folk art the bohemian antics of Modernism can seem mere weeds, springing up sporadically and transiently. While those sweeping, snaking branches of folk art stem from the deepest roots.

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