British Folk Art
Tate Britain, London, 10 June – 31 August 2014
I imagine them sitting together, heads huddled close, whispering, choosing what to embroider next: two dancing pigs, a peacock with a fabulous tail, an anchor, or a sprig of daisies. Over the course of a year, their quilt becomes filled with an eclectic mix of motifs, sewn by both their hands. They add in their initials, HB and CAS. In 1891, Herbert and Charlotte marry, and the Bellamy quilt is passed down through their family until it is donated it to a museum in the 1970s. Today, it hangs in Tate Britain as part of the British Folk Art exhibition, a beautiful familial object now transformed into art.
Walking into the vibrant first room of this exhibition, you are confronted by objects. A whole sunshine-yellow-coloured wall is filled with shop signs – a golden padlock, stout boot, gruff-looking bear and sun, to name but a few – all of them enormous. The scale is unexpected: ‘folk art’ often conjures up objects on a smaller scale – pincushions and corn dollies, more usually from a rural context. The display begins, therefore, with a provocation. If you thought you knew what folk art was – and, the curators argue, the concept is incredibly difficult to pin down – then your assumptions are overturned. Throughout the exhibition, we find out that folk art is both urban and rural, large and small, male and female. It is objects from homes, shops and ships, by makers known and unknown.
The exhibition does not have a defined linear narrative, nor are there clearly defined groupings of objects. Instead, things are arranged according to loose categories: things from towns, the sea, and the countryside. Some are grouped together because they are similar in form or according to more traditional art historical conceptions of the figurative and the abstract. Objects that are more familiar in a museum context, particularly from social history collections, are here in abundance. Much about the exhibition can be enjoyed by simply looking at these glorious things. One is often overwhelmed by the amount of work and skill that the making of monumental figureheads or quilts of over 10,000 pieces must have entailed. Superficially, many of these objects somehow seem more accessible than ‘fine art’; evocative, like the Bellamy quilt, or instantly legible, like John Vine’s painting of three magnificently enormous pigs. But although we can admire them, we cannot know them. Objects do not speak for themselves, and some of these pieces are so individual and idiosyncratic, their makers unknown, that any deeper understandings are elusive. Some might argue that to enjoy things for their aesthetic appeal is enough, and that this is what experiencing art should involve. Whilst there is much pleasure to be gained from simply looking, a greater level of appreciation can always be gained by understanding about contexts of production and use: this is as true of Western fine art just as much as it is for art from elsewhere. Here, folk art proves to be particularly elusive in yielding meaning.
Whilst the notion of folk art is all-encompassing, there are several noticeable absences throughout much of the display. For all the stress on ‘folk’, people are shadows within the exhibition. Few makers are known, and even when there are names, individual biographies are rarely extensive. There is little information about the regions and communities that things come from, about the collective identities and traditions that they supposedly represent. The final room contains a fantastic array of photographs which provide a greater sense of who and where some of these things might have come from, and the particular customs and lifeways with which they may have been associated, but this is limited. The other thing missing is the contemporary. The newest artefacts here are from the 1950s and 60s. Searching for the folk art of today could be equally thought-provoking.
The fundamental question at the heart of the exhibition could be ‘is it art?’ Definition is deliberately shied away from, the curators rather encouraging us to think about the ways in which objects may slip between or occupy multiple categories (‘art’, ‘social history’, ‘domestic artefact’, ‘curio’). That question confronts you everywhere, but there are no answers here; this is either liberating or frustrating, depending on your perspective. Fundamentally, though, the central question is ‘what is art?’ The exhibition in this reading is not about ‘folk art’, but is an unsettling of the notion of art itself. Power is inevitably at play: anonymity, for example, is partly symptomatic of names not being thought important enough to remember. Even when makers’ names are known, their positioning in relation to the artistic canon can be precarious. Alfred Wallis is regarded as an artist but Mary Linwood is not; her needlework reproductions of works of art, once wildly popular, are now out of fashion despite their temporary foray into a twenty-first century art exhibition. There are issues of taste and connoisseurship, training and skill, and the institutional structures within which art is embedded. For art to be art it must be recognised as such. It is not enough to simply revel in the making of beautiful things.
Despite the eclecticism that the curators display, there is still a danger that folk art appears to be ‘other’ then, coming from other times and, often, from other places, away from the metropolitan gaze. From the Tate’s perspective, it is also largely from other collections. Whether or not folk art is a useful term – and its nebulousness raises questions – this exhibition is a visual treat and a tantalising taste of a world of objects. Certainly, it makes me want to visit or return to the collections that Tate borrowed from. There, perhaps, I may not find answers to the questions that this exhibition raises, but I will learn something different: about contexts of making and use, and about as much of the history of these artefacts as it is now possible to know.
Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy: a primer in the social history of pictorial style (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1988)
Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds.), Anthropology, art and aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)
Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991)
Ruth Kenny, Jeff McMillan and Martin Myrone, British Folk Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2014)[982 words]