Strewn across New England’s green fields and hills are dozens of sites that once
housed utopian communes. From the Shaker villages of Sabbathday Lake in Maine and
Canterbury in New Hampshire to Bronson Alcott’s militant vegan Fruitlands in Massachusetts,these experiments in 18th- and19th-century communist living produced
an extraordinary aesthetic, embodied in the clean-lined utilitarianism of Shaker furnitureand the Fruitlanders’ brown linen smocks. Visiting these sites recently, I became sharply aware of the inherent value placed on such cultural eruptions of Americana.
Shaker artefacts, for instance, are subjectsof serious study (and exorbitant sales)
and quilt-making is revered. Compare that to the pejorative manner in which folk art
is regarded in Britain, conjuring up yoghurtweavers singing with their hands over their
ears and men dancing with handkerchiefs. New England’s reverence for its folk
art came to mind as I toured Tate Britain’s new exhibition. It made me aware that
I’m not sure what “folk art” is. I’m still not they have for us now derives from our
modern lives being so immensely overladen with imagery. We see a new image every
few seconds. A pre-industrial Briton would have seen only iconography in churches,
and perhaps posters and broadsheets. “Fine art” would have been far from their communal
sight. Folk art, then, comes to us as an evocation of apparent innocence. Hence
its relevance – or fashionability – in an agethat is busy dumping the analogue. But
that sense of nostalgia also has a reactionary air. It is, as E P Thompson said of the late 18th-century popular explosion of Methodism,
“a component of the psychic processes of counter-revolution”. It’s also a reminder of what we have lost,as the relatively small scale of the show betrays.
Other critics have noted that a similar exhibition in New York, Boston or Washington
would be full to bursting with Shaker furniture, scrimshaw and decoy ducks –
as well as the work of indigenous peoples. A visit to the splendid American Museum in
Bath only underlines the point (as does the fact that John F Kennedy was buried with a
carved sperm whale’s tooth in his coffin).
Of course, some might say that this inequality is due to the old west having far more
“serious” art to draw upon in the first place.Yet in some ways the Tate show is actually
displaying the work of the British indigenous, unconsciously reflecting a new
sense of nationalism in an industrial-imperial era, an assertion of a pre-multicultural
age. Hence the “blackamoor” ship’s figureheads in one room, and the photographs
enlightened. The Tate show is described as “the first major historical exhibition” of
its kind in the UK, and that it fails to live up to expectations (but does so brilliantly)only proves its subject’s fluid and inconclusive nature.
Does “folk art” mean anything creative made by a person lacking sophistication
and a formal education, the product of artisans, rather than artists? Where
does folk art end and outsider art begin? As the assistant curator Ruth Kenny notes in
her excellent catalogue essay, quoting Jane Kallir, “folk art is, in fact, everything that everybody always thought was not art before the modernist revolution at the turn of the century”. There’s a degree of hierarchy, if not snobbery,being addressed here – one that is only underlined by the high-culture setting of the Tate, where visitors are greeted by video monitors replaying Kenneth Clark’s greatest hits from Civilisation. If a similar show were to address modern folk art, its most telling display would be a selection of tattoos culled
from the upper arms, necks and lower backs of the population. Contemporary art only
adds to the confusion.
Grayson Perry’s pots and his 2006 curated show “The Charms of Lincolnshire”; Tracey Emin’s quilts; Linder Sterling’s re-creation of Shaker rituals; Simon
Costin’s Museum of British Folklore; Tania Kovats’s travelling caravan, the Museum
of the White Horse; Angela Cockayne’s scrimshaw and trades-union-inflected blueprints; the graphic artist Jonny Hannah’s forthcoming Greetings from Darktown book and, pre-eminently, Jeremy Deller’s installations and films, all deal in one
way or another in this vernacular. Is it possible to look at this material without the arch,knowing filter of post-postmodernism?
“British Folk Art” is at Tate Britain,
London SW1, until 31 August
Philip Hoare’s latest book is “The Sea Inside”