British Folk Art

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British Folk Art

cockerel crafted from bone fragments by a French prisoner of war

Tate Britain, London, until 31 August

Policing the borders of art is a tricky business. They’re porous, and they’re constantly shifting. What passes as “art” today may no longer pass tomorrow. It’s like nailing jelly to a tree.

This is not a question that torments most of us. But the movers and shakers in the art world are obsessed with it. Either they’ve got millions riding on their favourites or else they’ve erected palaces of high culture around them.

Art academies were even established in Britain and France during the 17th and 18th centuries, in an attempt to define and reinforce the elusive concept.

“Folk Art” is particularly troublesome for those wishing to enforce the boundaries — not least because it explicitly introduces social class into the equation.

As Julian Bell writes in the London Review of Books, “Folk is ‘them’, those not talking proper, not doing the judging: most typically…the artisans of imperial, industrialising Britain.”

Strangely, the curators of this exhibition make it clear they are uncomfortable with the very notion of folk art. Their introductory booklet rightly describes it as “a contradictory and contested term”.

So they simply choose to evade the question. Their method has been to assemble pieces from regional museums that have already labelled folk art by others.

The eclectic objects they’ve assembled range from the work of professional craftspeople (ships’ figureheads, a straw man made for a university ball, trade signs for an illiterate public) to the devout (god in a bottle) to workers in periods of enforced “idleness” — retired seamen, prisoners of war, convalescing soldiers.

There is plenty to admire and enjoy. My favourite is the cockerel (pictured) lovingly crafted from bone fragments by a French prisoner of war held captive near Peterborough.

It’s far too rare that the creations of such “ordinary people” are shown in the temples of art. So it’s pleasing they’ve snuck in here. But I wonder about the subtext. Do the establishment like this notion of working class “culture” because it is unthreatening?

Already in the Victorian era, a taste for the precursors of folk art — “bygones” and “popular antiquities” — was developing among our rulers. They preferred their lower orders to be either rustic or devout and industrious — and the folk art of the day often fed this fantasy.

But even if the show is a bit Downton Abbey, at least it has unearthed some treasures. What leaves a bitter taste is the entrance price. This fairly small display of work by workers costs £14.85 to get in!