Sparrow, V. British Folk Art: The house that Jack built. Exhibition Review. Dandelion postgraduate arts journal and research network. Volume 5 Number 2 Spring 2015. Published by Birkbeck, University of London.
In this article the author, Vicky Sparrow, uses the recent Tate Gallery Exhibition of British Folk Art (2014) as a starting point for a discussion of the position of this genre in the 21st Century. As a mosaic artist this is of interest to me since a type of mosaic work using broken crockery called ‘Boody Ware’ falls into this category. The issues the writer raises in this piece and how she presents them are therefore of interest.
Sparrow questions the choice of Tate Britain as a suitable venue for an exhibition on British folk art. She opens the debate on a positive note by stating that an exhibition of British folk art is overdue as it has long been neglected by academics and curators alike. She also states that by holding an exhibition of this type in a gallery rather than a museum, the genre is recategorized as Art History rather than Social History. She sees the overwhelming positivity of this reassessment being undervalued by a conflict of interest she sees arising between the Tate Gallery, with its “attendant establishment aesthetic and commercial values” (1) and the tradition of folk art with its roots in the vernacular and the collective.
Sparrow starts her argument by outlining why she considers the Tate felt that the time was ripe for this re-evaluation. She sees the roots of it starting with the interest that artists such as Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane have shown in Folk Art in their work Folk Archive (1999). She also discusses the contribution to this that artists such as Grayson Perry, Tracy Emin and Bob and Roberta Smith have made, all of whom use elements of traditional making in their work (weaving, tapestry and hand drawing respectively). This, the author states, has fed into the wider cultural interest in the Handmade that has reached a wider audience via the likes of Kath Kidston and Kirsty Allsop (entrepreneur and television presenter respectively). The use of mass marketing through the media that has accompanied this popularity has, in her opinion, moved the focus away from the folk art narrative into the realms of kitsch. The writer uses these examples to suggest, therefore, that the Tate is tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment by hosting an exhibition of this type.
Sparrow continues with an interesting discussion of the difference between kitsch and folk art, citing the art critic Clement Greenberg as an influential voice in this debate. She argues that kitsch can be used as a means of manipulating an audience in a way that folk art cannot as it
…”removes the effort of reflection required in the viewing of high art …. making it readily available for immediate consumption”. (2)
She ends this section using contemporary phrases associated with kitsch such as ‘make do and mend’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ as a means of illustrating that in the present time of austerity, kitsch is being used to make people believe ‘we’re all in this together’ (a much-used phrase by ex prime minister David Cameron) regardless of their class. By taking this stand in a discussion of folk art, the author is suggesting that there is a contradiction between these ideas that have been enthusiastically taken up by the middle classes, and the working class roots of folk art, from which these values arose.
Moving onto the exhibition itself, Sparrow is critical of the curation of the show. There are two strands of argument here: firstly she feels that the Tate makes very little effort to draw a distinction between folk art from kitsch in the exhibition. She cites two main examples of this :the use of hand drawn images in the accompanying hand out for the show and the choice of bright colours used as a back drop to the work displayed. In the writer’s view these are both indications that the Tate has failed to give folk art the serious consideration it deserves.
Perhaps more importantly, Sparrow feels that the exhibition fails to engage with the viewer by not giving them a clear definition of what constitutes folk art and by not discussing the complex issues that surround it. She views it as a lost opportunity to discuss the lack of general interest in and engagement with folk art in Britain. She states
“The political and economic sidelining of folk art in favour of the more politically pliable kitsch and the more economically productive ‘high art’, with its lucrative markets and monopolies isn’t considered.” (3)
This is further underlined, in her opinion, by the fact that the exhibition does not contain any examples of contemporary folk art. The majority of exhibits in the show are over a century old. By doing this the author rightly points out that the exhibition fails to discuss the place of folk art in the twenty first century and the rise of grassroots groups expressing popular resistance.
In conclusion, Sparrow’s article offers an interesting critique of the approach the Tate took to curating an exhibition on British folk art and makes a forceful argument as to why, in her opinion, the gallery had a conflict of interest which prevented it from being objective or brave enough in the discussion surrounding it. The author’s own political views emerge in the writing and on occasion it becomes close to an anti-establishment rant. For this reason it is concluded that the article lacks a certain amount of balance – perhaps the high profile of the gallery, is, in fact, a sign that the art world is ready to reassess folk art and the audience is smart enough to see the difference between folk art and kitsch, despite the colour of the gallery walls. This aside, the article contains compelling arguments that give a fresh insight into the issues surrounding folk art. Most importantly, it succeeds in continuing the debate that the Tate started by rightly or wrongly being the institution to host this exhibition, and that can only be a good thing.
(1) Sparrow, V. 2015. British Folk Art: The house that Jack built, exhibition review. Dandelion Journal Postgraduate arts journal and research network. Volume 5 Number 2 Spring 2015, pub Birkbeck, University of London. Pg 1 para 1.
(2) Ibid pg 2, para 2
(3) Ibid pg 3, para 1
Total word count 1060.