The Importance of Folk Art

I have just started researching for my next PhD assignment, which will look at the ways the media has reviewed exhibitions of outsider art over the past fifteen years. Whilst working my way through back catalogues of exhibition reviews, I came across Jonathan Jones’ review of the 2014 British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain (London).

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In his review of the first major exhibition of British folk art (which is actually very positive), Jones identifies folk art as exceptional in that it “shows that there lies a whole other cultural history that is barely ever acknowledged by major galleries.” This got me thinking about a work trip I made to Compton Verney in Warwickshire earlier this year. Compton Verney has its own very broad collection of folk art, which is exhibited in custom designed rooms housed at the very top of a magnificent building.

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Incorporating amusing yet beautiful paintings of prized farm animals to visual signs used above shops before reading was something that most people were able to do, the collection is a wonderful accumulation of a history of Britain that we so rarely get to see or experience. It is the day to day life of the everyday person.

Traditionally produced by people from a lower socio-economic background working within their local communities, folk art is often found dancing around the edges of the mainstream art world. Often seen as craft, it has a reputation as being a form of ‘low’ art. The distinction between folk art and ‘mainstream’ art has been emphasised – and embedded – by art institutions, whose historical works endeavour to show either the lives and faces of the upper-classes, or the lives of the working-classes through the eyes of the middle- or upper-classes.

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In his review, Jones notes that “where ‘elite’ paintings in the Tate collection might show such people [people from the working-classes] labouring in the fields, here they are shown as they wished to see themselves – dressed up on a festive day instead of working their fingers to the bone.” This distinction between the content of folk art and the content of ‘mainstream’ historical works highlights the influence of art institutions over what we see and know about our own cultural history.

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On entering most of the major galleries in London, works in their historical collections will show monarchs, or other men and women of high standing, probably dripping in gold. Or they might show the lives of the lower-classes, but tinged with an authoritative gaze – maybe the people in these depictions are at work, or they are sick. These depictions give us very little insight into the actual lives of people who were not a part of society that was accepted, documented and shared. If we believe what we see in these historical works, we could believe that people from working-classes were just unfeeling toiling machines. But what were their lives really like? What did they enjoy doing? And how did they really see the world?

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This is where folk art becomes particularly valuable to us. Because it is in these apparently ‘mundane,’ ‘everyday’ images that we see what life was really like for those who had little to no control over what was recognised as historically important. They are lives and stories that have been hidden by those in positions of power; a kind of propaganda that has shaped how we see our history. And art galleries and museums (being the influential institutions that they are) have had a huge part to play in this. Art, if you think about it, is the only visual documentation we have of ‘what came before.’ If we are only privy to images created and disseminated by those from a certain societal standing, then we only see the world as they experienced it.

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“In stately homes from Kenwood to the fictitious Downton Abbey, we are told again and again that Britain’s culture has been shaped down the centuries by the elite, its art collection, it cooks and its gardeners,” Jones notes. This, he says, is just “the view from above.” By exhibiting folk art in our key arts institutions (like Tate, and like Compton Verney), we are giving audiences the chance to experience what everyday life was like for the everyday person. Folk art is an intrinsic part of our history. It is something we cannot afford to lose.

(all images taken by the author at Compton Verney)

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