It can be easy to forget how restricted a view of art production most of us really have. The works sitting pretty in our major museums and galleries are the towering emergent trees in our cultural ecosystem; while often wholly unrepresentative of mainstream forms of creative activity (being, as we say, ‘original’), they nevertheless absorb a disproportionately large share of the available resources: scholarship, exposure in exhibitions and publications, and money. At the other end of the scale – in the murky zone below the forest canopy – are the various popular practices known as ‘folk art’. This term encircles a formidably diverse range of phenomena. It can refer to artefacts which are recognisable as works of art, such as the small felt collage pictures made by George Smart, the tailor from Frant, as a sideline to his business. But it also encompasses context-specific performances (morris-dancing, story-telling) and activities so ephemeral or routine – traditional jam making, for example – that to refer to them as art at all requires a stretch of the imagination for most historians. In his talk on 1st October 2012, curator Martin Myrone explored the museological issues raised by the British folk art tradition, focusing on the question of how this fascinating but deeply problematic body of material might best be offered to the public in an upcoming exhibition at Tate Britain.
As the case studies which Myrone presented to us reveal, a key difficulty associated with folk art is its resistance to the various labels (author, date, genre, etc.) which museums rely upon to contextualise and interpret objects for their audiences. One of his most striking examples, the ship’s figureheads preserved in British naval collections, illustrate some of the complexities involved here. These anonymous wooden sculptures cannot really be viewed as instances of a period style because over the centuries they have been repeatedly stripped down and repainted. Nor does their level of craftsmanship allow them to be presented as ‘timeless’ aesthetic objects which can be appreciated by museum visitors without a supporting framework of historical information. Like most folk art, they occupy an uneasy position between high art and the straightforwardly functional.
The ambiguous status of folk art also carries a political charge. As one contributor in the discussion session pointed out, to transplant a work from, say, the Reading Museum of Rural Life into a prominent art museum like the Tate is a significant act of redescription, one which involves certain risks. If the work falls short of the high aesthetic standards with which its new home is associated, it may end up seeming hopelessly clumsy, vulgar or irrelevant; a gesture intended to celebrate folk art may expose it to ridicule. On the other hand, bringing unusual materials into the museum can also help to refresh our ideas of what counts as art. It will be interesting to see how Myrone and his team choose to manage the challenges of folk art in a few years’ time.