Last Friday, there was a conference held at the imposing Wren house of Compton Verney in Warwickshire organised by a new research network established in Manchester School of Art – folkartdesign.org.
The sell-out crowd found their way to the depths of the Warwickshire countryside in the heavy rain to witness a fantastic range of papers all about the coterie of mid-century women designers, who had a fascination, in one way or other, with English popular arts/folk art/vernacular art/outsider art/amateur art: the kinds of things at English fairgrounds, fetes, craft fairs, and horticultural shows.
The sting of backslashes in the last sentence is justified, as defining what kind of art that was the subject of these papers constituted one of the main talking points throughout the day.
Lou Taylor, in the first talk of the day gave an impassioned snap biography of her mother, Pearl Binder, who documented her life through an endless stream of illustrations, cartoons, sketches and book designs. Taylor quickly distanced herself from the term ‘folk art’ seeing unhelpful connotations with inter-war German national socialist connotations of the word ‘volk’ – i.e. a people united by race – and the preference in the USA to categorise certain non-official art as ‘folk’ in order to command high prices. No, for Taylor, her mother’s ‘drawing as anthropology’ was an appropriation of the ‘popular’ arts, a use of bold, colourful and expressive lines in her compositions of everyday life, and a lifetime of collecting items from junk stores and fairs, wherever she went. She claimed that the circle of women designers themselves described their interest as in the ‘popular’ arts, not folk, or anything else – from Enid Marx (English Popular Art), Barbara Jones (The Unsophisticated Arts) to William Addison (English Fairs and Markets).
The conference quickly succeeded in provoking debate, avoiding the danger that often befalls conferences – that of becoming anodyne.
But what actually is ‘popular’ art. And who is calling it popular? Is this another incidence, as famously was the case for outsider art in the first half of the twentieth, of highly trained art specialists and dealers flying into an area or a community of artists and decreeing certain things as paragons of expression (and other things not!) The women designers covered in this conference certainly found a way, through their interest in popular arts to obviate the hierarchies of art and art history in order to make a mark and find a channel for their creativity. Their work, that both appropriated and drew attention to the vernacular certainly can be framed as avant-garde expression against an establishment that was still wedded to painting and sculpture.
There was a fair amount of discussion on domestic modernism: not the modernism of Le Corbusier, European abstraction and clean lines, but the modernism associated with the English domestic interior: a Mondrian next to a solidly built fireplace as was the case with the Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Good observations, no doubt, but this ‘alternative modernism’ of the English domestic has been a corrective to standard narratives of modernism for some time (Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Twentieth Century Britain, Holt et al. Geographies of Englishness, Nancy Troy, Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France). Le Corbusier loved decorative carpets, alright! More enlightening was that these scholars of the popular arts probably derived some of their inspiration from the 1920s surrealists.
I think the most successful checklist of what constitutes folk art, and gets to the crux of what these designers were interested in was Jane Webb‘s seven point checklist. I’m not going to run through all of the points here, but it is worth saying that she introduced the term ‘fear’ to the conversation. For something to truly qualify as folk/popular art it needs to instill a sense of fear. I think, here, we were getting somewhere – towards the idea that the folk is not merely pleasing but jolts you out of a sense of yourself, and this is not just dependent on the work of art that you are looking at, but the context in which you look at it. It needs to be affective, stir you up, just as you would be if you were sitting on one of those Mary Rose ship rides at a fairground. A configuration that is unexpected, at least when you first look at it.
I contributed a chapter to the publication Collaborations Through Craft edited by Amanda Ravatz, Alice Kettle and Helen Felcey all about Department 21, an experimental, educational project I was involved in during the second year of my PhD at the Royal College of Art.
I am involved in a couple of talks this September in relation to my various research projects.
On Saturday 14th September, at 2pm, I will be talking at the Surrey History Centre in Woking on technical education in the late nineteenth century, and opportunities this provision enabled for women. The event is free, please see the following link for details:
Later on in the month, on Tuesday 24th September, I will be talking at an event ran by the Participation and Engagement in the Arts Exchange Network in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The talk will be about the long shadow cast by William Morris on contemporary participatory art projects that incite handmade interaction. The event is also free, see following link for details.
To walk through a gallery show of Outsider Art is to feel implicated. The normal relationships and actions that determine usual behaviour in the gallery are suspended as you ponder over someone’s therapy, a private world that was never intended to meet the public’s gaze.
In Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan the curators have not done much to reverse or recognise this discomfort. They emphasise the fantastical, the extreme – both in the selection of the work and their arrangement. Shota Katsube’s action figures made from twist-ties have an ocean of space between them and Kobei Bekki’s small clay figures are treated like the neolithic objects of the British Museum (yes with certain visual resemblances, but you are not going to find me making atemporal formal connections between their work and that of our early ancestors).
There is an essential miscontextualisation in Outsider Art, the work of ‘discovered’ artists put on show for the contemplation of an gallery audience who celebrate (sometimes naively) the expressive, emotional content of the work, while under-stressing the contexts of this discovery and the sometimes blatant artistic-colonial ‘othering’ going on (the sane clearly distinguished from the insane.)
Other critics have made these points – Colin Rhodes and Julian Stallabrass come to mind – so it is surprising that not more is done in this Wellcome show to rectify or explode this problematic. The history and work of the Social Welfare Organisations of Japan from which the work is drawn is not explained, nor is the founding (in 2004) of the Borderless Art Museum NOMA which has exhibited the work. Instead the curator in the pamphlet talks about how the artists’ rights are being protected through a not-for-profit charity, Haretari Kumottari, which raises the question: is the curator and this organisation regulating the boundary between outsider art and non outsider art for the purposes of the works publicity/dissemination. It makes sense for the purposes of clarity (or marketing) to use the tag ‘outsider’ to describe these artworks, but considering that mental illness is close to so many people’s lives, how outside are these artists’ conditions anyway.
The features of the outsider on show here – such as intensive doodling, huge scale, repetition of imagery, the sexual content and obsessiveness – are not that far away in the world of art practice, found in teenage diaries, expression at the early stages of art education, and in many of the works on show in graduate shows. Formally, there are resemblances between the outsiders and the throngs of students graduating from colleges across the country. The processes adopted by the Outsider Artists are not massively different. Talk to any student and you can see the assiduous obsessiveness that attends the creation of their show pieces. Walk through fine art departments and flat perspectives and cartoon figures abound.
All of this contributes to the extraordinary sense of unoriginality in the curating of Souzou, that works against the sense of the creative brilliance of some of the pieces. Audiences are au fait with the Outsider Art category – the Museum of Everything (in its various guises) confirmed this. Another level of reading is required. How different are these artists, how ‘outside’ are they in an art world where anything goes? Is Outsider Art simply defined by not regulating one (or more) parts of the artistic process: a refusal to believe in the one off, the creation of endless series of similar motifs (with tiny differences), and pure personal indulgence (i.e. not making ‘for’ an audience). To sum up – a refusal to conform to the conditions of the art market.
The equivalence between works at Souzou and works in graduate shows is clearly not straightforward. The context of each set of works’ production is entirely different. However, by categorising the outsiders on account of their placement within a welfare institute is the artworld simply backing up outdated, Enlightenment-borrowed structures that seek to rationalise aberrant behaviour?
More can be gained by bringing the outside in, or at least allowing all art to stand on the same plateau, where disciples of Duchamp sit alongside ‘discovered’ artworks from the outside, applicants to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and the populous crowd of graduating art students. Art’s demand to challenge must surely still form part of its rationale. Despite the unbelievable work in Souzou one feels that all the challenging content, explosive messages and deep meaning is diluted by unoriginal curators.
I have just written a blog for the Fixperts website. It is a project led by Daniel Charney, of the V&A’s ‘Power of Making’ fame, and James Carrigan, co-founder of the fixing agent company Sugru, that gets people enthused about repairing things.
See the blog here.
Additional extra from the drafting of the above blog: the ‘repair’ of editing.
On April 10th I will be involved in a School of Life event about the promise of the ‘democracy of making’ promoted by increasingly available and advanced tools: 3-D printers, online DIY tutorials, kits available in the out-of-town shopping centres, and abundant supply of different sorts of material.
See this link for more information:
Is the consumer in a more powerful position because manufacture has been added to their toolbox, or does the recent mass individualisation merely flatter the productive capabilities of an increasingly skill-less population?
Art history programmes on television have long been characterised by white men strolling up and down beside a painting in a gallery, perhaps with cuts to library footage, sweeping scenes, a sped-up skyscape, tourists, the presenter walking through a picturesque scene, or people in the modern world doing similar things to what is depicted in the painting.
Kenneth Clark, Robert Hughes and John Berger all delivered compelling arguments by standing in front of the camera, beside an artwork, for a number of episodes. One voice throughout, assisted by images. Berger scrutinised the means of transmitting art through television and photography with his colourful shirt; Hughes romped through various case studies – often unexpected on first viewing – and tied the history of modern art together with insight, wit and restrained irreverence.
A single argument underlies this form of presentation, delivered by one person. And this continues in many of the programmes about art today (Waldemar Januszczak, Dr James Fox, Alastair Sooke, to name a few, and even the short packages on art that you see on BBC News by Will Gompertz).
Another will is evident in BBC Four’s recent ‘Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice’ (see link). Not only of the Self variety, but the striving for a new legitimacy provided by multiple voices. Instead of one argument, one response, one approach, there are many. Several art celebrities that you would approach if you were making a documentary about art for the BBC – Grayson Perry, Kirsty Walk, Dan Snow, Dr James Fox, Don McCullin, etc. – contribute. The theme is snow and ice. It could have been sun and sand and still include a similar cast of painters and critical responses.
What is worth thinking about is the programme’s method. Lots of different contributions from commentators and historians: some pedestrian, some engaging. No single voice but pluralism. Endless sound-bites from a new person every five minutes, probably a lateral translation of tweets to the medium of the art history programme. There is less an ego of a single authorial voice, more a valorisation through letting more people have their say (and people whose expertise some might want to question)
The problem is that no one person can really get going (a part of Will Self of course – he’ll fit into any straightjacket you give him and do something destructive like burn a painting in the meantime). There is cursory treatment of many things, rather than an argument that can be followed.
Individuals jumping in at each narrative turn (done chronologically) means that stereotypes have to be relied upon to provide context. The threat of vagueness looms. There is a loss of a central thrust, and the analysis falls below the level required for an undergraduate essay. For example, the concluding line:
“Today our attitude to winter is ambivalent”
Although this is no clinching denouement that makes you want to write your own sequel, the programme captures a new democracy of art criticism. All, can do it. This point is emphasised through the way the commentators are set up to respond to the paintings. They are not asked to linger inside a crowdless gallery (filmed at 5am or 7pm outside tourist hours) gesturing at their object of analysis, but respond to an A3 reproduction/print of the painting that they are presumably given by the producing team. Combined with taking this canvas to some relevant site (what the painting depicts, or somewhere generally cold) the form of delivery is active, out there, in seemingly more unpredictable spaces.
But instead of this encouraging a radical approach, the impression left is one of competition between all the commentators in making their bit of airtime the most compelling. Its like a succession of John Bergers or Robert Hughes squeezed into less time, rather than a genuinely collaborative model. Art commentators each saying their own bit in an economy of words, without modifying what they might say if they knew what came after them or before them in the programme. Leave that to the programme’s producer. That’s his job.