Under Jeremy Deller’s guidance, folk art kicks off its clogs for ever. By Waldemar Januszczak
Jeremy Deller. Deller, you may remember, is the current holder of the Turner prize. His victory last year in the Tate’s annual tub-thumping competition was thoroughly convincing and entirely merited. Deller’s thing is the populace. He’s an archeologist of ordinariness, a curator of popular drives. Curiously, he was trained at the Courtauld Institute, no less, the country’s leading finishing school for art historians, and might normally have been expected to turn into a Brian Sewell type. But something went horribly wrong with his genes — some catastrophic morphing of his DNA occurred — and instead of placing all that fantastical knowledge of art you acquire at the Courtauld at the service of a privileged minority, as most graduates do, Deller turned into an artistic minstrel who champions the people’s urges.
Deller’s lively display at last year’s Turner-prize exhibition steered energetically away from the art world as it investigated the tastes and energies of banner-makers, carnival marchers, float-builders, placard-wielders and the creators of home-made museums in Texas. I see more clearly now that his main interest is that unshakable will to create with which humans appear to be hard-wired. It is one of our defining characteristics as a species. It unites the lady of a certain age who attends flower-arranging classes with the banged-up young offender who draws. The lady expresses herself with dahlias and peonies; the youth with tattoos of his dad hanging out with the Krays incised into his shins. So powerful is the urge, it has now managed to bring the lady and the yob together in the same show.
Folk Archive, at the Barbican, was organised and selected by Deller and Alan Kane. It was the sight of Deller’s name in the small print that persuaded me to risk it. He earned my trust at the Turner prize last year and does not betray it here. Folk Archive may be a thoroughly peculiar and occasionally creepy selection of wares, with very little in it that supplies proper aesthetic pleasure, but nobody can accuse it of lacking energy or of not telling you anything new. I got out of there feeling yanked into step with the creative drives of “ ordinary” people, and even now the thought of it makes me shiver.
Folk art. What does it conjure up? Letting my psyche freewheel here for a spell, I see decorated barges and pub signs, embroidered waistcoats on Somerset dancers and hand-painted roundabouts at the fair. Actually, it is quite hard to envisage fully functioning British folk art. Other places — Bavaria, Catalonia, Poland — seem to have more of it. Think of folk art here and you surely feel a simultaneous sense of loss. It’s gone. The modern world got it.
Sure, it pops up at harvest festivals and the like, but those sorts of occasions have huge quotation marks around them these days, and are deliberately regressive and nostalgic. Making jam is a leisure pursuit today, not an act of cultural pertinence. In the world of Tesco, there are no harvests.
Yet Deller and Kane have managed to cram the Barbican with stuff that throbs with unmistakably current creative energy. All over the place, tons of it. Their show comes madly at you, like the 12-year-old boys with burning barrels on their heads who career about the square in Ottery St Mary, Devon, on November 5 each year. Just as those boys surely ought not to be allowed out at night with barrels of burning petrol on their heads, so this show strikes you as naughty, chaotic, disrespectful, wilful and, at times, clinically insane.
Obviously, Deller and Kane have come up with a different definition of folk art than the one we might expect. Indeed, their use of this title is in itself an act of cheekiness. As far as I could see, there is no fairground art here, no painted barges, no deliberately wooden toys made the way grandad made them. Instead, we get prison art about girls and psychosis, hot-rod makeovers, banners waved by protesting sex workers, elaborate tattoos, cars with light shows and skull-shaped motorcycle helmets, impeccably painted to look real and determined, therefore, to beat death to the final punch.
Far from celebrating a range of cryogenically preserved country traditions, the show looks at various modern contexts, urban as well as rural, in which people flash their creativity at you. In the confiscation drawers of a prison, Deller found a set of horribly ingenious tattoo guns made from toothbrushes, rubber bands and Biros. At the Notting Hill Carnival, he filmed girls in computer costumes who announce themselves to be “12th-Century Fancy IT Sailors”. On Bastille Day, the entire French revolution is enacted by the staff of a patisserie in Soho. When the Countryside Alliance comes to town, witty rural graffiti gets scrawled on flyovers, where it jostles for space with the forest of urban tags already there.
The overall impression made by all this stuff is of a nation bursting to express itself creatively wherever and whenever it can, preferably through displays of naughtiness. A priest speeds down a motorway on a black motorbike with a matching sidecar hearse that offers bikers’ funerals. At a dole office in St Austell, a clerk laboriously decorates the covers of sick notes with an ever-changing array of spectacular line drawings. If a national event occurs and the nation is touched — the death of Diana was a classic occasion — we turn into a sea of artists, cutting, pasting, drawing, sewing, tearing, hammering together our tributes.
So, this isn’t folk art at all. It’s something much more critical: an unbeatable impulse, an uncrushable need. I like the way the urge to make ignores racial and political divides and trespasses on all the classes. The posh wags of the Countryside Alliance are just as creatively rude as the unwashed socialist workers marching against the war. Frustrated pensioners producing banners are as angry as banged-up young offenders making prison paintings. Everyone turns to art when it counts.
The results are, admittedly, often ghastly. I have seen few things as sad and creepy as the congregation at the annual Clowns’ Mass in Dalston. But even the worst sights here prove strangely heartening in the end. The modern world can pour what it likes over Homo sapiens, but it cannot douse the pilot light of creativity.
Which makes it even more regrettable that the director of the Tate had to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Tate Modern last week by shuffling into print to bemoan the lack of government support for his museum. Regular readers of this column will know me as a something of a refusenik on the subject of Tate Modern. I wasn’t as impressed as most when the museum opened, and have sniped away ever since at this and that. At the moment, I am nearing the end of a self-imposed six-month ban on writing about all Tate exhibitions, so annoyed have I been by their hogging of the limelight.
But you really would have to be blind and stupid not to see what a glorious success Tate Modern has proved. The public clearly cannot get enough of the place. It is quite simply the most popular museum in the world. In these circumstances, to seek to underfund Tate Modern while wasting so many fiscal and human resources in Iraq is basically obscene.