Folk art. Two words to bring a rictus grin to the serious cultural critic’s visage, and that’s about it. The very thought of folk art makes me queasy. I wouldn’t usually review an exhib-ition of the stuff, for the same reasons that dance critics do not write gladly about morris dancing, and barrel-rolling is not an Olympic sport. If someone wishes to indulge these peculiar interests at obscure Westmorland gatherings, fine, but in the big wide world in which I swim, there is neither space nor inclination, usually, to tackle such transparently unnecessary pursuits. Yet here I am writing about folk art. Why? Because of two other words:
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.