Compton Verney has raided its own collection of folk art in an attempt to open up its collection to new and multiple interpretations. Artists and curators have been invited to select items from the extensive folk art collection housed in the attic rooms of the 18th century country house and place them in an act of “intervention” amongst the fine art and artefact collections around the museum. This interspersal is designed to generate unmanaged dialogues between diverse items within the museum’s collection, as the visual language of non-academic folk art is made to rub shoulders with images and sculpture that sit comfortably inside the canon of traditional high culture.
One senses a curatorial crisis being played out here, albeit a restrained crisis, and one that is not permitted to intrude too rudely on the general scheme of the museum. Following the broad trend among contemporary art scholars and curators to be suspicious of the tradition of aesthetic judgements made within western culture, the curators at Compton Verney have now met with this crossroads. In academia, this suspiciousness has developed into the new discipline of “Visual culture”, motivated by the possibility that other visual artefacts outside of the canon may be equally capable of aesthetic and ideological complexity. The loaded cultural concept of “art”, entailing the problematics of cultural bias and social inequality, is brought under the demands of comparative study.
The interventions at Compton Verney take some of their significance from the disruption of the established layout of the museum as it stands. The folk collection is housed (derogatively, it might be argued) in the garret rooms of the house. These rooms, whilst well-lit and concurrent with the generous ratios of the building as a whole, are relatively crowded and irregular spaces connected by a moderately disorientating thread of staircases. They stand in contrast to the classically proportioned rooms of the ground floor where the “high” art works are displayed.
Thus, to take a work from the folk collection and to place it elsewhere in the building is to immediately free it from the hierarchy implied by the upstairs rooms. There is a sense too of playfulness in the repositioning of the folk works, such as the artist Paula MacArthur’s choice to place a pair of Punch and Judy doorstops next to a painted limewood panel altarpiece. Nearby, a knitted woollen egg cosy has been mischievously lauded by the artist Sonia Boyce on an alabaster relief of The Resurrection. These acts give the project a naughty, disruptive edge, suggesting that at least some of the folk items are understood in terms of the broad category of absurdity, and thus as a foil to pretensions of “meaningful” high art as a general phenomena.
The unruly quality of the project is allied with other less anarchic, though no less disruptive, choices from the folk collection at Compton Verney. The artist Daniel Baker has placed the sign of Gunsmith’s shop, in the shape of a shotgun cartridge, within the room of eminent British Portraits, suggesting perhaps the links between rule and force.
One of the most successful interventions is Susan Hiller’s positioning of folk artist T. L. Morilyan’s A Terrible Shipwreck next to Carlo Bonavia’s A Storm off a Rocky Coast. To two works, depicting essentially the same subject, are thus primed for comparison. What strikes the spectator is how the latter work is compositionally more refined and mannered, the scene an idealised representation of the sublime power of the sea. In comparison, the folk work is far less polished, but because of this presents an untreated reportage account of the dangers of the sea.
Despite these successes, What the Folk Say still suffers from the perennial difficulty of re-appraising folk art inside the context of the traditional canon. Implicit in the terminology of art history is the distinction between “high” and “low” art, the former identified with painting, sculpture and architecture, the latter with decorative and folks arts. The constant danger of introducing these marginalised art forms into the Western canon is that the structure of restriction and exclusivity is merely replicated to form a canon of “marginalised art”. Any attempts, therefore, to inaugurate folk art into a canon of artistic achievements according to canonical categories would act to reinforce the patriarchal standards which these canons helped to normalize.
The project at Compton Verney succeeds in avoiding this trap by adopting an open-ended curatorial structure. The placement of the folk pieces by a range of artists and curators is by no means an inauguration into the traditional canon. Instead, the mischief of the inventions creates a fissure that is welcome and provoking. Still, one cannot help but feel that this fissure also operates at an unconscious level, one which works to reinforce the significance of the established works, and to denigrate the folk pieces as random, haphazard moments of creativity. In contrast, the permanent collection seems impassive to the dalliances going on around it, maintaining an eminence which reflects the ambivalent duties of a contemporary museum.