'Tate rejects elitist Old Masters'

June 5 2014

Image of 'Tate rejects elitist Old Masters'

Picture: Tate Britain, 'Goose Woman' by George Smart

That's the headline in The Times for an article on Tate Britain's new exhibition 'British Folk Art'. It from an interview with Martin Myrone, Tate's Lead Curator for British Art pre-1800, in which he says:

"We have rested much more on the idea of a canon of great masters, a Hogarth-to-Turner story. In a way we have overlooked the everyday more acutely than in Europe and in North America. it is a fairly narrow kind of canon. A select few artists have been elevated, but there is a whole world of making and physical production which is really exciting."

Part of the problem had been the founding principles of the Royal Academy, he said, which on its establishment in 1769 had declared that "no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted".

Mr Myrone said: "It was attempting to draw a very firm line between high art and low art, between popular culture and elite culture. In a way, the great efforts made to prop up the Royal Academy and keep the artistic elite in their elite position has been one of the factors that has helped to marginalise other kinds of artists." [...]

"More generally, there's a sense that all of us who go to galleries now are probably more open-minded about what we can expect to see there. We are informed by contemporary art practice to expect the unexpected. We have moved on from the idea that galleries are about oil paintings on canvas".

Who's 'we' here? Not stick-in-the-mud elitists like me. And nor,I suspect, most readers?

Update - a reader tweets:

Is it giving away some free then? No, thought not!

Update II - a reader writes:

Time will tell whether 'Folk Art' is another of Tate Britain's turkey shows nobody visits. I suspect most people won't find pub signs 'really exciting', or believe in Tate's new theory that 'elite culture' is necessarily different, and less worth our attention and approval, to 'popular culture'.

Update III - another reader writes:

£14.50 to get into that? It's free down the bric-a-brac shop.

Update IV - but here's a folk fan!

Actually looking forward to seeing this. I like the quirkier end of art history.

Update V -another folk fan writes:

I think you and your correspondents are a bit hard on "folk art" (which is, by the way, far from a new thing on my side of the Atlantic).  There may well be many "folk" (sorry) who find it interesting; I do myself -- as history, that is, or just as plain fun. The term "folk art" seems perfectly admissible; we don't have to restrict the word "art" to great art (remember medieval and renaissance cassoni!). 

However, you are not being too hard on grandiose pop-sociological claims for folk artworks as equivalent to any other art, or bad quasi-political analysis implying love for great art is elitist.  Let people see folk art; even let the Tate put on a show for fun; but don't let them get away with that sort of blather.

For the record, I think an exhibition of folk art is entirely justified, indeed laudable. In fact, I will even go and see it. But I think allowing a narrative to develop that it's somehow 'against' other 'elite' art, such as Old Masters, might not be the best way to go about publicising it. The presentation of the exhibition in The Times had a slight ring of Gerald Ratner about it. 

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