My wife once painted a sign for a local pick-your-own strawberry farm, and it got stolen within a week. It got stolen because it was good. This is by way of illustrating the very basic transaction at work in this Tate Britain show. It is full of brilliantly executed, unselfconscious works of sublime creativity. These were mainly done by men and women deprived of access to much education, history, aesthetic discrimination or ‘taste’. As a result, when they sat down to paint/knit/weave/carve/mould/drill or bottle the thing they were making, they did so in a way that appealed to prevailing fashions, or how they’d been taught to, or how the bloke next to them was doing it, only better, or based on whatever the hell was going through their mind that morning.
You’ll notice I haven’t used the word ‘art’ yet, even through it’s in the blinking title of a show that costs you the better part of 15 quid to get into. That’s because I don’t want you getting all hung up on some irrelevant debate about whether a cockerel made from scavenged bones by a French prisoner of war constitutes a ‘work of art’. Or whether the titanic figurehead of the good ship Calcutta is a work of art. Or whether a striking monochrome ‘drunken path’ quilt which must have taken hundreds of candlelit hours to create is a work of art.
The people who made these things didn’t think like that, because they couldn’t afford to. No one was going to ‘discover’ them, or stick them on the cover of Modern Painters or sit them in a chair and have Alan Yentob ask them about selfies. This is hand-to-mouth stuff. The reason these artists are largely anonymous is that they were paid for their work, not their thoughts. Occasionally one might become a local celeb. Most famous here are George Smart of Kent, who made repetitive collages out of scraps of cloth and paper, which he sold to tourists; and Alfred Wallis, he of the vertically ascending Cornish schooner, and pet plaything of the St Ives school of bed-hopping British modernists. As is often the fate of ethnographic subjects, both get righteously patronised for their pains. The curators query whether Smart might have been a bit knowing about his supposedly naive efforts, and whether Wallis was ‘encouraged’ in his primitivism. Oo! The phoneys! The answers are yes, and yes, respectively, for the same reason that Jack Vettriano didn’t throw his paint brushes away the second he saw that Martin Creed video of a lady taking a dump: what they did was popular, and it was all they knew how to do.
The giant boots, flags, embroidery and carvings in this show are amazing. Amazing in their vision, and amazing in their humbleness. My favourite? A photograph of a fairground galloper off a carousel, in the form of a centaur, with the body and legs of a horse and the torso, arms, head, pith helmet and binoculars of a Boer War soldier. As a comment on war, entertainment, creation and futility, it would grace any gallery in the world.