Unpopular Culture is a mysterious and surprising exhibition. It's curated by the artist-potter-transvestite, Grayson Perry. All its exhibits paintings, sculptures, documentary photos are drawn from the extensive collection of the Arts Council. It's just begun its tour of England and Wales at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. And it's had a lot of publicity. But if you went into it unprimed, and didn't read the various caption boards, I wonder what you'd think it was about?
Gloom, perhaps, the gloom of mid-20th-century Britain which is where and when the works in the show come from. They're by artists as famous as LS Lowry, Henry Moore and Bert Hardy and as obscure as Brian Robb, Margaret Lovell and Christine Pearcey. But they're all joined together by a pervasive mood that is, if not deeply gloomy, then certainly downbeat, low-key, quietly depressed. It's a defiantly dowdy show.
Coming across this muster of work in a larger art gallery, occupying one room of Tate Britain, say, you might be inclined to keep moving. These hunched, crabbed and blistered little bronzes, these views of town and country where it's always raining, the general sense of poor visibility, colourlessness, narrow horizons keep moving, for surely the next room will hold something brighter and more expansive.
You'd probably be right. It could well have some Pop Art in it. The work in Unpopular Culture covers approximately the 1940s to the 1960s, but there are conspicuous omissions no Pop Art or Op Art, no abstraction, no flamboyant individuals like Stanley Spencer or Francis Bacon. It's a survey that seems carefully edited to confirm your worst suspicions about the caution and provincialism of British art.
Perry takes a more idealistic view of his selection. Unpopular Culture is meant to present British art from the decades before it became fashionable, loud, smart, shallow and newsworthy, when it was a serious, minority pursuit and "not a quick fix of visual stimulation for an adrenaline-addicted consumer". The show, he says, gives "a picture of British culture when life was slower, and when, maybe, we were more reflective, more civic and more humane".
Nostalgie de la frump? (Perry has designed a headscarf to accompany the show, on sale at the gallery shop.) But it's true that when you isolate this kind of work from the flashier competition, take it only in its own company, and concentrate, then your attention does adjust you become slower, more reflective and more receptive to its modest, solid virtues.
All right, I couldn't really open my heart to many of the paintings. Paul Nash's seaside Promenade and Edward Burra's Blasted Oak have a sharp spooky breeze of Surrealism-cum-MR James. But the patient, murky observations of Victor Pasmore, Leonard Rosoman, Alan Reynolds, Ruskin Spear and Elinor Bellingham-Smith well, I was struck by Perry's praise for their "attractive humility", because the very idea of humility being attractive, in art or life, is nowadays unheard of. But I think you can ask for a little more tightening of the screw without being branded a hopeless adrenaline head.
I was very fond of the sculptures, though. Perry has acutely put his finger on a distinct genre, the defensive, introverted lump. It might be Head by William Turnbull, or Head by Edwin Pickett, or Head by Elisabeth Frink, it might be John Wragg's Trophy, or Meg Rutherford's Quartros, or Lynn Chadwick's Rad Lad all have a character of clenched, stubborn resistance. Go away, they seem to say to the viewer, go away, I'm on the loo.
And altogether it's good to be reminded of a time when art wasn't part of the general programme of fun. We see at the moment the excruciating spectacle of someone the Prime Minister who simply cannot get with this programme. And it's a measure of how far fun-gone we are, that people actually wonder whether he might be insane. An art that is conducted with dogged moral seriousness has clearly something to teach us.
So I like the attitude of this show. And I like its method, too. In fact, its attitude is its method. The only principle that really unites the artworks is this rather dour and stoical sensibility. True, some of the paintings belong to the "kitchen sink" school of dirty realism, and some of the sculptures are from the angular "geometry of fear" stable...
And incidentally, if we're being nostalgic, a brief tribute is due to the lost art of labelling. Those two vivid phrases "kitchen sink", "geometry of fear" were coined in the 1950s by (respectively) the art critics David Sylvester and Herbert Read. What resonant categorisation has the last 20 years produced? Young British Artists? Ah, yes, the Ronseal Principle.
Anyway, back to the point: there are these movements, but the work in Unpopular Culture as a whole doesn't fall under any umbrella. You have paintings that are landscape or townscape, mainly unpeopled. You have sculptures that are solitary, semi-abstracted figures. You have photos of everyday life, focused on social activity. This doesn't, by any of the normal standards, amount to a proper artistic grouping.
Yet group it does by mood, by spirit, with a coherence that is hard to define, though not too hard to grasp. Perhaps only an artist would have the nerve to do this intuitive form of curating. Perhaps only an artist would be allowed to get away with it. Perry is not the first, though. These touring exhibitions, organised by the Hayward Gallery and the Arts Council, have had artist-curators before.
There was Richard Wentworth's show called Thinking Aloud, and Susan Hiller's Dream Machines, and Tacita Dean's An Aside. They were each very successfully free-associating. Wentworth's was something to with models and sketches, Hiller's was something to do with the irrational, and Dean's was search me; one thing just kind of led to another, in a relay of links that had no embracing agenda.
But in each show, you weren't given a bunch of works that all illustrated a set theme. Working out how one exhibit affiliated to another was part of the pleasure. Likewise, in Unpopular Culture, you're invited to link Anthony Hatwell's bronze Still-Life with Jug, Fruit and Draperies with George Rodger's photo of a blitzed-out family.
The sculpture was made almost 20 years after the photo. It's of a totally different subject. But they connect. The two works convey a sense of resilience-in-collapse, which was certainly in the air in mid-century Britain. Both have tapped into that vein of feeling.
So what's good about these shows is not just that they're refreshingly eccentric. What's good is that they're true to the facts of art. Scholar-curators connect up artworks by period or by location or by subject or by style. But artist-curators connect them up with the sort of imaginative leaps that correspond to how artworks really do connect to one another.
These shows offer us a model of a true art history: the creative history of art, whose processes are different from the convenient fictions of academic art history. Academic art history will take a particular nude picture, say, and link it principally to other earlier or contemporary nude pictures. But the crucial point of departure for this nude may well have been a landscape picture, or a still life and the crucial factor a gesture, tone or mood.
The creative history of art can never be a scientific study. Such connections are generally too difficult to trace, and impossible to prove. Artists themselves may not fully be aware of them. But these artist-curated exhibitions at least show us the kind of connections by which art is generated. And they constitute one of those high-minded public-service cultural initiatives that we still haven't quite lost. There will be another, curated by Mark Wallinger, at the end of the year.
Unpopular Culture, De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex (01424 229111), to 6 July; then touring to January 2010 ( www.southbankcentre.co.uk)Reuse content