Gurning and embroidered knickers

A new exhibition presents a portrait of Britain by placing "alternative" artefacts - white vans, who

During the Venice Biennale in 2003, naively drawn flyers were to be found scattered around the city. They invited artist-curator couples to compete in a race for a glittering prize: invitation to the biennale's ritziest preview parties. But this was no ordinary hundred-metre dash: the "Curator Lifting-Running Competition" - brainchild of the French artist Colonel - required artists to race with curators piggybacking on their shoulders. The race may never actually have happened, but that does not take away from the project's satire on current relations between artists and curators.

The rise of curators and "super-curators" hasn't come out of the blue. Twentieth-century modernist conceptions of art-making presupposed the need for a class of specialist professionals to mediate between "advanced", "challenging" artists and lay gallery-goers. In the past decade or so, however, the balance of power has tipped so emphatically towards curatorship that many canny artists have opted to reinvent themselves as part- or even full-time curators.

Another symptom of the shift is the increased viability of art-making tactics that reflect curatorial, archival or museological activities. Artists such as Mark Dion - whose Tate Thames Dig (1999) displayed relics reclaimed from the mud of the river in a purpose-built cabinet - or Jim Shaw (who has collected, over the past 30 years, thrift-store paintings) research, record and redeploy existing artefacts, leaving curators with the not always straightforward job of installing "ready-curated" archives in their galleries.

The practices of curators - selecting, rejecting, classifying and interpreting - powerfully shape perceptions of art and its value. When artists mimic those activities, they inevitably place them on display. Indeed, they become the work's bottom line. Some artists curate as a conscious method, using it to examine big questions about the formation of knowledge or the production of cultural capital. Others piggyback. But making the call can be tricky, as demonstrated by two current shows - "Enthusiasm" at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and "Folk Archive" at the Barbican.

For the record, each venue's in-house curators have done an exemplary job of allowing each project to stand or fall on its own merits. "Enthusiasm" displays the fruits of research by the artists Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska in-to a previously undocumented area. Travelling all over Poland, the pair and their collaborators have painstakingly tracked down and archived a huge resource of films made by underground communist-era film clubs, apparently using stock hijacked from supplies allocated for official state projects. Soon to be made freely available online, the archive comprises thousands of hours of footage: animated cartoons, documentaries, satirical shorts, comedies, gay and straight erotica, experiments in abstraction, surrealist fantasies and more.

The artists have partitioned the Whitechapel's lower gallery using floor-to-ceiling drapes; selected films sequenced under the headings "Love", "Longing" and "Labour" play in each curtained area. Glass-fronted cabinets dating from the 1950s and 1960s display trophies: witty alternative Oscars and Emmys hand-made by club members.

"Folk Archive" is the joint project of Jeremy Deller (winner of last year's Turner Prize) and Alan Kane. Inspired by the understandably adverse reaction to the Millennium Dome's corporate presentation of "UK culture", the show features objects gleaned by the artists from across the country and proposes an alternative portrait, in Deller's words, "of all the energetic and enthusiastic things that happen around Britain . . . when people make and improvise . . . and are creative on an everyday basis".

The exhibits are loosely themed under headings: "Tea and Cakes", "The Street", "Work and Play", "Love and Death". They range from union banners to a photograph of a dirty white van graffitied with a predictable range of "clean me"-type comments ("also available in white", and so on). The show includes video footage of the Notting Hill Carnival and the Egremont Crab Fair; images of gurners and Cumberland wrestlers' embroidered knickers; a prisoner's A4-sized, hand-made copy of a Rothko; environmental activists' anti-SUV fake parking tickets (almost certainly professionally designed); and joke-shop goods in coffin-shaped display cases.

The Whitechapel and Barbican shows are underpinned by very different views of the category "artist". Deller and Kane define the makers of contemporary "folk art" as people who do not consider themselves to be artists. One suspects that these curators don't particularly care if any of those represented in their archive do think of themselves as artists.

The film clubs represented in "Enthusiasm" dubbed themselves "amateur" organisations, but it seems likely that they comprised both state-employed and self-taught film-makers. The focus of the show is on unofficial, as opposed to state-sponsored, production: Cummings and Lewandowska avoid labouring a distinction between trained professionals and their amateur colleagues.

This curatorial decision frankly acknowledges the real conditions of operation for artists in the modern, industrialised world. The development of what the artist-economist Hans Abbing has labelled the "exceptional economy" of the arts means that, for most self-designated artists, art-making is vocational, not profit-oriented. Plugging away on evenings and weekends in studios and spare rooms across Britain, both art-school-trained and self-taught individuals make objects that will never be bought, exhibited in a professional gallery or discussed by critics. They have community rituals ("open studios") and information networks (publications such as A-N Magazine), and they enjoy their pastime, which seems no more nor less "creative", "everyday" or "energetic" than the activities and traditions represented in "Folk Archive".

However, Deller and Kane recoil at the suggestion that these guys, too, deserve a look-in. When quizzed, Deller states that the pair favour material which is "anti the status quo". But given the presence in the archive of everything from Northern Irish republican murals to unionist propaganda, environmental protest leaflets to a Made-in-China whoopee cushion, and slavishly hand-copied soft porn to a Women's Institute cross-stitched sampler, it is hard to know precisely what they understand the status quo to be.

Correction: maybe it's not so hard; maybe what unifies "Folk Archive" is a weirdly unreconstructed, "primitivist" yearning for some notionally authentic working-class culture. Ultimately, admit Deller and Kane, the archive serves to reflect their "sensibility" and personal tastes - which, they aver, any intelligent person will share. This provocation, presumably intended as a challenge to a perceived hegemony of middle-class good taste, misfires. The imposition and policing of models of good taste is itself the problem; proclaiming an inverted canon does nothing to reorganise the system.

Likewise, the show's mushing together of supposedly anti-establishment forms of creativity has the opposite effect from the one presumably intended by the artists: it reproduces the way that the current political establishment contrives (in the words of the art theorist John Robert) to effect a "consensual management of the crisis of consensus".

The scrupulously and subtly curated display by Lewandowska and Cummings builds a coherent picture of the ideolo-gical complexities and contradictions voiced in the material they have uncovered. Conversely, "Folk Archive" lumps hundreds of diverse, contending artefacts into a homogenised whole under the rubric of the artists' "tastes" - repeating the curatorial project of the Millennium Dome by turning it upside down. So any takers for the "Folk-Artist-Professional-Artist-Lifting-Running Competition"?

"Enthusiasm" is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) until 22 May, and then tours to the KW Institute of Contemporary Art, Berlin, and to Barcelona. "Folk Archive: contemporary popular art from the UK" is at the Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 (020 7638 4141) until 24 July, and then tours until September 2006