Folk Art as Communal Culture and Art Proper

By Delacruz, Elizabeth Manley | Art Education, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Folk Art as Communal Culture and Art Proper


Delacruz, Elizabeth Manley, Art Education


Attitudes about folk art have undergone a remarkable transformation, from characterizations as simplistic, primitive, and obscure a century ago, to descriptions as refined, com plex, and important. Interest in folk art reflects a growing concern not only for the nature and value of folk art but also for the manner in which folk art is understood in classrooms.

In consideration of contemporary folk art as curriculum content, I describe historical antecedents to artworld recognition of folk art in the United States. Following, I offer deliberations on the study of contemporary American folk art.

WHAT IS FOLK ART?

Doug Blandy and Kristin Congdon (1989) write that the terms "folk art" and "folk" came to the United States from European class-stratified societies. As the term came into wider use, Holger Cahill, acting Director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, established a definition for folk art as an "expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment" (Curry, 1989, p. 198) . Cahill and his contemporaries viewed folk art as craft, and not as part of a fine art tradi tion. Cahill's definition remained entrenched until the 1960s, when museums began to exhibit American folk art as a category of "art proper" (Curry, 1987) .

In the 1970s, difficulties over defining folk art were exacerbated by competing scholarly factions. David Curry (1987) explains: connoisseurs and collectors, borrowing from art historical tradition, categorized their folk objects as paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts and then aestheticized them in terms of materials and design. In opposition were folklorists, who connected folk art to folk material culture and viewed it through the context of the culture that produced it. For collectors and historians, folk art was a new artistic category to name and describe. Folklorists and ethnologists interpreted the folk object as a document for understanding the lives, stories, and motivations of individuals living in particular times and places.

Chuck and Jan Rosenak (1984), avid folk art collectors and leading scholars on contemporary American folk artists, explain that in common use today, the term folk art encompasses a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, and environments created by individuals who did not study art formally. They sub-classify folk art into Environmental art, Isolate art, Memory Painting, Naive or Naif Art, Outsider Art, Primitive Art and Visionary Art. Folklore scholar Henry Glassie (1989) describes folk art as human creativity in social context. In Glassie's view, folk art is communal and local, conservative and participatory, conceptual and multifunctional.

Exact definitions for folk art are controversial and overlapping. Needing a more concise working definition for this paper, folk art will be described as widely varied art forms created by self-trained artists who, often working with ordinary and recycled materials found in their own environs, and working mostly outside of the art establishment, create, primarily for themselves and for members of their immediate social groups, stylistic narratives and visions of the struggles and aspirations of daily or spiritual life.

THE ASCENT OF AMERICAN FOLK ART

Current appreciation of contemporary American folk art is attributable to two parallel streams of activity that unfolded over this century: the fascination of mainstream artists with indigenous and intuitive art, and the growing desirability of folk and outsider art among wealthy patrons and collectors.

The artists. The history of Western art in the early part of this century is also, in part, the history of fascination among emerging modern artists with indigenous and folk art. Curating the 1990 Smithsonian exhibition Made With Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection in the National Museum of American Art Lynda Hartigan (1990) explains that in the early years of the century, NewYork artists spearheaded the first folk art rush in this country.

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