Travel, Boundaries, and the Movement of Culture(s): Explanations for the Folk/fine Art Quandary

Article excerpt

In many ways, we live in a confuing time. Boundaries that once helped us define who we are (such as Black or White, masculine or feminine, liberal or conservative) seem to be less defined. Categories we once depended on to define our world no longer appear fixed (e.g., East and West, the Caribbean and Miami). Increasingly in our classes, we are asked the question, "But why is that art?", as if an art object, performance, or creative process somehow falls over an easily stated boundary when something happens to be art. Often, students tell us something we introduce to them (for some unstated reason) isn't art work; rather it is social work, it is gardening, or it is a meal.

As we teach university students, we are pleased to be asked more difficult and intriguing questions. Likewise, we feel successful when students are challenged, even when they are somewhat uncomfortable. But breaking down categorical boundaries sometimes leaves students feeling painfully unsettled. Not only do our students and the general public want to know if something can be categorized as art or not, but further categorization into the kind of art a work might be is continually sought. Somehow, our students tell us, we should be able to describe easily the boundaries between folk and fine art.' They ask if folk art is ethnic, naive, primitive, lower art, traditional, or rural. Group discussions seem to reach little agreement. If this is so difficult for adults, how are we to teach children differences between folk and fine art? Furthermore, are any of the definitions reasonable or appropriate?

We tend to set these two categories up as a dichotomy in order to understand them better. Here we write about the perceived categories of "fine art" and "folk art" and how their identities inform each other. We look at how one artist, thought of as traditional (read as "folk artist'), is globally informed in her work, and how another, categorized as innovafive (read as "fine artist"), draws heavily from tradition and community experience. A third artist, promoted by the art world as a "folk artist," moves through the same kinds of day-to-day activities of studio work, museum talks, and interviews as any active art-school-trained artist She is savvy, sophisticated, educated, well traveled, market-wise, and smart. We ask what might be learned about the categories of folk and fine art by studying these artists.

This article will not give the teacher easy answers to the folk/fine art definitional question. Rather it will illustrate the difficulty in trying to establish clearly defined categories. As we enter into this dialogue we ask these questions: If we engage in the process of diminishing or blurring boundaries among art categories, do we not make it more difficult for art critics to communicate easily and quickly about an image? And what about making things difficult for children? How do we not categorize art forms for youngsters who are learning categories of color, animals, and shapes?

We recognize that we live in a complex world where we are so bombarded with information and visual stimuli that grouping or categorizing helps us deal with complexity. In fact, categorizing helps us survive. If art categorizations such as popular, folk, tourist, fine, and computer art don't hold up anymore-if they ever did-what approach should we take that will help us understand artworks in relation to the terms we apply to them? How can we facilitate dialogue if categorization doesn't hold up under scrutiny? In this article, we will suggest that the metaphor of travel grants us a flexible and historically-oriented way to speak about artworks and art categories. However, before considering travel as a metaphor, we introduce the problem related to artworks defined by folk and fine art labels by way of three artists: Mabel Burkholder, Keith Haring, and Malcah Zeldis.


Down the road from the old Pennsylvania limestone farmhouse near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where John White lives, is Mabel Burkholder's home. …