The Encyclopedia of American Folk Art is intended as a resource for researchers in American folk art and the categories of artistic endeavor that have become associated with it in recent decades through patterns of institutional collecting, museum exhibitions, and related publications and programs. As such it provides basic information about the American visual art forms that are variously described as "folk art" or as "non-academic," "naïve," "self-taught," "vernacular," "visionary," or "outsider" art. The proliferation of these terms, to which others might justifiably be added, demonstrates an ongoing struggle for precision and clarity in an aesthetic terrain that remains remarkably resistant to definition. It is also evidence of the growth of the field, the shifting nature of its parameters, and the passionate engagement of its participants.
Folk art is increasingly recognized as a vital element in the cultural history of the United States, but it remains a contested expression. Art historians, museum curators, folklorists, and cultural anthropologists assign varying discipline-based meanings to it. Divergent categories of cultural production are comprehended by its usage in Europe, where the term originated, and in the United States, where it developed for the most part along very different lines. Within the field, some American museums and organizations that emphasize the work of contemporary "self-taught" or "outsider" artists in their missions and programs use the expression "folk art" as an umbrella term, while other institutions reserve the expression for more traditional works of art. Not insignificantly, the politics of the marketplace have had an impact on the development of terminology in the field, with the use of "folk art" and other words moving in and out of fashion as a result of trends in buying and selling.
In compiling the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, its editors and contributors have taken a broadbased approach to the subject. Many of us have ad hered to the art historical perspective generally in place in American museums, but other viewpoints are represented, as well. Altogether 607 topical entries are explored. Intended for scholars, students, collectors and the general public, the encyclopedia offers for the first time in one volume quick and convenient access to a remarkably diverse body of information drawn from three centuries of American folk creativity in the visual arts.
To understand folk art requires some familiarity with the conflicting approaches to the subject and its definitions, beginning with the genesis of the term itself. It was in late nineteenth-century Europe that the very notion of folk art as a field was first articulated and where the ideas that shaped the subject first arose. Surprisingly, these significant antecedents to the scholarship of American folk art are rarely referred to in American studies of the field. Nevertheless, European ideas continue to have an impact on the way American folk art is classified and studied today.
The great Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878-with sixteen million visitors, the world's largest world's fair until then-was a watershed in the early history of the field. Artur Hazelius, who had assembled the comprehensive folk art collection of the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm beginning in 1872, exhibited a collection of Scandinavian folk objects at the Paris fair. Another Scandinavian pioneer, Bernard Olsen, founder of the Danish Folk Museum, visited Hazelius's display, and later exclaimed that it represented the emergence of an entirely new idea. The presentation of these objects was a "fresh museum concept," Olsen observed, associated with a "class" whose life and activities previously had been disregarded "by the traditional and official view of what was significant to scholarship and culture."