American Folk Art
Questions and Quandaries
JOHN MICHAEL VLACH
As art historians become more self-conscious about methodological practice, the review essay emerges as an opportunity to examine the beliefs that guide the process of historical inquiry. In his review of a recently published book on American folk art, John Vlach argues that scholarship on American folk art has been plagued by a set of flawed definitions and questionable assumptions. A lingering preoccupation with the aesthetic appreciation of folk art, rather than attempts at critical investigation leading to genuine understanding of the objects and the cultures that produced them, has caused students of folk art to create more confusion than clarity.
Vlach identifies a set of polarities used both to characterize folk art and to establish its difference from so-called fine art. Because these definitions rest not on genuine insight into folk cultures and their artistic traditions but are rooted rather in somewhat arbitrary aesthetic judgments and romanticized notions of the folk artist's naïveté, they are at once patronizing and misleading. Vlach insists on the need to reconsider the vast array of objects currently occupying the category of folk art, and he calls for greater precision of definition and more rigorous investigation into the meaning and function of these objects for the cultures that produced them.
As the discipline of folklore emerges as an independent field of study, the need for critical reassessment of definitions and theoretical assumptions continually presents itself as a perplexing issue. 1 Humanistic impulses push scholars toward an honest and forthright enjoyment of the materials which they consider. Their personal encounters in fieldwork stimulate a Whitmanesque desire to celebrate new discoveries and to provide a loud and public voice for those many creators whose achievements are so interesting but as yet unacknowledged. Although such emotional involvement may seem not only inevitable but even appropriate, it cannot eliminate the scholar's need for intellectual rigor and precision. Students of folk culture should not be torn between advocacy and accuracy, but, in fact, they often are. This dilemma of heart and head has led to pronouncements which are vague at best and at worst confused. While this circumstance pertains in part to all genres of folk expression, it is clearly seen in the study of folk art, a subfield of the newly emergent area dubbed "material culture."
In the United States the subject of folk art has not been given sufficient academic attention