Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

and aspirations of ordinary people and as such, reflects the underlying life patterns of the culture as a whole" (p. 108). This is an amazing statement, following, as it does, many examples lacking any fundamental communal input. Rhodes quickly adds that a folk art tradition of this kind exists in a country like Japan but not the United States because American culture is too heterogeneous, too large, too chaotic to have a clearly identifiable "life pattern." While American culture is complex, it is not a melting pot in which all the elements in the cultural life of the nation are eventually stirred into an undifferentiable, seething, bubbling mass. American culture is rather more like a salad, with many ingredients joined together but each one still distinct. To pursue folk culture, one needs to look not at the whole bowl but to search for those portions of the mix which are folk or those spices that are folk in origin and give flavor to the nonfolk elements. American folk culture does not exist at the national level but at the regional, local, neighborhood, and family levels. There is not one folk culture but several. American folk art is not singular but plural like its people. To speak, then, of a national folk aesthetic is a serious error, if there is such a thing, it exists chiefly in the minds of some commentators rather than as a force within any community. The term "American," it turns out, is as ambiguous as the term "folk"; it too needs definition if it is to be used productively as a descriptive word.

Rhodes worries that some "untainted" folk art which has up to now been spared the contamination of modern values will fall prey to exploitation if exposed to scholarship. First, the notion of pure folk culture is an ideal construct never found in reality; while a community may be small, isolated, and stable, the materials and ideas that it possesses often have traveled great distances. Southern folk pottery, for example, is distinguished by the use of alkaline glazes which have oriental origins. The visit of an outsider can do little harm to traditions that have weathered centuries of changing conditions. Second, the primary fear should not be that folk art will be modified by contact (it is always changing slightly due to shifts in artists' desires and audiences' expectations) but, rather, that the faddish celebration of amateur art will deny folk art the attention that it deserves. If knowledge of a tradition creates a demand for its products, then the tradition might just be preserved. While it is not the business of scholarship to promote art sales, it is appropriate that scholars provide the interested public with the information needed to make intelligent decisions. Greater cultural awareness and sensitivity are required if folk art is to be appreciated for the right reasons. Should this goal be attained, both folk artists and folk art audiences will benefit.


NOTES

From Winterthur Portfolio ( 1980). © by the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. Reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Chicago Press.

The author would like to thank Debora G. Kodish and Patricia A. Jasper for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

1.
The development of folklore studies is charted in several books edited by Richard M. Dorson: Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972); Folklore: Selected Essays (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972); and Folklore and Fakelore: Essays towards a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976). For a critical assessment of the relationship of folklore and American culture, see Roger D. Abrahams and Richard Bauman with Susan Kalcik, "American Folklore and American Studies," American Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1976): 360-77.
2.
More than 700 books and articles are cited in Simon J. Bronner, A Critical Bibliography of American Folk Art, Folklore Publications Group Monograph Se-

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