Your Proposal Is Too Modest, or Folk Art Doesn’t Exist

…it seems past time for the folk-academic division to soften.
From “Curator, Tear Down These Walls,” New York Times, January 31, 2013

Finally, someone (in this case Roberta Smith) has modestly, yet in no uncertain terms, proposed that we need to change our perspective on folk art. She suggests that we stop relegating folk art to its own gallery and start displaying it next to its academic cousins. She thinks it’s a radical approach, but really she wussied out. All she said was folk art doesn’t need to be isolated any longer. The difficulty here is you can’t work with something that doesn’t exist. It’s like saying your going to round up all the tooth fairies running amok out there. Or you’re finally going to collect those Atlantis postcards you’ve had your eye on. Or, you’re finally going to try making Zeus’s ambrosia recipe.

“But folk art IS real,” we hear you cry. It’s true that like tooth fairies, Atlantis, and Greek gods, it does exist in the mind of the believer. However, there is a fine line between heartfelt belief and delusion. Believing in folk art clearly crosses that line.

We don’t expect you to simply take our word for it. So, to be fair, we’re going to offer you a little test. Go ahead, define folk art. We’ll wait…

Done yet?

Ok, most likely you came up with one or more of the following:

Folk art is art produced by untrained/unschooled/uneducated/etc. people. This may be the most common definition, but it’s also the weakest. Galleries are full of works created by untrained artists who for reasons of aesthetics or curatorial perception are not called folk art. And the opposite is also true. There are lots of people relegated to folk art galleries who had professional training because they look like folk art or their work fits a curator’s interpretation. For example, Edward Hicks, that paragon of folk art, served an eight-year apprenticeship in decorative coach painting and yet we still call him a folk artist.

Folk art does not adhere to academic/high art styles. We call Indigenous art folk art because it doesn’t adhere to European styles. However those cultures aren’t accepting or rejecting academic styles, their art IS their high style. Cultural chauvinism aside, we call anything that doesn’t fit a curatorially approved school of design folk art. Of course, sometimes what’s called folk art is based on high art that was popular at an earlier time. It’s still based on academic forms and motifs, it just wasn’t created when those forms and motifs were popular as high art. For example, Pennsylvania Germans based their work on high style motifs which were popular decades before. Does that mean it’s not high art just because it wasn’t fashionable when it was made?

Folk art does not adhere to rules of traditional proportion and perspective. One word: Picasso.

Folk art is anything that is otherwise unclassifiable. So folk art is the catch-all for anything the academy hasn’t given a name to yet. Which means it’s a meaningless term (or it proves how lazy curators are).

Based on the above, two things are clear: it’s all art (whether or not it has an academic name) and the only people who benefit from the existence of folk art are the curators (oh, and dealers) who make their livelihood from it. So can we harden on our stance on softening these divisions and finally admit that there is no such thing as folk art?

About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

One response to “Your Proposal Is Too Modest, or Folk Art Doesn’t Exist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: