A cursory glance at old and new artwork reveals a strong sense of continuity in the subject matters artists have breached over time. A particularly relentless reality of life – alcoholism – has provided fodder for folk artists for centuries. Folk artists of the past and present deal with alcoholism in ways that at first seem shockingly different, but upon closer examination reflect and even complement each other.
Nineteenth-century folk art intersected with alcoholism through the temperance movement. The temperance movement sought to greatly diminish or entirely eradicate the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The movement first appeared in the 1830s, fell victim to abolitionist fever around mid-century, and came back with a vengeance as the nation began to rebuild itself after the Civil War.
Folk art produced as part of the temperance movement assisted the movement in three ways: it publicized the cause, associated temperance with nationalism, and was used as a fundraising tool. Folk art portraits captured the passion with which orators maligned alcohol use, as seen in a portrait of the “Napoleon of Temperance,” Neal Dow. Spartan folk art hotel signs publicized hotels that abstained from serving alcohol, while “temperance jugs” covered in malicious serpents caused a parched man to think twice about his drink of choice. Intricate scherenschnitte made by the Pennsylvania Dutch with the words “Temperance is Wisdom” flanked by an eagle and American flag revealed their belief in temperance as a national ideal. Additionally, the famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union made quilts to raise money for their beloved cause.
Folk artists who explore alcoholism with their work today sometimes suffer themselves from the disease and in other instances comment upon their experiences with others who do. In either case, they confront alcoholism with grotesque, direct interpretations. Self-taught artist Matt Sesow began to paint as a result of an injury (he was hit by an airplane and lost his left hand at age eight) and although he is not an alcoholic, some of his paintings address alcoholism and its attending issues (see "Detox" above). Contemporary folk artist Parker Lanier, on the other hand, began creating art as a way to cope with the struggles and desperation of alcoholism. This highly personal venture gave an artistic, public face to this struggle when his art started garnering national attention. His lack of training served to further authenticate his depictions of the stark realities of this disease.
Whereas temperance folk art may have warned against alcoholism from a safe distance and today’s folk art on alcoholism is a direct descendent of the disease, both serve a similar purpose. In addition to often using similar motifs, the art of both eras causes the viewer to consider the severity of the disease. This folk art fulfilled, and continues to fulfill, a need for recognition of alcoholism’s heinous nature. It causes the viewer to stop, think, and consider this unrelenting reality of life in a new way, and perhaps causes them to enact change in their own lives.
by Olivia Cothren, American Folk Art Course, Cooperstown Graduate Program