Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Folk Art: It is what it is

Ah, the definition question. That has vexed folk art scholars for decades, mainly because the material is so varied and has attracted the attention of specialists with very different points of view ranging from community-based folklorists to aesthetically minded art historians. At our museum, we generally take an art historical slant -- not surprising, I guess, since we are an art museum. The following is a working definition I developed for our permanent collection galleries about a decade ago. I'm hoping to get some of my folklife colleagues to submit their own alternative perspectives here. For now, at least, here is what we use at the Fenimore Art Museum to guide our thinking about the folk art collection.

American Folk Art

At the end of the 19th century, a few collectors of Americana became interested in the aesthetic designs of redware, stoneware, glass and painted furniture produced in the colonial and federal eras. By the 1920s, proponents of avant-garde art admired a similar aesthetic between the painters and carvers of this period and the post-abstract art of the early twentieth century. In 1930, Holger Cahill, a curator at the Newark Museum, brought groups of 18th and 19th century American objects together for a ground-breaking exhibition entitled American Primitives. The visual power of the exhibition struck a chord in the American public and the basis for what is now termed American Folk Art was created. Cahill called folk art “the expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment...It does not come out of an academic tradition passed on by schools, but out of a craft tradition plus the personal quality of the rare craftsman who was an artist.”

At about the same time, contemporary folk artists such as John Kane and William Edmondson achieved widespread acclaim at such prestigious institutions as the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The interest in “modern primitives” grew in the 1940s, due largely to the efforts of dealer/author Sidney Janis and the phenomenal popularity of Grandma Moses. In the post-war decades American Folk Art has come to be recognized as a major contribution to American art and culture.

The artists and artisans who created these works are a disparate group. Historically, some folk artists acquired practical skills through apprenticeship in a craft tradition—such as sign painting or ship carving—and made their living by providing necessary items like portraits or shop signs. Others, particularly women, learned watercolor or needlework in schools and seminaries and created pictures for friends and relatives. A significant number of folk artists in the past and today acquired traditional skills through informal, intergenerational example. Lastly, there are folk artists, especially in this century, who create images that are highly personal through they may draw upon popular culture, memory, and the artist’s particular cultural or ethnic heritage. No matter how or why folk art is produced, it is valued for its beauty and expressive power, for the dynamic aesthetic of linear forms, strong colors, the combination of decorative and utilitarian concerns, and the sense of familiarity it evokes by reflecting everyday life as well as the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. Folk art is produced all over the world, and in every part of the United States. It is the product of people from many different backgrounds, creating art for many different reasons. This exhibition focuses on five major impulses in the creation of folk art:

· Expression of religious beliefs and values
· Decoration for the home
· Documentation of self, family, place, and community
· Expression of patriotism and political beliefs
· Stimulation of commerce

These universal impulses cross cultural boundaries and exemplify basic values shared by many Americans. The sixty pieces in this exhibition relate to one or more of these themes, represent the collective cultural heritage of America, and reflect the contributions of many different people to the mosaic of American culture.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Thanks, Susan. These words of encouragement go a long way. Keep reading; there's good stuff to come!



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