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Folk Art

inclusive definition, Rufus Porter, weather vanes, small books, conservative view

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Folk Art, carvings, paintings, needlework, decorated utensils, and other artifacts created by artists and artisans—often anonymous—who have no formal academic training in the arts. Folk art has existed in every culture, past and present. Of necessity, this article is restricted to folk art in North America produced by colonists and emigres from Europe and Africa and by native Americans working in European styles.

The Western world has long distinguished between the highly structured teachings of the academies that produce the fine arts and the orally transmitted traditional arts, created by and for the artistically less sophisticated. In the conservative view held by many folklorists, for a work to qualify as folk art it must be part of a long-standing tradition, must be learned from an active practitioner, and its genre, style, and technique should be those of an isolated culture, such as that of the Amish or whalers.

In the United States and Canada the concept of folk art is far less restrictive. In the normal usage of museums, dealers, collectors, and the general public the key word is nonacademic—art that has developed outside, but not necessarily uninfluenced by, the arts taught in art schools. In fine art the idiosyncratic generally is admired, whereas anonymity of style is characteristic of folk art, in that it expresses an aesthetic for a specific group that includes the artist and the artist’s immediate audience.

Included in this broader concept current in America are such products as were created by teams of workers: circus-wagon carvings, carousel figures, and manufactured weather vanes. Paintings by artists of little or no training are included; many of the paintings in collections of folk art, however, are by artists with an awareness of academic mannerisms either through prints, an occasional viewing of an academic painting, or chapbooks (small books or pamphlets) on painting, such as those written by Rufus Porter. Also included in the broader concept are the works that were produced by young people in seminaries and academies, such as memorials, needlework pictures, and calligraphic pictures.

An inclusive definition, then, of what is generally understood to be folk art in North America includes both traditional folk arts handed down from one individual to another—such as frakturs (illuminated writings), quilts, and scrimshaw—and other nonacademic objects that might be called associative folk arts. Such nonacademic objects have been included, for all practical purposes, in the literature and in the exhibitions of folk art for more than half a century. Often in this latter group are portraits sometimes designated as provincial, naive, or vernacular.

Another distinction is that between folk art and craft. If the utility of a work predominates, then it is a craft object; if decoration predominates, then it is an example of folk art.

Significance

The thousands of Americans in Canada and the U.S. who have created this great body of aesthetically pleasing nonacademic art have left those countries greatly in their debt. Not only for their contemporaries but also for later generations, their works have amply fulfilled their primary objective—to give pleasure.

Major collections of folk art are at the Museum of Man in Ottawa, Ontario; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia; the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York; and the Museum of American Folk Art, New York City. So-called primitive or naive paintings from a major collection, the Garbisch Collection, are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Contributors

Jones, Louis C., M.A., Ph.D.

Former Adjunct Professor of Folk Art, State University of New York at Oneonta. Author of "Queena Stovall", "Artist of the Blue Ridge Piedmont", and "New-Found Folk Art of the Young Republic".



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