Thinking about “Folk Art”

This post was sparked by an essay that caught my eye while reading Radical cataloging: Essays at the front, edited by K. R. Roberto (I highly recommend it if cataloging, description, and/or metadata is your thing). The article that intrigued me was a chapter by Joan M. Benedetti, a re-edit of an article that originally appeared in a 2000 issue of Art Documentation, entitled “Words, words, words: Folk art terminology- Why it (still) matters.” Benedetti talks about the mess of issues surrounding terminology like folk art and outsider art. It reminded me of the work of Sanford Berman and Hope Olson. Both Berman and Olson’s seminal works, Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people and The power to name: Representation in library catalogs, discuss the biases, and with this power, in the language of the Library of Congress controlled vocabularies. While some time has passed since these works were initially published, 1971 and 1996, librarians are still challenging problems in the language of controlled vocabularies (see Emily Drabinski’s 2013 article “Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction”).

Matthew Arient’s Angel by Howard Finster, 1987

 

Before digging into Benedetti’s essay and issues surrounding folk art terminology, I want to present brief definitions of terms that are helpful to think of in the context of this discussion. Definitions have been taken from The Getty Thesaurus for Art and Architecture.

Folk art: Art and crafts that are produced in culturally cohesive communities or contexts, and guided by traditional rules or procedures. It includes paintings, ceramics, textiles, sculpture, and other art forms. It is generally distinct from “naive art,” which is created by those without formal training, but not necessarily within a cohesive cultural community. It is also distinct from “outsider art,” which usually refers specifically to art created or collected according to a philosophy of avoidance of traditional training.

Outsider art: Refers to art created or collected according to a philosophy of avoidance of the conventional fine art tradition. The concept generally refers to art that fits the ideal described by Jean Dubuffet, who posited that art should be inventive, non-conformist, unprocessed, spontaneous, insulated from all social and cultural influences, “brut,” created without thought of financial gain or public recognition, and based upon autonomous inspiration, in direct contrast to the stereotypes of the traditional or official artistic culture. Dubuffet sought such art in the work of psychiatric patients and other insulated individuals. It is generally distinct from “naive art,” which is created by those without formal training, but not necessarily in accordance with the principles described above. It is also typically distinct from “folk art,” which is made according to the rules and traditions of a particular culture.

Naive art: Refers to art created by non-professional artists or artisans who have not had formal training and are often self-taught. It typically displays the artist’s poor grasp of anatomy and lacks mastery of conventional perspective and other hallmarks of trained artists. It includes painting, sculpture, embroidery, quilts, toys, ships’ figureheads, decoys, painted targets, and other objects, and often refers to such objects created specifically in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and North America. It is generally distinguished from “outsider art,” which includes the more extravagant psychotic drawings and other art created or collected according to a philosophy of the avoidance of, rather than simply a lack of, traditional training. It is also usually distinct from “folk art,” which is created according to specific cultural traditions.

Fine art: Genre including physical objects that are that are meant to be perceived primarily through the sense of sight, are of high quality, requiring refined skill in creation, and typically using the media of painting, drawing, or sculpture. It may also refer to architecture and design. Although there is overlap, fine art is generally distinguished from other art forms based on the media, extent of skill, and the level of formal training required. It is distinct from “decorative art” in that the fine arts are art in which the aesthetic or intellectual expression is more prominent than the utilitarian purpose. It is distinct from “crafts,” which are handiworks of media such as ceramics, glass, needlework, or any medium other than painting, drawing, sculpture, or architecture. It is also distinct from “commercial art,” which is created to serve commerce such as in advertisements or illustration.

The Getty Thesaurus of Art and Architecture gives distinct definitions for folk, outsider, and naive art, clearly delineating them as not synonyms to one another. However, these words are still often used interchangeably. This is also not an exhaustive list of terms that are used to describe art of this similar, yet variant nature, but just three I chose to highlight.

Man with a Plow by Bill Traylor, 1939-1942

Folk art, outsider art, and naive art are terms used by individuals in a position of privilege within the institution of fine art to describe the work created by individuals outside of this institution. A dichotomy between those with the power to name and those without, between those who point out this “other” and those who are this “other,” is always problematic. General acceptance of what constitutes fine art is rooted in Western, Eurocentric practice and thought. The land of outsider art, as posited by museum professional Kenneth L. Ames, is largely populated by “minority, marginalized, and unempowered people. (Ames, 1994, p. 255).

Navajo Rug, 1890-1900

Benedetti discusses problems with the overuse of “folk” as a designator for such a wide variety of works. She draws a distinction between items that are created by “culturally cohesive communities” with utilitarian value, such as a Navajo rug, and items created from a “personal consciousness,” which are often idiosyncratic and often “functioning in opposition to any community context,” such as the works of artist Howard Finster (Benedetti, 1987, p. 4). Oftentimes though, both of these types of works would fall under the same category of “folk art.”

The concepts behind folk art terminology is not so simple and further evaluation for nuances, biases, and clarification would be beneficial. Both Benedetti and Ames present issues with the terminology that garners future consideration, thought, and study by scholars, librarians, and anyone with an interest in the power of language.

References

Ames, K.L. (1994). Outside outsider art. In M. D. Hall & E. W. Metcalf, Jr. (Eds.) The Artist outsider: creativity and boundaries of culture (p. 253-271). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Benedetti, J.M. (2000). Words, words, words: Folk art terminology- Why it (still) matters. Art Documentation, 19(1), 14-21.

Benedetti, J. M. (2003). Folk art terminology revisited: Why it (still) matters. In K. R. Robert (Ed.), Radical cataloging: Essays at the front (p. 112-125). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

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