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Folk Art of This Century

February 10, 1987 to March 28, 1987

In the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as folk art.* This is not to say that the genre did not exist. As every collector knows, many of our most prized folk masterpieces were created in the previous century. However, in their day, these works were not accorded the special consideration, much less esteem, that they receive today. At best, folk art provided the new (and still somewhat primitive) American nation with a more accessible alternative to academic portraiture. At worst, folk art was considered the precinct of provincial incompetents and ridiculed by the likes of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Only in the twentieth century did the public begin to take a second look at this work, discovering therein hitherto unappreciated resources of originality and expressive freedom.

And then the trouble started. At the turn of the century, schooled artists, looking to break away from the increasingly moribund academic tradition, thought they might do well to follow the example of artists who, of necessity, had to forgo formal training. This raised from the dust of oblivion a sundry assortment of art and artists of previously indeterminate status. Left unanswered, however, was the question of who or what these artists really were, and what, if anything, should be done with them. Although Henri Rousseau was feted by Picasso and his circle, the humble “Douanier” was considered something of a joke by his sophisticated friends. The stigma of the “naive” continued to haunt Rousseau’s followers, the so-called “Sacred Heart” painters, André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Séraphine Louis and Louis Vivin. Through the success of this group, which came to the fore in the period between the two world wars, France may historically be considered the birthplace of “naive” art (not just the word, but the entire concept is French), but it is also, sadly, the birthplace of the myth that untrained artists are somehow ignorant and childlike, and that their work, though amusing at times, is not to be taken too seriously.

Folk art came to America in the 1920s as the latest European fad, and in a country that was just emerging from a provincial cultural past, its practitioners quickly acquired both avid partisans and outraged opponents. Folk art was by its very nature controversial, as might be expected when an art form once considered worthless is suddenly elevated to a position of honor in museums and galleries. The amateur’s right to share the accolades formerly reserved for trained painters was a subject of heated debate from the moment modern America’s first folk painter, John Kane, was accorded official recognition. When, in 1927, Kane’s work was admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International, loud complaints were voiced by the many “legitimate” artists who had been rejected. How was it, they asked, that a one-legged housepainter could succeed where they failed? One disgruntled artist actually launched a newspaper campaign to discredit Kane. As time passed, and more folk painters--Horace Pippin, Morris Hirshfield, and finally, Grandma Moses--were discovered and took their places next to Kane, the controversy only grew stronger. By the mid-1940s, the nation was in the throes of its first full-fledged folk art boom, while trained American artists struggled for equal time with their European colleagues. During this period--when America’s fledgling avant-garde still suffered relative obscurity--the publicity accorded their unschooled comrades began to seem like a cruel hoax. The phenomenal international popularity of Grandma Moses exacerbated the growing rift between folk art and the avant-garde. Increasingly, folk art was perceived as a sop for the unsophisticated public, which was repulsed by the demands of non-objective art. To a large segment of the cultural elite, folk art became anathema.

This turn of events--peculiar to the United States--is particularly ironic in view of the close ties that originally existed between folk art and the avant-garde. Nonetheless, regardless of how folk art was perceived, the growing international awareness of the field had a remarkable impact. The new popularity of folk art in Western Europe and the United States may in part be held responsible for the efflorescence of folk traditions in such relatively remote lands as Yugoslavia and Haiti. In both nations, traditional art forms resembled more closely the anthropological definition of folk art as expressive of communal, religious or utilitarian purpose, than they did the sort of autonomous painting practiced by the “Douanier” and his successsors. However, the burgeoning interest in folk painting prompted the development of several generations of hybrid “naives”: part native craftsmen, part would-be artists in the Western mode. In Yugoslavia, a trained artist named Krsto Hegedusic systematically revived the peasant craft of behind-glass painting (a traditional vehicle for votive painting), which was used to brilliant effect by such “naives” as Ivan Generalic and Dragan Gazi. In Haiti, an American painter, De Witt Peters, started the ball rolling in 1944 when he founded an art school in Port-au-Prince. Both Hegedusic and Peters tapped brilliant reserves of native talent, providing local artists with a crucial incentive to experiment and develop creatively. Nonetheless, it has been argued that the promotion of the resultant “schools” eventually led to a destructive commercialization--a problem which is not unique to Haiti and Yugoslavia, but in fact affects much modern-day folk art.

The incentive that discovery provides folk artists is a precious and yet also dangerous commodity. The opportunity to show and sell ones work is certainly of paramount interest to any artist, and the best folk artists of this century were all helped and encouraged by their discovery. At the same time, however, discovery can spell disaster for a weaker talent, and the increasing popularity of folk art has encouraged many pseudo-naives to crowd the field, thereby obscuring and even undermining the work of the genuine folk artist. There are those who contend that true folk art cannot exist today: that the pervasive effects of the mass media make it impossible for any artist to remain remote from the academic tradition. Much as one might like to argue that art is art, regardless of its circumstances, the fact is that folk art has always depended, by definition, on the circumstances that, in a given time and place, separate artists from the mainstream. The real question is, do these circumstances exist today? The answer--based on the persuasive evidence of the art itself--is a resounding “yes.”

The artists who form the concluding segment of the current exhibition have sometimes been labeled “Outsiders,” for, like the Polish wanderer Nikifor, many of them not only work but also live slightly outside mainstream society. They may be religious visionaries, such as Minnie Evans or the Reverend Howard Finster, they may be mental patients such as Martin Ramirez, or like Bill Traylor, they may be economic outcasts. Regardless of individual circumstance, however, each of these artists remains firmly rooted in a democratic folk tradition which eschews the two extremes that have historically characterized European art: regimented communal artifacts for the peasant masses (the “folk”), and equally regimented salon art for the elite. Throughout the world, the ideal of a universally accessible art has gained impetus in the twentieth century, and it may be found lurking behind many contemporary folk manifestations. It is in this sense that folk art has the profound ability to throw off tradition--just as the avant-garde originally intended--and tap the deepest roots of creative expression. There is something primordial about all good folk art: something that gets at the very heart of man’s urge to express his life in pictures. The need to paint--even in complete isolation, lacking training, lacking all hope of success or even remuneration--imbues these works with a poignancy that must give pause to those who cannot recognize the value of a picture unless it is quantified in dollars. This conviction--that art is in and of itself a goal worth pursuing--is the secret of folk art’s enduring power.

*As students of “folk” art know, this term is woefully inadequate to the task of describing the broad spectrum of nonacademic art, which includes everything from “naive” painting to provincial crafts. However, bearing in mind that “folk” is the term most frequently accepted today, and that most people know what is meant by it, it has been used generically throughout this essay.