American Folk Art – Aesthetic or Context?
The term “American folk art” is used to describe objects from the eighteenth century to contemporary times. There are different definitions employed to define folk art; add in antique vs. contemporary and it can be confusing as well as divisive. Generally, antique American folk art is considered to be the first century after the founding of America: 1776 – 1876. But exactly what is considered antique folk art?
The use of the term “folk art” in reference to early American art first happened in the 1920s. In 1924, the Whitney Studio Club (which later became the Whitney Museum of American Art) put on an exhibition titled “Early American Art” featuring 45 objects, mostly paintings and drawings. The focus was to make American art be seen as a deep and powerful aesthetic form using the fine arts model or critical framework for understanding the art, ignoring the context in which the art was created.
Holger Cahill, in his introduction to the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “American Folk Art” further defined (or some say confused) what folk art is. Cahill’s definition continued to underscore the notion of “primitive” and pure art form while at the same time referring to folk painters as being “bad” and second rate and not knowing they were producing art. Thus terms such as “primitive” and “naïve” became synonymous with folk art. The introduction by Jean Lipman to the 1974 exhibition, "The Flowering of Folk Art," cemented the notion that folk art is the first truly American art movement founded with the early spirit of America.
In 1977, Kenneth Ames led a symposium on folk art for the Winterthur Museum titled, “Beyond Necessity: Art in the Folk Tradition.” Ames argued that evaluating the art purely on aesthetics and artistic merit was doing a disservice. Instead, the art should be evaluated based on what it can tell us about American life at the time it was created. The creators of the folk art were interested not only in the aesthetic value of the piece but in other functions as well. For instance, a quilt would be evaluated not just on aesthetics but in the ability of providing warmth and the importance of the quilting bees. Hence, the notion of “primitive” or “naïve” to define folk art would no longer apply.
The dominate definition of folk art continues with the tradition as established by Whitney Studio Club/Cahill and Lipman. For instance, Artcyclopedia has the following definition: “Folk Art is art which does not come out of the fine art tradition. Folk Artists are typically from rural or pre-industrial societies, and are more closely related to craftsmen than they are to fine artists. Folk Art is characterized by a naive style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed.”
Now we can see the origin of the two primary views of American Folk Art – one based on traditional (or academic) art form/model and one focused beyond the form to the context for what the objects can tell us of the times. The debate between these two views of folk art has never resolved. This discord seems to be most evident with paintings. A January 2013 article in the New York Times, “Curator, Tear Down These Walls”, proposes that museums display pre-20th century American art together, rather than having folk art separate. Roberta Smith’s reasoning includes: “There are all kinds of gradations of skill and training in pre-20th-century American art, and many degrees of realism between the poles of folk and academic painting. Many artists made work that doesn’t fit cleanly into either category.”
Next Month, we’ll explore the types of objects that are collected as American folk art.
Search for folk art on Dig Antiques.
- Folk Art, Religion, and Folks: Folk Art Portraits as Windows onto Nineteenth Century Religious Currents, John Sharp.
- Artist by Movement: Folk Art, Artcyclopedia.
- Curator, Tear Down These Walls, Roberta Smith, New York Times, Jan 31, 2013.
- Folk Art, Wikipedia.
- Folk Art, North America, Encyclopedia Britannica online.
- The Flowering of American Folk Art 1776-1876, Jean Lipman, Courage Books, Philadelphia, PA, 1974.
- Folk Art in American Life, Robert Bishop and Jacqueline M Atkins, Viking Studio Books, New York, NY, 1995.
Muddying the Waters
Written by Guest Columnist: Lyn Andeen
I have noticed lately that more and more reproductions and new folk art are being displayed at antique shops and shows.
Although I think they have their place, I am concerned when I see them at antique shops and shows. I find when I go to a shop that carries both antiques and new items I spend all my time deciding what is "real" and usually leave empty handed.
I can appreciate new folk art and love old folk art but they are two different animals. I personally would rather see a new collector start out with a damaged or lesser quality antique piece instead of a new reproduction or new piece of folk art. After all I am antique dealer.
Not to be a hypocrite, I started out my love of antiques in the early 1970s. At that time I was making reproductions of very pricey antique French dolls. One was even purchased by a museum that could not afford to acquire the real thing. All of my reproductions had etched signatures and dates in the slip to ensure there was no confusion on their authenticity. These were reproductions that could not creep into the antique market. I soon found that when I was shopping at antique shows for old lace and fabrics that I was gravitating towards early country items.
Unlike my reproduction dolls where the signatures could not be eliminated, I have seen many reproductions and new folk art where elimination of signatures on wood or fabric is easy. Unfortunately, there are those who are not above passing these items off as old. These reproductions and new folk art that find their way into the antique market hurt the "real" market of these antique items.
I know my opinion might be unpopular but this is how I feel! How do you feel? Please post on the Dig Antiques Facebook page and let’s continue the conversation!
About Lyn Andeen
Lyn Andeen has been an avid collector and dealer for the past 28 years. She has been in group shops, setup at countless antique shows and has a true artistic eye. Lyn's passion is for quality 18th through early 20th century Americana, decorative arts, Shaker and folk art. You can find Lyn online through Andeen Antiques.