KCAC Forum Magazine January 1987
IS IT FOLK, PRIMITIVE, GRASSROOTS, OR ART BRUT? A BRIEF LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF DEFINING AMERICAN FOLK ART
by Willem Vokersz
American folk art is defined variously by different groups, both academic and non-academic, who are interested in the subject. They include, among others, artists, art historians, art critics, museum curators, collectors, folklorists, and cultural anthropologists. As a result, we are confronted by a litany of terms and definitions when we review the past 50 years’ literature in the field of fold-art study. We are, in the process, confronted by terms such as folk, self-taught, primitive, early American, nonacademic, naive, visionary, grass roots, outsider, art brut, idiosyncratic, and isolate, in addition to amateur and Sunday painter.
The history of defining American folk art began in the 1920s when a group of painters, in an attempt to break away from the 19th-century academic painting, began to study, collect and emulate the simple, strong forms they found in non-academic art.
Among the most important of the early folk exhibitions were “American Folk Sculpture,” held at the Newark Museum in the 1930, and the broader survey “American Folk Art – the Art of the Common Man -in America, 1750-1900,” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932; both were organized by Holger Cahill, then on the staff of the Newark Museum and one of the early exponents of American folk art. Cahill used the term “folk art” in the catalog accompanying the 1932 exhibition, while his subject was limited to the “craftsmen and amateurs of the 18th and 19th centuries.” In 1938, however he found it necessary to introduce the term “popular” in an exhibition of “Master of Popular Painting” (which included contemporary untrained European and American artists) and, in the exhibition subtitle, added the tern “modern primitives.”
In his important book They Taught Themselves (published in 1942), Sidney Janis uses the term “self-taught” to describe a group of “native primitives” which included Mother Moses (later promoted to ‘Grandma’ Moses) and Morris Hirschfield. Since both Janis and Cahill introduced the notion that something akin to folk art could be produced by living artists, they are forced to distinguish between a more tradition- based folk art and a popular or self-taught art that is of the people and not necessarily tied to cultural or ethnic traditions. The distinction is important because it still fuels the fire of disagreement in the academic community concerning what exactly constitutes ‘folk art.’
In his germinal 1968 article on fold art environments in Art in America, Gregg Blasdel introduces the term “grass-roots artist,” as the best number of inadequate classifications such as ‘primitive,’ ‘folk,’ and ‘naïve.’ A major distinction between the grass-roots artist and the folk or primitive artists, according to this author, is the reclusive nature of these artists who, in apparent isolation, create large structures and environments built from found materials.
The chief distinctions between the various definitions appear to center around the following issues: 1) whether it can be demonstrated that a folk artist works within a specific community, ethnic, or geographic or other ‘folk group’ with as specific cultural tradition; 2) whether the traditions within which the folk artist works have been affected by modern or other influences outside of its ethnic or regional isolation; and 3) whether the folk artisan (who is thought to produce utilitarian “folk craft” objects), working in a specific tradition, is distinct from the folk artist who, while producing more non-functional drawings, paintings or sculptured objects, operates more independently (i.e. outside tradition.) While the debate continues, both traditional and non-traditional folk artists are grouped together in museum and regional exhibitions, each defining folk art according to his own needs.
While America and the world riveted its attention on the emergence of a truly American ‘high art’ during the 1950s and early 1960s with the celebration of artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Rauschenberg, dine, Warhol, and Johns, little attention paid to its folk arts (with the exception of the Blasdell article and the 1974 “Naives and Visionaries” (Walker Art Center) Exhibition, both focusing on environments). Beginning with the Bicentennial in 1976, this country began to show a renewed interest in its folk art, especially through numerous regional and state surveys.
From the discussion of the literature accompanying these exhibitions, it is clear that academic training is a major determinant in how folk art is defined and what is included in the exhibitions. As has been pointed out, the divisions between groups attempting to define folk art center around the role tradition plays in the work of the artist. Most of us recognize the importance of the transmission of skills, techniques and other cultural patterns from one generation to the other in such endeavors as furniture construction, vernacular architecture, quilting, etc. There is now even considerable evidence of the survival of such communal/cultural patterns from Africa to the southern United States through the slave trade. Evidence that these skills, techniques and patterns are clearly culturally transmitted and that the artists’ and craftsmen’s products conform to community standards and values are at the base of the folklorist’s needs to see a community’s folk arts as traditional. The theory of cultural transmission and conformation cannot embrace the individual who appears to be deviant from this traditional pattern.
The idea that folk artists make “a leap beyond the tradition or source that inspired them” is not an infrequently found observation. In discussing a variation on traditional grave offerings found in Afro-American cemeteries, Vlach observes that “novelty does not always override tradition – rather novelty provides a new format for the expression of idea,s” and suggests that an important aspect of the process of African art is to “constantly reshape the old and the familiar into something modern and quiet, to simultaneously express one’s self and reinforce the image of the community.”
Recent studies and articles have disclosed exciting new information that reveals links between what initially appeared to be a private iconography produced by “idiosyncratic” artists, and hitherto unknown cultural and traditional sources for their work. For many years, for example, it was generally believed that Simon Rodioa, the builder of the “Watts Towers” in Los Angeles, worked in isolation not only from the community in which he lived but also from the cultural traditions of the country of his birth, Italy. In their recent article in the Library of Congress’ Folklife Annual 198, the authors (a folklorist and a student of popular culture) examine the relationships between Rodia’s towers and the “giglio” portable towers constructed annually for a religious festival in both the town of Nola, Italy (near where the artist was born) and in Brooklyn, New York.
In order to establish a connection between the folk artist and his culture, it is necessary to know something of the artist’s life. When he or she is alive, this can be accomplished through interviewing the artist and possibly his relatives and neighbors. We can enter his environment and examine the way he lives and inspect what he has chosen to surround himself with. Both my instinct and my research tell me that much of the work usually considered idiosyncratic was produced in a cultural tradition that may be hidden because of the difficulty in tracing the work’s iconography, construction, or even function. Research, coupled with a real appreciation of the folk artists’ creative output, will help to demystify some of the work now considered to be idiosyncratic.