Folk Art

I’ve always been skeptical of folk art. If you’ve seen “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, it’s likely that you’ve seen folk art pieces. You’ll know them because they’re quirky and frequently rough around the edges. They might not look like things you’d see in a museum, but sometimes you can make the case for them being there. Occasionally they’re worth a lot more than you’d expect; but more often, they’re made by anonymous individuals who create for the love of creation and whose names and works are lost to time.

After many years of wondering what kind of artist I am — non-artist, amateur artist, part-time artist, frustrated artist, failed artist — I now proudly call myself a folk artist.


This thought started coming to me as I toured the Milwaukee Art Museum‘s folk art collection. “Why is this ‘folk art’ not just ‘art?’” I wondered while seeing some really original and entertaining pieces. (Especially the two shown above by Edgar Tolson, which are part of a larger Genesis series.) Around the same time I was trying to decide who to include in my discourse on Indian fine art photography. “How do I pick ‘art’ from the wide universe of mass generated imagery, particularly given the large amount of good amateur work and photojournalism?”

It seems the answer lies in community. Artists — that is, professional “fine artists” — create works that, among other things, communicate in both contemporary and historical conversations with other artists through their work. They touch on the social condition, who we are, what it means to be human. Contrast this with folk artists who usually lack formal training and work alone outside the established art community. Their projects may have intense personal meaning and (I hope) might eventually acquire art historical value through a lifetime of acretion and originality, but that’s rarely the main goal of the artists.

Of course, I like my photographs — though not all of them work as well as I would like — and through them I do try to take part in some of the conversations in contemporary photography.* But it’s a hard conversation for upstarts to elbow into because some speak so eloquently and others so loudly, and so many, many voices are trying to be heard. Some day I may get the chance to drop the “folk” part of my amateur artist title. But I feel pretty happy with where I am.

* – I’m not counting my travel snapshots here, of course, even though that seems to be all that I post here these days. I really should get out of the house more.

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2 Responses to Folk Art

  1. EmperorFrost says:

    Interesting point about the distinction between folk artists and their “professional” counterparts. You seem to be saying that what sets professional artists apart from folk artists is their intent and ability to speak to a larger audience that includes many of their peers while folk artists work on a very personal form and appreciation comes forth from audiences that speak or experience the same emotions. This sort of distinction exists in many fields for eg. music (mainstream vs. the underground). What I suspect is that the appetite for the ‘folksy’ flavors depends on how much effort the artist invests in promoting his art. I would think there are more than enough takers out there who speak the same language thus making him mainstream. I am using mainstream interchangeably with professional (my underlying assumption is that you don’t have to be professionally educated to be considered professional – sort of a it helps if you are but its not an absolute must). So, it boils down to the artist’s intent – promote and integrate oneself with the mainstream sense of appreciation of art as opposed to the folk artist who creates art just for himself. So, I differ from your point that the professional’s art speaks to a community while a folk artist’s work does not. I see it as a difference in intent – my claim being that the folk artist will find his own community if he invests effort in finding one.

    Art, like beauty, lies in the eyes (and heart) of the beholder.

  2. Jeff Mather says:

    I agree that much of the professional v. amateur v. folk art distinctions can pivot upon how much effort the artist puts into self-promotion. (As well as the quality of the work and the ability to please buyers/collectors/dealers. But that’s a different matter entirely.) That, after all is what defines “professional.”

    My intent in the post was to call out this difference but then dig deeper into the “fine art” v. amateur artist distinction. There are a great many serious amateurs who don’t get taken quite as seriously as perhaps they want to be. I see this all the time in my camera club: people making technically correct, well-composed, unique images that aren’t really capable of getting gallery space (though some try for it). Why is this?

    In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the way that artists use their images (or sculptures, paintings, music, etc.) to communicate with other artists, artworks, and larger social trends. This certainly makes the art more self-conscious — if not necessarily “better” — and puts it directly into an art historical context. You can fit any kind of artist into such a context, of course; everyone has her moment and inspiration. But I don’t think most amateurs make their works with these contexts in mind.

    So how does folk art fit in? I guess I’m being hopeful that someday someone will look at a cross-section of my work and say, “Even though he was an amateur artist, his photographs had something interesting to say, were stylistically consistent, and reacted to what was going on in the larger art world.”

    Finally, I think that education and professionalism impact the ability to communicate in fine art circles, both directly and through art objects. You always hope that artworks are interesting enough to stand on their own, but the whole context issue really can’t exist in a vacuum. When communication with other works is important, art school types have a distinct advantage over the self-taught (like me). And professional artists, whose jobs bring them into regular contact with art school types and artworks.

    I’m quite happy with my non-art profession. For one thing, it gives me the stability I need to pursue my amateur avocation. Being famous or embraced by the art community isn’t my goal. So do I think that what I do is art? Yes, it’s art because I say that it is. Do I think that it’s good art? That’s not my call, but I hope so.

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