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.