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Folk Art

  Folk art may be identified loosely as the visual production of those communities whose approach to the making of imagery can neither be considered to be ‘primitive’ (in the ethological sense) on the one hand, nor ‘academic’ (in the sense of a sophisticated and somewhat narrow fine-art production) on the other. In practice folk art may thus be loosely associated with those rural communities which articulate through visual means the rituals, religious observance, folk wisdom, folklore, social mores, or heritage of their society.

The area is vast. But if we take folk art to mean either the product of such societies, or an art which exhibits qualities which fine art would label as unsophisticated, then we can make some incursion into the subject. The nature of folk art is extremely diverse, but may generally be considered to be the visual outcome of the conditions under which it was produced, displayed, or otherwise utilized. In this sense, the very label folk ‘art’ is itself problematic, in that it opposes the quality of ‘folk’ to the category of ‘art’ often with the assumption that folk art is a ‘primitive’ version of ‘academic’ art.

The rise of academic study of folk art can be associated with the early 19th century, a period when the interest in the untutored, the individual and the non-canonical was being enshrined in the Romantic aesthetic. From this time on, folk art has usually been seen as the opposite of an art which posits its existence on rules, order and artificiality. From this perspective folk art had the virtue of simplicity, directness and honesty. (It hardly needs saying that the attribution of these qualities to folk art says far more about the way the Age of Romanticism—and to some extent the Age of Enlightenment, as expressed in Jean Jacques Rousseau\'s myth of the primitive conceived of the category of art than it does about the nature or purpose of folk art itself.)

For the 19th century, the attribution of folk art to the untutored spirit (with the assumption that such a spirit speaks truer than does artifice), was close to associating folk art with the spirit of the people, the collective unconscious in whose ‘art’ were to be found the fundamental values of society. This form of cultural nationalism has been part of the study of folk art ever since—an association which has done little for the understanding of the subject, especially as it is not clear where this association stands in relation to discourses on fine art.

Folk art, then, may be seen as an essentially social art, responding to immediate and localized needs in an immediate and localized way. Within this broad definition, the various and diverse forms folk art has taken are legion. It may manifest itself in abstract pattern making or realistic representation, although the former tends not to be self-consciously abstract in the way modernist painting may be so described, and the latter may not exhibit the sophisticated use of representation which we associate with the naturalism of the Renaissance. In fact, both Renaissance and modernist painting are conceptual in so far as they use a theoretic construction in order to give form to their ideas, whereas it has been observed that a characteristic of folk art is that its practitioners do the opposite, and begin with the particular to arrive at the whole.

One could continue with observations of this kind almost indefinitely, but certain similarities may be tentatively ascribed to folk art. They would include the simplification of the means of representation down to its essentials; a propensity to pattern making; the exaggeration, for the sake of clarity or expression, of the image; and the attempt to visualize the intangible. It could of course be argued that these are the properties of visual imagery worldwide, that what in fact we are here discussing is not folk art but art. While this is a persuasive argument, for the moment the ‘fine’ conception of art still holds sway, at least in art-critical circles, and this form of image-making has, for the time being, usurped the art discourse. This has resulted in all other forms of art production being marginalized, whether geographically/racially (as, for example, ‘Third World’ art) or aesthetically, where folk art is seen to be an inferior form of the quintessential (fine) art practice. MG PD

See also religious art.Further reading N. Graburn (ed.), Ethnic and Tourist Arts; , S. Hiller, The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art.



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