PRINT Summer 1976

Problems in Folk Art

THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM IS to be congratulated on having mounted a large exhibition of folk art—sculpture, specifically—that takes a point of view. Most folk art shows are compendia of everything from quilts to gravestones, blithely presented in a spirit of nationalistic celebration. Despite museum settings, art is moved from stage-center and set to mingling with the crafts. Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., guest curator for the Brooklyn Museum, rejects that displacement. By mounting an exhibition of folk sculpture he makes the full claim for art. He eliminated quasi-commercial types of production, like cigar-store Indians, carousel figures and gravestones, because he believes such forms submerge the individuality of the artist. The result is an exhibition that has few pretty, fanciful and old-timey works, but many large-scale, emotionally intense pieces. Much of the art was produced by living artists,and some of it is even scary.

It is, in fact, a polemical show, although at first only David Bourdon in The Village Voice acknowledged the fact. The museum director, Michael Botwinick, merely sounds nervous about the whole thing. His introductory statement in the catalogue retreats from official endorsement of the confrontation he himself has engineered: an exhibition by a champion of folk art accompanied by an art historian’s catalogue essay, an essay which denies folk-art status to half the work presented and casts doubt on the category of folk art itself.

The exhibition reinforces the urgency of the questions raised by the catalogue debate. It turns out that limiting folk art to sculpture doesn’t finally seem to help; theoretical and visual confusion remains. Some of the pieces are grouped by type: whirligigs and decoys. Two sections of the installation present objects that link American production to well-known foreign traditions. There are snake canes whose imagery and technique are of African origin, and an ambiguous, snake-wrapped female nude carved with an African technique in a non-African style. There is a group of New Mexican cult figures, used by the Spanish-Mexican Penitentes, whose origins lie in medieval Europe. There are shop figures, political emblems and dolls, including one that lifts her dress to display her genitals, probably a witch’s doll. Then there is a potpourri of human and animal figures whose function, if any, is unknown. Interestingly, there is almost nothing that could be classed as environment or assemblage. In his eagerness to make the claim for folk sculpture as art, Mr. Hemphill may have wanted to avoid sculpture of an untraditional sort.

In spite of the curator’s ambitions, the esthetic quality of the work varies wildly. Moreover, not all the things exhibited here can exactly be called folk art. I would prefer to call the displaced foreign traditions colonial art and other pieces, like the Bacchus tavern figure, provincial. Those categories are not as troublesome as three others also represented here: folk art, popular art and naive art. (The usefulness of these distinctions will be defended in a later article.) Here I shall try to follow the example of the exhibition and the catalogue and lump everything together as vernacular art. As a category, vernacular art derives whatever unity it has from being contrasted with academic art—another loose term, as we shall see.

Mr. Hemphill claims the work he has assembled at Brooklyn is evidence of a “primal creative spirit, an urge to reproduce the image of life.” Yet what Hemphill finds crucial to folk art is not its realism but its “reclusiveness”—the fact that it is produced as the expression or outsiders, individuals or groups . . . free from the dogmas and restrictions that the dominant culture (and its academic art world) imposes.” This argument repeats the claim usually made for folk art that technical means have been subordinated to the pressure of intense feeling, thereby facilitating the direct communication of emotion to the viewer. The peripheral importance of artistic form and the consequent irrelevance of analysis or scholarship are implicit in such arguments. They suggest that intellectual effort beyond the requirements of documentation is beside the point. Trying to pin down the meaning and value of the work may be an evasion of folk art’s emotional demands, a flight into the security of pedantry.

Mr. Hemphill’s statement of his position is brief, coherent and anti-intellectual. The catalogue essay by Daniel Robbins is its opposite. He contradicts Mr. Hemphill on almost every particular. An examination of Robbins’s position will not tell us much about folk art, but it may explain why questions about it are important.

Because folk art is neither completely accepted nor rejected as art, it has an equivocal relationship to normally accredited art. Esthetic legitimacy is primarily conferred by art historians and an art market, but the defenders of folk art deny that art historical criteria are relevant. Folk art challenges the process of legitimization itself. In the days of the Academy, avant-garde art carried the same challenge. At the beginning of the 20th century, the rapid multiplication of styles and theories made legitimacy a matter of unmanageable dispute. Amid esthetic confusion, art historical ordering took first place. Then it entered formalist theory and assumed full responsibility for declaring what art of the past, present and future would be valid. An intimate alliance was created between the practice and theory of art. That alliance, unprecedented in modern times, gave the art world an increased cohesiveness and helped to strengthen the ties among its institutions, both nationally and internationally. It created a solidarity of authority that has outlasted the vitality of formalism. Marxist critiques are attacking that authority in Europe; here vernacular art raises many of the same fundamental questions.

As an art historian, Robbins takes his basic position from Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism and Modern Painting where, speaking of Rousseau, Goldwater says: “It is perhaps going too far to say that true folk art is always anonymous, but at least it is always part of, understood by and reabsorbed into the environment that produced it. With Rousseau this is eminently not the case . . .” Goldwater’s denial of folk art status to Rousseau is based on Rousseau’s acceptance of academic realist goals. Robbins, writing 40 years after Goldwater, drops the question of realism. He argues that diligent art historians have traced Rousseau’s compositions and themes to their sources and recommends applying the same treatment to American folk art.1 It is strongly suggested that once the sources of apparently isolated “folk” artists were discovered, they, like Rousseau, would prove to be demonstrably dependent on high art.

One implication may be that artistic creativity is the prerogative of high art and that folk art is intrinsically derivative. Without creativity, folk art may not even be art at all, but merely the artlike product of pseudo-artists. Yet Mr. Robbins proceeds in the opposite direction. For him, specifying artistic sources and influences is a primary technique of locating art. He is willing to accept folk art as art if its themes and compositions can be derived from high art or show analogies with it.

In fact, Rousseau specialists show that he used vernacular imagery—photographs, children’s books and popular prints—as well as borrowing from the Academician Gérôme. In any discussion of folk art, Rousseau is something of a red herring. He is generally called a naive painter, but unlike most naive painters his style develops, growing in power and refinement. His adoption of vernacular images is not peculiar to naive art; “high” artists like Courbet and Van Gogh did the same thing. He is a vernacular artist, however, and as such, Rousseau proves to be a red herring worth dissecting.

“Influence” and “style” are the two organizing concepts that establish the continuity of an artistic tradition. They are fundamental axioms of art history, and they underlie the profession’s claim to its being a rational, even scientific activity. Once the art historian has specified a connection (i.e. “influence”) between established artistic traditions and an apparently novel work, he has done his job. He has validated the new object as art and confirmed the organizing power of existing artistic categories. It could be suggested, however, that in relation to vernacular art in general, the explanatory value of influence is questionable.

The concept of influence, which attempts to describe stylistic change over time, is not particularly vital to folk art, for it is generally agreed that folk art is more static than high art and less responsive to changing historical conditions. Moreover, the idea of influence points to the repetition of specific artistic elements in changing artistic contexts. As Jean-Claude Lebenzstejn has pointed out, the art historian’s assumption that “influence” and “no influence” exhaust the possible forms of artistic relationship is false. An artist can accept or confirm a pictorial element by repeating it—“borrowing” is the mark of influence. But an artist can reject or contradict a pictorial element, and he can also remain ignorant of it, by not seeing it or by not noticing what he sees. In practice, 20th-century art history is frequently interpreted as a sequence of deliberate rejections, while folk art is usually investigated as a manifestation of ignorance. That is why Arnold Hauser’s 85-page discussion of it in The Philosophy of Art History is headed “Educational Strata in the History of Art: Folk Art and Popular Art.”

Ignorance is supposed to be characteristic of all vernacular artists, though they are not necessarily ignorant of the same things. Even Rousseau’s ignorance raises problems Mr. Robbins prefers not to face. With apparent arbitrariness, he endows Rousseau with an abstract vision of art. An artist’s self-image is usually treated as one thing and his ideas of art’s relationship to society (if he has any) as another. Mr. Robbins conflates the two: “We encounter here another constant and deeply moving characteristic of the naive artist: Rousseau’s belief in the importance of painting in his own life, his ‘unselfconscious acceptance’ of the value of art in the life of the community. This is the only unselfconscious aspect of Rousseau’s work. Everything else,” he concludes triumphantly, “—the ideals and the means—was derived from the conventions of high art.”

Rousseau’s belief in himself as an artist was confirmed in his own lifetime. Dora Val lier repeatedly insists on the essential fortuitousness of Rousseau’s ability to live out his chosen role as a painter. Only the establishment of the free, nonjuried exhibitions of the Indépendants allowed him to present himself as a professional, an artist among artists. The annual salons undoubtedly sustained Rousseau’s self-image. The mockery of the critics could be borne as part of the artist’s life.

Artistic self-confidence does not entail belief in “the value of art in the life of the community.” All we know is that Rousseau obviously saw that official recognition of artists brought them wealth and honor. Why does Robbins invest Rousseau with social consciousness and a role for art within it, as if that ideology were an aspect of any robust artistic ego? The answer is that as an art historian Mr. Robbins has a stake in something he calls “tradition.” For him, art is not simply the product of Mr. Hemphill’s creative individual, but production of a special type attached to an intellectual system. Without conscious participation in a system perceived as universal, didactic and impersonal, the artist can claim no “content” for his work beyond play or egotism. Robbins wishes to annex Rousseau for high art. Therefore, Rousseau must have had such a vision of art, even if he had to have it unconsciously.

Robbins rejects the idea that any isolated artist can “represent the vision of the common people, that through him, mysteriously without the intervention of guides from the instructed classes, the common people have found plastic and permanent form.” On the other hand, he adds: “But the artist who can take [non-art] material and invest it with civilized meaning, in the tradition of great and always self-conscious art, belongs to high art.” (Mr. Robbins has the preposterous notion that the use of popular imagery makes modern folk artists out of Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol and Dine—but let that pass.) Since Mr. Hemphill would obviously claim “civilized meaning” for his folk sculpture, the theoretical difference between the two men comes down to a dispute over the importance of “self-consciousness” on the part of the artist. Mr. Hemphill is prepared to grant the status of an artist to anyone who can produce emotionally powerful, esthetically satisfying form; Mr. Robbins denies that such form can be produced without awareness of the traditions of high art, though he never explains what they are or why they are so important.

“High” art generally refers without distinction to work from a variety of periods, ideas and styles. It stems from the Renaissance fusion of pagan and Christian themes rationalized by a heady, Neo-Platonic idealism. That theory served Poussin as well as the Mannerists, and provided the newly formed French Academy with its ideological base. By extension, then, “high” art also covers everything produced under the aegis of the Academy, including the Salon art of the 19th century. By that time, of course, Academicians had forgotten what artistic idealism was supposed to be about. Although Rousseau’s bizarre mixture of fantasy and cozy domestic materialism hardly leaves room for idealism of any sort, Robbins solemnly insists otherwise. “His work can only be understood and appreciated in its double relationship to the high art of his time,” he writes—as if Rousseau were essentially a parodist! When he adds, “the content of [Rousseau’s] work is considerably less high than he thought” I am simply baffled. How high was it? Is Robbins suggesting that if an artist admires Bouguereau and Gérôme he has a serious concern with idealism or high artistic content?

The height of “high art” can only go unquestioned as long as historians do not allow the line of exalted descent to stray too far. The claim for the continuity of artistic tradition rests on style as well as influence. “Style” permits the observer to classify objects on the basis of their participation in a system of formal relations. It corresponds to the idea of species in biology and, ideally, identifies the factors which mark individual works as related or unrelated. In fact, very few art historians venture into such abstract territory. It is generally assumed that everybody knows the characteristics of traditional styles; they exist by a sort of gentleman’s agreement. It works well enough as long as nobody tries to introduce odd-looking newcomers into the club.

High art can serve as a guarantee of artistic values because style and ideology—form and content, roughly—are treated as a single unit. High idealism faded and high style remained, but the richly synthetic prestige of high art goes on and on. The continuity of the high art tradition depends on two factors, one practical and one theoretical.

In practical terms, art history cannot function without documentation, the trail of paper evidence that establishes the occasions of contact between objects, ideas and people. Letters, contracts, inventories, etc. ground our interpretations of art. They record art as property and as serving human purposes, as meaning. Art historical documentation, therefore, ennobles automatically, by freeing the art it serves from the mute status of anonymous objects. Because documentation is essentially an instrument of social control, it is normally produced for the socially powerful. Though records are often lost or destroyed, the high art tradition practically rests on the continuity of administrative and bookkeeping procedures.

It also rests on the continuity of elite rationales. Succeeding elites find traditional styles and symbols the most effective means of communicating their own cosmic and mundane authority. Deprived of political significance and economic support, the art of a subject population becomes folk art, although elements of it may be incorporated into the art of the elite to lend popular authenticity and intelligibility. The art of a new elite does not necessarily create the art forms it uses, but it does insist on drawing the forms of civility and power into its own network of authority. “Artistic significance” is renewed by binding existing forms, whatever their source, into the rationale of the emergent establishment.

In sum, the elevated content supposedly embodied in high art is primarily a reaffirmation of the transcendent claims of political authority spelled out in the myths that support that authority. The high art tradition is minimally a rhetorical tradition, asserting the power, beauty and harmony of the ordained order. It is also a visual tradition. That concurrence is the source of the dealers’ Great Lie: the claim that esthetic, economic and cultural values are all mutually implicated in “major” art. That is, great art is beautiful, it is important in terms of ideas and/or history, and it is expensive.

Folk art, made out of cheap materials by obscure individuals for incomprehensible reasons, should be palpably ungreat. Yet at the Whitney exhibition of American sculpture, where you could see, in a single line of vision, the terrifying wooden death cart against a background of neoclassical marble statuary, it looked great. It manifested a serious grappling with the facts of human existence and a complexity of artistic form that folk art is not supposed to have. (Brooklyn’s death cart is even better than the Whitney’s.) The marble ladies, with their impeccable high-art credentials, were the pieces that looked frivolous, decorative and convention-bound. Folk art explodes the great lie by demonstrating the unpredictability of esthetic values. Not the autonomy of art; far from it. In the discredited museumy context of the marble ladies, the death cart had an immediacy it would not have had if we were tourists seeing it in ritual use. If we saw the cart in New Mexico it would have belonged to them; at the Whitney its relative social distance was lessened because the marbles have become inconceivably remote. If we were medieval peasants they couldn’t be further away!

Today it is generally admitted that the physical and social context in which art is perceived affects the perceiver’s response. In a polite and characteristically obscure way, Mr. Robbins asks if our response to folk art may not be more sentimental than properly artistic. He relates the so-called power of folk art to . . . the idea that interested society can stamp its own artistic values upon almost any kind of object, that each man who approaches life as an artist will find art and will find it to the extent that he himself is creative. This is an extension, and perhaps a particularly modern extension, of a special contribution to modernism that is focused in the work and attitude of Marcel Duchamp: the found object.”

There are two ideas here, not one. First Robbins is saying that we see all artifacts as expressing the values of the culture that produces them, which, true or false, has nothing to do with Duchamp. He is also saying that all objects can carry esthetic values for those seeking such values, which is the “message” of the found object and readymades. “Found objects” are not necessarily artifacts. They include the interestingly shaped rocks the Japanese use in their traditional gardens, the ostrich eggs found in medieval sculpture, the pieces of driftwood that were fashionable ornaments in the ’40s. Duchamp’s innovation lay in extending the artistic use of found objects to include industrial products that seemed to contradict the nature of art. His found objects had no relationship to the creator’s touch; they were blatantly modern, unhallowed by time; they were objects of use, even “low” use, like the urinal. Yet, in the context of art, they worked. Their forms and associations could serve artistic purposes: a polemical “discovery” that rejected genteel, precious-object assumptions about art.

Mr. Robbins seems to believe that Duchamp’s found objects completely dissolved the category of art. Indeed, they do reject the idea that art is a thing-in-itself, apart from the human situation. But aside from the found object’s import for art theory, such objects also point to the banal fact that everything, not only art, can be looked at esthetically, that is, from the point of view of form, color and emotional resonance. Women have often been regarded so, for instance, as attractive or unattractive objects. The found object merely confirms what has often been more dimly perceived: art is a category of social experience distinct from the experience of its components, material form and the ideas or feelings associated with it. The distinction between art and non-art is a matter of consciousness. There is nothing to stop us from enjoying or analyzing bird-song as music; it will simply turn out to be rather boring music.2 And of course the acts of appreciation and analysis themselves depend on intellectual and artistic traditions that the birds do not share.

For Mr. Robbins, however, true art is “high art,” and he insists that its traditions must be a part of the creator’s consciousness. As a concession to Eastern and African art he is prepared to accept as art work produced in a group whose beliefs and customs absorb it and can be called upon to justify its existence. However, the development of such internally coherent systems of theory and practice depends on cultural isolation, and Robbins sees cultural isolation as doomed by the pervasiveness of mass media. With the disappearance of cultural isolation, the possibility of true folk art disappears. “A folk tradition,” he says, “cannot outlive a Folk.”

Because artistic admiration is not an appropriate attitude toward non-art, Mr. Robbins’s essay addresses itself to a question that does not arise for Mr. Hemphill: the question of how and why such anomalous art has come to be valued at all. In the first place, he says, the appreciation of American folk art was identified with America’s discovery of a native, democratic source of artistic energy. This grounded and authenticated anti-academic modernist art in America and was therefore a Good Thing. While the enthusiasm for American folk art was useful, it played its role on the basis of a claim that Mr. Robbins finds inadmissible, the notion that artistically admirable work can be produced on the basis of “nature,” apart from all intellectual and artistic traditions. Such admiration is inevitably sentimental rather than artistic. Here Mr. Robbins acknowledges the possibility of true sentiment (an appreciation of the “charm” and “integrity” of authentic folk art) and false sentiment. False sentiment can be based on nostalgia—a preference for “. . . anachronistic subjects, such as the religious parodies of Tolson or Miles Carpenter,” camp—“the strange marriage of high art themes with hobbiest [sic] techniques may appeal to a sophisticated jaded taste,” or brainwashing—the influence of “. . . collectors, dealers, curators or historians . . . all too frequently crosses the thin line separating patronage from corruption in modern society.”

“Corruption” refers to Mr. Robbins’s belief that folk art ceases to be authentic when the artist tries to use his work to get praise or money. This seems to raise the issue of consciousness again. Here Mr. Robbins is insisting that folk artists should be totally innocent and unaware of possible public response. Yet Rousseau, Michelangelo and every tribal sculptor in Africa expected to get something for his work, and that expectation has never been felt to invalidate the art. The folk artist’s cultural virginity is nevertheless apparently as precious as it is precarious. In fact, the issue here is not a matter of consciousness but of the market or public for vernacular art.3 Mr. Robbins acknowledges this when he adds that at least since the ’30s, nobody can fail to be aware that folk art has been “. . . set aside for aesthetic value and finally bought and sold in the context of high art.”

So Robbins ends with the near-total put-down of folk art we envisioned earlier: folk art is the quasi-artistic product of people trying to be real artists, but hopelessly ill-equipped for the job. At this point I hope the reader can see why traditional art history cannot deal seriously with folk art. Unfortunately, the defenders of folk art do not offer us any way to cope with the problems a folk art exhibition raises.

For example, we may find the biblical tableaus of Edgar Tolson (b. 1904) puerile, his Man with a Pony slightly less so. Is it appropriate to complain of the failure of scale in the tableau, and to remark that the more heavily painted piece gains interest by distracting us from the plastic monotony of its form? Ought we to think about the problems of making religious sculpture convincing in the 20th century, or should we assume that Mr. Tolson works in a cultural vacuum and doesn’t know what time it is? Can I as a critic conclude anything about his own religious feeling from the Barbie doll sleekness of his forms? In short, can we treat folk art as the work of creative individuals? Is that what treating something as art means?

If it is, the death-cart artists must be reproached for having failed to express their individuality, since neither the Brooklyn nor the Whitney figure gives us a sense of the maker. The religious feeling we sense in this work seems to be an attribute of a traditional form, and each instance of it presents the small-scale esthetic variation of a performance rather than full formal creation. Most of the snake canes seem to call for a similar approach. Yet stylistically one of them is anomalous. Snake and staff are not differentiated units—someone has made the staff itself into a snake. But wait! What if the artist has only found a nicely twisted branch and polished it? If so, does the work deserve less admiration or more?

I think all these questions could be answered, although there might be disagreements about particular judgments. It should be obvious, however, that the artistic decisions involved in answering such questions are not all on the same level of generality. Nor can a single set of criteria be used to assess the various kinds of production that have been called folk art. When you are dealing with work you recognize as an instance of traditional form you don’t look for the kind of inventiveness to be found in naive art. Not if you’re sensible, you don’t. On the other hand, you don’t expect history painting to provide the direct access to human experience that portraiture does, or genre painting to provide the compositional variety to be found in still life. Vernacular art presents a similar variety of artistic situations.

Artistic quality is conventionally treated as a judgment based on a single set of universally applied criteria. It is not so simple. We normally tailor artistic assessment to what we can expect to find. Vernacular art requires the same willingness to discriminate, along with novel problems of style and significance. Intuition may be enough for the artist. Because the viewer’s task is different, we need other tools.

Amy Goldin contributes frequently to Artforum and various other art journals.



1. By way of example, he proposes that St. Gauden’s General William Tecumseh, erected in 1881, served as a model for an anonymous Personification of Time, which, unfortunately, is now dated between 1825 and 1840 and is not included in this show.

2. Charles Hartshorn, “The Aesthetic Analysis of Birdsong,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Spring, 1968, Vol. 25, No. 3.

3. Vernacular art has frequently been analyzed in terms of the public for which it is made. I will try to deal with this subject at a later time.