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Folk Arts

Folk arts encompass "the visual arts, music, drama, dance, or literature originating from, or traditional to, the common people of a country (Collins Dictionary)", but there is much more to folk art that that, such as ceremonial or regional dress and articles of personal adornment, ceramic or wooden vessels, painted furniture and household decoration, ritual or symbolic objects, woodcarvings, woven and embroidered textiles and decorated Easter eggs (Wertkin 2004:xxxviii).

Three concepts

Art is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. It can be a branch of learning, such as one of the humanities, liberal arts, etc. It is an occupation requiring knowledge or skill. It suggests conscious use of skill and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects and works. There are fine arts, graphic art.

Craft may imply expertness in workmanship, and also stands for executing well what one has devised, whereas art implies a personal, somewhat creative power.

Tao (it can be used in the plural), suggest ways and means, among other things; they include 'source and guiding principle' to be followed for a life of harmony etc., 'process(es) of change', 'path(s) of virtuous conduct'; and first and foremost 'art or skill of doing something in harmony with the essential nature of the thing'.

Accomplished folk arts reach a Tao (way, means, etc).

Folk arts

The concept 'folk art' (Volkskunst) has increasingly been adopted in many languages. The term 'folk art' is used in many ways. One of them uses the words "folk art" to refer to objects that reflect craft traditions. Besides, naïve art, Pop art, outsider art, traditional art, "self-taught" art and "working class" art overlap with folk art. The distinction between folk and popular art is not absolute either.

The folk artist's items or products are hardly widely used, are not products of commercialism either, nor are they severely mass produced to meet popular taste.

Products of simple tools, utensils, and crafts do have aesthetic aspects. Folk arts may still continue on the periphery if a periphery is found in the "global village of MacDonaldism" in the long run. It is to be hoped.

The built-in tension between localness and obscurity on the one hand and perhaps consumerism-ridden, exploitive, and too shallow large society recognition on the other, is hardly an ideal basis for rooted folk arts in the years to come.


The varied expressions of folk art in different times and places make it difficult to describe it as a whole.

move towards civilization yet rapidly diminish with modernity, industrialization, or outside influence

folk art is not influenced by movements in academic or fine art circles, and, in many cases, folk art excludes works executed by professional artists and sold as "high art" or "fine art" to the society's art patrons

many 18th- and 19th-century American folk art painters made their living by their work,

Folk art expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. It encompasses a range of utilitarian and decorative materials or media, including cloth, wood, paper, clay, metal and more. If traditional materials are inaccessible, new materials are often substituted, resulting in contemporary expressions of traditional folk art forms.

Folk art reflects traditional art forms of diverse community groups – ethnic, geographical, age- or gender-based – who identify with each other and society at large.

Folk artists traditionally learn skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, though they may also be formally educated.

Folk arts are simple, direct, and mostly always colorful.

Antique folk art

Items of antique folk art were not made to be 'art for art's sake' when created.creation. Examples include: carved figures, fire buckets, and other highly collectible "whimsical" antiques.

Contemporary folk art

Many folk art traditions like quilting and ornamental picture framing continue to thrive, while new forms constantly emerge.

Contemporary folk artists are frequently self-taught as their work is often developed in isolation or in small communities. One of them, Elito Circa, is famous and internationally recognised. He developed his own styles without professional training or guidance from masters.

Influence on mainstream art

Folk artworks, styles and motifs have inspired various artists. For example, Pablo Picasso was inspired by African tribal sculptures and masks,

Folk art is increasingly recognised as a vital element in the cultural history of the United States, but it remains a contested expression. Art historians, museum curators, folklorists, and cultural anthropologists assign varying discipline­based meanings to it. Divergent categories of cultural production are comprehended by its usage in Europe, where the term originated, and in the United States, where it developed for the most part along very different lines. Within the field, some American museums and organizations that emphasize the work of contemporary "self­taught" or "outsider" artists in their missions and programs use the expression "folk art" as an umbrella term, while other institutions reserve the expression for more traditional works of art. Not insignificantly, the politics of the marketplace have had an impact on the development of terminology in the field, with the use of "folk art" and other words moving in and out of fashion as a result of trends in buying and selling.

a broadbased approach to the subject.

a remarkably diverse body resulting from "folk creativity"

A Brief History

In late nineteenth­century Europe the very notion of folk art as a field was first articulated and where the ideas that shaped the subject first arose.

European ideas continue to have an impact on the way American folk art is classified and studied today.

The great Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878 was a watershed in the early history of the field. Artur Hazelius, who had assembled a comprehensive folk art collection of the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm beginning in 1872, exhibited a collection of Scandinavian folk objects at the Paris fair - the exhibited objects were associated with a "class" whose life and activities previously had been disregarded "by the traditional and official view of what was significant to scholarship and culture."

For European scholars, folk art is generally identified with the peasant class: rural communities with a deep connection to place, the members of which are bound together by ties of kinship, ethnicity, religious faith, common agrarian life patterns, and inherited or received traditions in the arts. Folk art - its techniques are transmitted from generation to generation within small, related groups.

In contrast to the machine­made products of mass culture, folk artists use simple, often handmade, tools, manual techniques, and readily available materials.

The developing ideas gave rise to cultural forms, ornamental patterns, and symbolic references;

The integrity of hand craftsmanship were consistent with the spirit of nineteenth­century European romantic nationalism and quest for national identity. A rustic culture and ways of life was seen as residing in the countryside, and folk art became a powerful symbol of the national soul.


Ernst praises woodcarving as an art form 'rooted in the soil of the fatherland, an instructive, holy art, in the true sense of the word, a Volkskunst [folk art]."

If the use of the term Volkskunst is recorded as early as 1845, the subject itself was not more fully elucidated until much later in the century, with the work of art historians like the Austrian Alois Riegl, whose important Volkskunst, Hausfleiss und Hausindustrie was published in Berlin in 1894.

occasionally theorizing about a mystical, collective creativity

Riegl, on the other hand, stressed that the individual hand and intentions of the artist were significant, even in folk creativity. To be sure, the artist may have been obliged by group expectations to work within the norms of transmitted forms and conventions, but individual creativity - which implied personal aesthetic choices and technical virtuosity - saved received or inherited traditions from stagnating and permitted them to be renewed in each generation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a vast descriptive and theoretical literature existed in Europe devoted to the field of folk art.

A wide variety of objects in various media had been collected, described, and analysed: ceremonial or regional dress and articles of personal adornment, ceramic or wooden vessels, painted furniture and household decoration, ritual or symbolic objects, woodcarvings, woven and embroidered textiles, decorated Easter eggs, among many other forms.

Moreover, museums from Ukraine to Norway had been established on the model of the outdoor Swedish museum in Djurgården of vernacular culture founded in 1891.

The advent of the twentieth century only accelerated the interest in folk art. In 1928, the first Folk Art Congress met in Prague. By 1932 it was estimated that there were 2,000 local folk art museums in Germany alone.

Ironically, as the European interest in the subject began to grow, the production of folk art in Europe entered a period of sustained decline, the result of changing social conditions, mechanisation, industrialisation, education, emigration, and the consequent loss of traditional village life.

The Roots of American Folk Art and Pennsylvania

in time characterized as folk art - that were especially relevant to the history of their respective regions and the people who resided there.

methodical collection, classification and preservation of the everyday objects of early American life,

Pennsylvania German objects as works of art.

American folk art was not collected in earnest as art until the 1910s and 1920s, even though European ideas about folk art affected American thinking,

the collection, study, and exhibition of folk art in America took a radically different direction, at least in part because the social conditions and culture that supported the creation of folk art in Europe did not exist in North America, except in relatively closed groups with fully integrated cultural traditions, such as the Pennsylvania German farming communities of southeastern Pennsylvania.


The perspective through which many Americans came to know the field was defined by Holger Cahill, who had visited folk art museums in Germany and Scandinavia – dissimilar his conception of the subject was by comparison to the European ideas. "Folk art," he wrote, "does not include the work of craftsmen­omakers of furniture, pottery, textiles, glass, and silverware – but only that folk expression which comes under the head of the fine arts – painting and sculpture. By 'folk art' is meant art which is produced by people who have little book learning in art techniques and no academic training, whose work is not related to the established schools."

"Much of it," Cahill observed, "was made by men who were artists by nature, if not by training, and everything they had to say in painting and sculpture is interesting."

the emphasis on tradition and community that prevailed in Europe (that is accepted by American folklorists, although with expanded parameters that substantially extend the original narrow class­based focus of the terms),

Cahill chose for his model an "aesthetic" or "fine arts" approach and stressed the nature of the artist's training. This approach to a considerable extent guides the field to this day.

American folk art embraces many, generally unrelated, artistic expressions that flourish among gifted individuals who are inspired to create, but for the most part without formal academic training or sustained exposure to the fine arts.

As understood by Cahill and his followers, folk artists may draw deeply from the wellsprings of community tradition or may be idiosyncratic in their creativity. Their paintings are often distinguished by deceptively simple but remarkably sophisticated and stylized compositions, flat picture planes and tonalities, and a tendency toward abstraction. Folk sculpture, often direct and vigorous, shares similar aesthetic qualities.

Unlike the categories of objects that Hazelius showed in Paris, Cahill exhibited portraits of prosperous nineteenth­century merchants and farmers and their families by itinerant professional painters, landscape and still­life paintings by young women in seminaries, weathervanes, ship figureheads, shop figures, tavern signs, wildfowl decoys, and other objects. Some of these objects were produced in small shops by trained artisans; others represented the work of talented amateurs. Some were utilitarian in nature, while others were examples of pure fancy. Folk art, according to this view, was not necessarily rural in origin, and it clearly cut across class lines, often developing from earlier, provincial adaptations of urban style. Indeed, if any class was predominantly represented in the field, it was the middle class.

In one sense, however, Cahill and the Europeans agreed. For the most part, they reasoned, folk art was a thing of the past. Having reached its full flowering in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its production declined as a result of industrialization, mass communication, and the impact of popular culture.

neither Cahill nor the early collectors of American folk art ever articulated clear or comprehensive parameters for the field that they had helped establish. In fact, these parameters were flexible enough eventually to admit the very kinds of objects – pottery, quilts, hooked rugs and other textiles, furniture, and other objects from craft traditions – that Cahill originally rejected. (In these categories, the creator transforms an everyday object into a work of art through the highly skillful and inventive use of materials, the application of imaginative surface decoration or other non­utilitarian features of an aesthetic character, and excellence in form and design.)

Nor did they generally attempt to understand folk art in the context in which it was created. Many of these collectors were themselves artists - modernists, folk art – by definition "non-academic" in nature – represented something of the free spirit of America itself.

Folk arts, Literature  

Encyclopedia Britannica, sv. "Folk art: Visual arts of the folk tradition".

Maclagan, David. Outsider Art: From the Margins to the Marketplace. London: Reaktion Books, 2009.

Wertkin, Gerard C., ed. Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Wikipedia, sv. "Folk art".

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