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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 may be used in the plural also), 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) of balancing yin and yang, female and male, and so on. Says Dr Jin Zhilin: "Chinese folk art and Chinese philosophy are unified in the belief that yin-yang produces all living things on earth and all living things stay alive through propagation." (2004, 12)

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.

Expressions of community ways

Folk art is a remarkably diverse body resulting from "folk creativity." The varied expressions of folk art in different times and places make it difficult to describe it as a whole. For one thing, items of antique folk art were not made to be 'art for art's sake'. Another point is that 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 or sold as "high art" or "fine art" to the society's art patrons. Folk arts are simple, direct, and mostly always colorful.

Many 18th- and 19th-century American folk art painters made a living by their work. Many folk art traditions, like quilting and ornamental picture framing, continue to thrive, while new forms also emerge.

Folk artworks, styles and motifs have inspired artists like Pablo Picasso.

Folk art expresses cultural identity by conveying shared community values and aesthetics. Folk artists traditionally learn skills and techniques through apprenticeships in informal community settings, though they may also be formally educated.

European cultural outlets

In late nineteenth-century Europe the very notion of folk art as a field was first articulated. The ideas that shaped the subject first arose there. European ideas continue to have an impact on how American folk art is classified and studied.

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

In contrast to the machine-made products of mass culture, folk artists may use manual techniques, and most often easily available materials. Developing folk art ideas gave rise to cultural forms, ornamental patterns, and symbolic references. Hand craftsmanship and folk art of a rustic culture and rustic ways of life was seen as residing in the countryside, became a powerful token of a national spirit.

Woodcarving as a well rooted art form, was considered among the Volkskunst, folk arts. The term Volkskunst is recorded as early as 1845, and got better understood through the work of art historians like the Austrian Alois Riegl, along with Hausfleiss (domestic industriousness) and Hausindustrie (domestic industry) from 1894. Riegl stressed that the individual hand and the intentions of the artist were significant, also in so-called folk creativity. Individual creativity with personal aesthetic choices and technical virtuosity helped inherited traditions to remain vital and be renewed from generation to generation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, a large amount of literature about folk art had been produced in Europe. Many sorts 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, and many other forms of vernacular culture.

In the twentieth century the interest in folk art grew. By 1932 it was estimated that there were 2,000 local folk art museums in Germany. At the same time less folk art was made in Europe. The decline resulted from changing social conditions, mechanisation, industrialisation, education, emigration, and moving away from traditional village life.

Americans and Europeans- about the same

During this period of serious decline, everyday objects of American life too were collected, classified and preserved. North American did not have the social conditions and culture that supported the making of folk art in Europe, except in quite closed ethnic groups such as farming communities.

Americans and Europeans both found that for the most part, folk art had peaked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and declined afterwards as a result of industrialisation, mass communication, and the impact of popular culture.

American folk art too came to include many other objects that "fine arts" many sorts of objects – pottery, quilts, hooked rugs and other textiles, furniture, other objects from craft traditions, as well as the context (setting) that folk art was created in.

Chinese Folk Arts

Rural Chinese folk art are evident in everyday food, clothing and shelter, in traditional festivals, ceremonies and rituals, and in beliefs and taboos. Folk art serve to bring facets of ancient Chinese culture into modern times and gives a cultural continuity that in some cases span about 8,000 years. Folk arts have regional characteristics as well. They are, generally, significantly colourful.

Dr Jin Zhilin went to live for thirteen years in Yan'an, on the middle to upper stream of the Yellow River. It became his home base for conducting research on Chinese folk art, for it was a place that had kept a long-standing cultural tradition - the native Chinese culture was by and large well maintained there. While he stayed there, he studied of folk art, folk custom and culture along with archaeological culture, historical and legendary documents, and managed to trace cultural and philosophical origins. What did he conclude by the Yellow River?

I found Chinese folk arts in the forms of paper-cutting, embroidery and floury flower everywhere. Some were representations of animals, such as the turtle, the snake, the fish and the frog; and some were half-human, half-animal: a human face on a turtle's body, or on the body of a snake, frog or fish. There were also wholly humanized fairies. These art works embraced the development and transformation of totem culture through three phases from matriarchal society to patriarchal society. I felt as if I were in a world of totem culture, visiting the cultural center of a tribe of ancient times. The design of a pair of fish with human faces found on painted pottery and the "fish net" code from the 6000-year-old Yangshao culture unearthed in Banpo of Xi'an, Shaanxi, are still quite popular in the rural area here. The designs remain among the people as symbols of the god of life and propagation, symbols believed to have supernatural powers.

Likewise, the color painting "Dancing dolls," with five babies hand-in-hand on painted pottery from the 5000-year-old Majiayao culture unearthed in Qinghai Province on the middle-upper reaches of the Yellow river, is also a popular paper-cut in today's folk art and customs. The five dolls (representing fairies from five directions – east, west, north, south and the center) are regarded as patron saints of the baby with coiled hair, who drives away evil spirits. The excavated antiques couldn't speak, but the old grandmother still living in the caves on the loess plateau gave a detailed explanation: in today's customs, people still follow the same cultural codes from 5000-6000 years ago. (Jin 2004, 1-3)

Dr Jin went on to the Ping Village in the Hunan and Jiangxi countryside, mid-stream in the Yangtze River. There the culture of exorcism was overwhelming, he writes. There was a sort of old temple for exorcism every 2.5 kilometers, and another type of old temple for exorcism old temple for exorcism every 5 kilometers. Face masks, rituals, dance and theatrical play were related to exorcism and dispelling evil. There was also totem culture masks for a god with ox horns, one who opened up the mountain at the beginning of the world. According to historical records, this area used to be the center of a tribe that was known to wear bronze ox horn totem masks. Ox-horn bronze masks were dug out in the area as well.

In the Miao village in the mountain area of Guizhou Province, upstream in the Yangtze river, Dr Jin found the same culture of exorcism. The Miao people believed the humanized god wearing ox-head on a human body, was their ancestor. Dr Jin:

"Existing customs are like live fossils in the study of Chinese cultural origins, and more specifically, Chinese folk art . . . As one of the four most ancient civilizations, China has followed a long, uninterrupted course of culture and tradition. . . . China's cultural relics, even those from ancient times, are still preserved in today's folk art, customs and culture. (Ib. 4-5)

From the Yangtze River area, Dr Jin went on to study folk art artifacts from the "entire country". In the 1990s, I travelled further, to India, Pakistan, West Asia, Turkey, and Egypt; then to Greece, Italy, and other parts of Europe; then to the American continent to research into folk culture and archaeological and historical cultures. (Ib. 1-2)

He says that Chinese culture and philosophy are represented in folk art, in today's society and cultural life. Ancient philosophy continues to be the ideological base and core content of today's folk art, he says too. "It remains intact, embedded in a variety of art works, and pervades all aspects of people's social life." (Ib. 5)

He further holds,

The creators of Chinese folk art come from the working class masses of China's rural areas. They are mostly female laborers. A communal art, folk art would engender all of Chinese literature and all later art. Its presence is evident in everyday food, clothing, shelter and transportation; in traditional festivals, ceremonies and rituals, and in beliefs and taboos. As a living example of cultural heritage, it shows the continuity of Chinese culture from primitive society to present. (Ib. 5)

Chinese culture and its artifacts embody values that are found in philosophy, aesthetics, art, archaeology, history, social sciences, the humanities, and nations. Chinese folk art may also exhibit philosophical viewpoints, cultural ideology, and emotional and psychological makings. (Ib. 6)

Human awareness of life and propagation is at the heart of the ideology of yin-yang. Chinese folk art have many examples of the cultural inheritance of Daoism and its outlooks.

Characteristics of Chinese Folk Arts

Chinese folk art is a hardly made by professional artists, also called career artists. It is a communal art created by members of the working class. They are rather amateurs than professional specialist. However, a parallel growth and mutual influence between folk art and the work of professional artists have been key in driving forward the mainstream of Chinese national art.

Chinese folk art is used in everyday life, production, rites and ceremonies, and beliefs and taboos. It was not meant to be a commercial commodity, or to serve political needs.

Much folk art is made with tools as tools are made or hard, and includes basic appliances for daily living.

Well community-enfolded folk art has a steadying influence on a national culture, and appears to coexistent with national culture. Cross-cultural exchanges and developments are found to have injected life into folk art by fresh materials and ideas. Yet its core, a cultural and philosophical origin, has remained largely unchanged.

(Jin 2004, 7-8, passim)

For domestic use and in part fit for home learning too

Further, Chinese folk art is for meeting needs related to daily work, food, clothing, shelter and transportation; as well as the social life of festivals and ceremonies, of beliefs and taboos. It is also a form of parent art, by paper-cutting; floury flower; dress and ornament; embroidery; dye and knitting; exorciser related masks and customs; painting; New Year picture; leather silhouette; puppet; toy; kite; paper folding and lighting art; folk theatrical mask; chess; puzzle; pottery; engraving; residential building; vehicle decoration; and household appliances.

Chinese folk art for the family and further is created with commonplace tools and materials related to a rural natural economy as a long-standing, signature art form - marked by diverse art styles - from a past and into urban residence culture of modern capitalist economy.

Learning from folk art, some professional artist created some art works with folk art style. Regardless of the semblance of folk art; it is still modern, professional art.

Arts and crafts is a sector of folk art involving intensive craftsmanship. Folk art may not all have the same value or the craftsmanship as arts and crafts.

Folk customs are the carriers of folk art.

(Ib. 8-10, passim)

Dwellings in rural China and symbolic significance

Chinese dwellings embody Chinese philosophy. Living in them is said to be to live well in the mother's body of the universe, and if not so, to make some adjustments: Feng Shui considers such issues. The basic idea is that the universe contains four directions and five elements around one centre.

The vertical pillar in Chinese aims at connecting heaven and earth. A pair of crossing chopsticks is placed on top, forming a symbol of perpetual life, with a black cloth rooster in the center as the symbol of (take a guess . . . . . . .) the sun.

In China, it is believed that a wide range of yin-yang linked symbol keeps away evil spirits by symbolic significance of signs (tokens). Safeguard devices may also be decorated with simple, unpretentious s designs. Such symbols, rooted in original Chinese philosophy, represent an important part in folk art

(Ib. 57-62)


Many kinds of food becomes symbolic across the cultures. The Chinese cuisine embodies ancient philosophy concepts. Food may be shaped like geometrical figures, or decorated with animal figures.

Chinese believed that the shape of steamed bread with a round sky (and flat earth) and red beans inside, resembled the mother-womb of the universe. Further, the theme of the wedding ceremony is to produce more life through matching male and female, yin and yang. A red dot may be painted on the top to symbolise the sun.

In some variants of Chinese food and eating culture, totem animal symbols are included too. In areas where the fish and frog are idolised, people believe that life come from the all-mother's body of yin-yang fish or yin-yang frog unified. In some areas they make holiday bread shaped with a tiger head on a dragon body with a fish tail; implying integration. Where sheep are idolised, a two sheep or three sheep mark a new beginning, for example.

The floury flower made into geometry or animal symbols are deemed as patron saints, and are therefore made for the family or relatives only so as to benefit the family. On the day of the Sheep Festival in Hebei, people make floury sheep and eat them too. Eating floury sheep is believed to help keep the family safe and maintain longevity.

Floury flowers are served ss a well-meaning symbol along with many sorts of wishes: for health and longevity; for a good harvest year;for good fortune; for a bumper harvest; for blessings from spirits and ancestors in heaven. Floury flower with these implications are meant to be consumed, therefore, they are rarely painted.

The ceremonial bread for ceremonies of worship is usually made stylish and in bright colors.

(Ib. 63-66)

Umbrellas, fans, scissors and axes are symbolic items

Several appliances for daily use may take on a further significance. Both the umbrella and the fan are associated with the sun. And then there are scissors: An old saying, "An awl and a pair of scissors keep the house out of the harm's way." Scissors have always been regarded an item for safeguard. A central form in several paper-cuts are scissors. Along the Yangtze River, for several thousand years the axe has served as a symbol of safeguarding the house and tomb from evil spirits and epidemics, and it is still used as such a symbol today.

Scandinavian magic and folk beliefs

In 1800 [Denmarks' capital] Copenhagen had one hundred thousand inhabitants, Stockholm seventy-five thousand, and Norway boasted of only one significant trade center – Bergen, which had a population of fifteen thousand. No more than one-tenth of the Scandinavian population lived and worked in urban areas. Most Scandinavian subsisted on what they could produce by farming, lumbering, and, in the coastal areas, fishing. (Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1988, 4)

Many resorted to magic. It was part of folk beliefs in Scandinavia. Iørn Piø tells that when you are from Jutland and is sitting at a table and talking about something you or someone near and dear owns, you had better knock softly on the underside of the table and wish that it will be yours to keep for a long time. Otherwise, "something" will be envious and try to take it away from you.

Here envy is not identified with a person but with an unspecified "power." See Iørn Piø, Bank under bordet (1963), 13-31. Collected in East Jylland (Denmark). Printed in Jens Kamp, Danske folkeminder [Danish folklore] (1877), 401.

Knocking on wood is a form of wide-spread warding-off magic (In Britain, Australia, and Ireland the phrase is 'touch wood'). The phrase stands for literally touching, tapping, or knocking on wood, or merely stating that one is doing or intending to do so, in order to avoid "tempting fate". The magic-custom may come from German folklore, where supernatural beings are thought to live in trees and can be invoked for protection.

There are quite similar traditions in other cultures. (WP, "Knocking on wood")

What about crossed fingers for good luck and throwing salt over the left shoulder to avert malady? One may collect the various uses of these magic gestures or moves too, compare them countrywise and further, go to many historical sources, and end up with an overview of many phenomena at the back of folk arts and religious gestures also. (See WP, "Crossed fingers")

Systematisation may help general views

The computer and information revolutions provide marvelous new possibilities for compiling, preserving, and providing access to ethnographic collections . . . at a time when ethnographic archives are losing funding and staff and are often unable to support the technology that makes these techniques possible,

according to the 1994 report on the state of the discipline by the Archiving Section of the American Folklore Society (In Green 1997, 53)

More systematisation allows for many findings that matter, such as: At the roots of various traditional customs and ways of looking at things and behaving, may be lines back to folk beliefs from long ago. Such chains or lines may be easier seen in a long-standing tradition and culture than in a far less rooted, as the US landscape tends to have.

In the homelands of many US immigrants, age-old traditions could have been severed or broken through much warfare. Even so, folk beliefs, customs, and ritual offer glimpses with roots far back, even to Norse (Germanic) and Celtic religions, among others - although with adaptations. (Green 1997)

Norse Mythology by John Lindow explores myths and legends of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Viking-Age Greenland and outlines how prehistoric tales and beliefs from these regions have remained embedded in the imagination of a part of the world. Tales of creation and destruction and much else offer insight into the relationship between Scandinavian myth, history, and culture. (See Lindow 2002)

Folk art, Literature  

Aronson, Joseph. 1965. The Encyclopedia of Furniture. 3rd ed. New York: Crown.

Green, Thomas A., ed. 1997. Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art.. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Jin Zhilin. 2004. Chinese Folk Arts. Beijing: China Intercontinental Digital Publisher. ⍽▢⍽ This book is a good, descriptive introduction to Chinese folk arts. It provides an in-depth look, discusses core characteristics and social context of various forms, and studies recurrent technical aspects. There are also photos of totems, pottery, paper-cuts, embroidery, porcelain, masks, and paintings.

Kay, Jon. 2016. Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ⍽▢⍽ Growing old may be viewed as a developmental stage - also of creativity. Jon Kay explores how elders choose to tap into their creative and personal potential and cope with the ailments of aging and loneliness and get greater satisfaction with their lives. These individuals manage to build on their earlier lives, sharing scenes and stories from their memories.

Kvideland, Reimund, and Henning K, Sehmsdorf, eds. 1988. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. -- Over 400 Scandinavian, well researched, well organised and annotated folktales and stories, including legends, and also beliefs and magic used in preindustrial and post Viking age Norway, Sweden, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Finland and Denmark. An old Norse influence lingers. Beliefs illustrate rather central aspects of the worldview.

Lindow, John. 2002. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Paperback. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maclagan, David. 2009. Outsider Art: From the Margins to the Marketplace. London: Reaktion Books. ⍽▢⍽ The term 'outsider art' has been used to describe work produced outside of the mainstream of modern art, and by persons beyond the perceived margins of society. David Maclagan argues that such art frequently seeks to express inner worlds, originality, and artistic eccentricity in a tradition that really goes back to the Renaissance. Maclagan challenges many opinions about this increasingly popular field of art.

Miller, Judith, ed. 2005. Furniture. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Miller, Judith, ed. 2006. Decorative Arts: Style and Design from Classical to Contemporary. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Rosen, Rachel, et al. 2014. Self-Taught Genius: A Curriculum Guide for Teachers K-12. New York: American Folk Art Museum.

The 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center. Drinking - German Westerwald Stoneware (Slideshow). Online. ⍽▢⍽ A fine source of visual information about things used in everyday life in Colonial America: Authentic clothing and everyday objects, such as tools, household items, and more. It contains thousands of period-correct items. They are seldom explained, though.

Wertkin, Gerard C., ed. 2004. Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. New York: Routledge. ⍽▢⍽ Here is an A-Z encyclopedia, illustrated with black and white and full-color photos. It exaggeratingly claims to cover "every aspect of American folk art" - well, there are articles on painting, sculpture, basketry, ceramics, quilts, furniture, toys, beadwork, and more, including both famous and lesser-known genres. The reference book has over 600 articles, and considers individual artists, schools, artistic, ethnic, and religious traditions. It may be of some help to general readers, students, and others that seek to research American art, culture, and social history.

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