Folk art is a broad term encompassing a variety of styles, referring generally to the fine and applied arts of untrained artists working outside the academic mainstream. The concept of Folk Art originates from the nineteenth century, carrying a certain nostalgia for pre-industrialised society, and was integrated into avant-garde styles by many artists at the turn of the century.
What is Folk Art?
Folk Art is a loose umbrella term that describes a variety of media, styles and techniques, generally describing hand crafted objects including painting, sculpture, furniture, basketry, or utensils made by indigenous cultures. Styles vary considerably, but some of the most well-known examples of today focus on bold colours, decorative designs, flattened perspective and strong forms.
Visual Arts Cork describes Folk Art as, '…art made by the common people, notably from rural areas,' while also explaining how its integration into mass production has diluted its original meaning. They describe true folk art as '…a dying activity (that) now survives only in isolated areas whose inhabitants have a proud tradition of handicrafts and making things for themselves.'
Historically, Folk Art existed outside academic art practice, made by artists who were self-taught or learned a trade through local communities rather than formal training, reflecting a collective ethos as opposed to the ideas of an isolated individual. In an article for the Huffington Post curators Stephanie Knappe and Catherine Futter explained, 'It’s really about carrying on and carrying through tradition during a time of great change. There is a stability to be found in … keeping the past alive.'
Folk Art in the Nineteenth Century
In pre-industrialised society Folk Art was widespread throughout Europe, with many museums and gallery spaces displaying work by agricultural or maritime cultures. But as industries advanced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such methods of production were pushed to the fringes of society or remote locations, where traditions, art forms and methods of craftsmanship continued to be passed from one generation to the next.
Folk Art was recognised as a specific category as it became increasingly marginalised and rare in the early nineteenth century, first in reference to European societies and later to artisan products made in the United States and Russia. Intellectual society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution placed nostalgic, romantic values on the simplicity of pre-industrialised societies, attaching aesthetic values to their products. Many artists were attracted to Folk Art and culture as an escape from industrialisation, looking back to simple religious communities and tradespeople, demonstrated by Paul Gauguin’s Post-Impressionist studies in Pont-Aven, the Neo-Primitivism of Russian artists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova and the woodblock prints of the German Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde.
Folk Art Today
Folk Art traditions have become increasingly enmeshed with mainstream cultures and in today’s culture of plurality, such distinctions between so-called Folk Art and its academic counterparts have been significantly blurred. Various artists who could fit under the category of ‘folk artist’ now have their work on display in contemporary museums and have achieved recognition for their cultural significance, including Alfred Wallis, Mary Linwood and Henri Rousseau. In the New York Times article Curator, Tear Down These Walls, 2013, artist and writer Roberta Smith challenged large scale museums to further loosen up boundaries that separate folk art from serious art, arguing there should be no distinction between the two: 'Given that we live in a time of eroding aesthetic boundaries and categories, when many curators are experimenting with integrative approaches in international biennales and commercial galleries, it seems past time for the folk-academic division to soften.'
That said, many museums now exist all around the world to celebrate the rich, diverse history, extraordinary craftsmanship and deep cultural relevance of Folk Art traditions. Examples include The American Folk Art Museum in New York and The Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico, organisations which celebrate the unique characteristics of art forms that remained unscathed by industrial and technological advancements.