The Heritage Arts Imperative
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Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 196-205



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The Heritage Arts Imperative

Barre Toelken


TO BEGIN WITH, I NEED TO MAKE A DISCLAIMER: I will be referring to the culturally based arts of several different kinds of communities, including ethnic and national groups to which I do not belong. I do not pretend to be a spokesperson for any of them. Indeed, I urge you to find a way to listen to the voices of those communities and to experience their arts directly, not only through my well-intentioned but peripheral comments. Unfortunately, we often encounter the arts in academic or formally organized settings where the articulate voices of everyday living cultures are not readily heard. One result is that we tend easily toward seeing art as Art; another is that traditional folk art seldom shows up in discussions of what art is and what it does for us. My purpose here is to suggest that it is imperative that we pay closer attention to the arts that arise from what has been loosely called "cultural heritage"—the ongoing accumulation of expressive forms that represent the shared tastes and experiences of living cultures more than they demonstrate the unique strides of particular brilliant artists. This is a richer, far more complex topic than anyone can properly treat in a brief address, so obviously my comments will be suggestive rather than definitive.

Thus I will not begin with an academic commentary on the central role of folklore in Shakespeare's and Chaucer's works, or on Mozart's use of folk melodies and chord progressions, or on Bartók's or Copland's borrowing of folksong themes and motifs, or on the employment by modern visual artists of Native American designs and color contrasts. Nor will I expound on the interesting backstage folk customs and beliefs of theatre and opera people. I will not bore you with yet another complaint about those who persist in calling the work of untrained geniuses "folk art." Rather, I want to enlarge upon a topic with which you are already familiar to one extent or another, but one that has never received enough serious conversation: the importance, the validity, the necessity to include folk arts, heritage arts, and fine arts in connection with each other, in the same conversation. I will concentrate on the folk arts here, but not in contradistinction to other arts. I see all arts as existing along a kind of spectrum, ranging from expressions in which community values and aesthetics impinge upon the artist to expressions in which the artist impinges upon the culture. While all art exists somewhere on this spectrum, most of what we call the folk or culturally situated arts are found close to the first category.

On the wall of my office, I have a set of three panoramic photographs showing the valley in central Massachusetts where I was born. The first one, in black and white, [End Page 196] shows the town of Enfield, a typical New England farming town with a couple of church spires, photographed from nearby Mount Quabbin in 1927. The next, taken from the same spot, shows the valley in 1939, after it had been entirely cleared of buildings. The third shows the valley today, full of water. Now called Quabbin Reservoir, it supplies drinking water for the Boston area about ninety miles away. I imagine that most Bostonians don't even know their water comes from a valley where five pretty towns and several quaint villages once thrived, much less that it has been a custom over the intervening years for Quabbinites to return the ashes of their parents (or other memorabilia) to the water there ("How else can we get back at them?" my mother demanded to know). My earliest memories are of watching the houses going by on the road below our place, some pulled by large teams of horses. Some people have kept track of where their houses went and occasionally visit their former homes on the newer foundations all over New England. I keep the photo to remind me...