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American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 257-276

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The Building of a Label:
the New American Folk Art Museum

David Brody
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York, New York 10019.

THE LABELING OF ARTISTIC CATEGORIES IS A MESSY BUSINESS. IN ART HISTORY departments, practitioners rely on boundaries of knowledge to divide courses into coherent entities, thus creating sub-categories, in which art historians then become specialists. A typical art history department of modest size might have five full-time faculty members who teach and do research in their own sub-genre of art history. For instance, an Americanist would probably not be expected to teach or do research in the area of Ancient Rome, and likewise, a modernist would be hesitant to teach medieval art, unless he or she was teaching the introductory survey class during a particular semester. Those who teach in art or art history departments know this information intimately, and those who teach in English, history, and other areas are also aware of this disciplinary fascination and promulgation of sub-specialization.

The connection between discursive strategies within academic specialization and the social construction of artistic movements, such as "folk art," has always been strong. Like other artistic categories, the definition of folk art has struggled through a number of semiotic shifts. Material culture scholar Kenneth Ames traces the problematic history of folk art by delineating five strains of thought that helped promote the [End Page 257] myth of folk art over the course of the twentieth century: "(1) the myth of individuality, (2) the myth of the poor but happy artisan, (3) the myth of handicraft, (4) the myth of the conflict-free past, and (5) the myth of national uniqueness." 1 Ames contends that traditional writing about folk art lapses into these fabled constructions that limit our complete understanding of this art by creating half-truths and false notions. He sees this issue as a historic condition formulated through a strange but effective combination of jingoism and market forces that can be corrected through an analysis of folk material "as a historical and sociological phenomenon." 2 The difficulty with Ames's worthwhile pursuit of myth shattering, based on his close reading of earlier folk art scholarship, is that while it might be possible to point out problems with past characterizations, the category of "folk" belies a straightforward definition.

Folklorist Henry Glassie claims: "Definitions of folk art presuppose alternatives. For there to be folk art there must be art that is not folk." Like Ames, Glassie signals the historical background that saturates past definitions of folk art:

Folk art, it seems, is not "fine art." The two are displayed in different galleries because they do not look good together. They are taught in different courses in the university, for their appreciation apparently requires different skills. Folk and fine art have been driven apart by scholarly custom, but their separation must bespeak more than class prejudice and academic inertia. 3

Glassie never gives a specific definition of folk art; his language remains abstract, but at one point he relates, "If you want to define folk art in order to refine the feelings that the term stimulates, all you have to do is choose from among three different definitions of 'folk' (the nationalistic, the radical, or the existential), then from among three different definitions of 'art' (by medium, function, or process) and combine them." 4 This is not helpful in the process of searching for an exact definition, but Glassie's semantic study reiterates Ames's conjecture about the historical basis for semiotic flaws that have created an aura of myth and disjointed labeling around the term "folk." Glassie wants to create new possibilities for the idea of folk art that do not limit its connotative scope.

With this expansive approach toward folk art in mind, Glassie posits the "radical definition" of folklore—the more generalized cultural rubric that contains folk art, folk dance, folk writing and other forms of creative output—as "a positive projection from...


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