By Laura Beach
MANCHESTER, N.H. — What is folk art? We still cannot tell you for sure, but we know it when we see it. We think.
If a consensus was reached by the seven experts who participated in a provocative, well-attended panel discussion, “Shaping Standards in American Folk Art” at the Center of New Hampshire on Friday evening, August 2, it is that folk art is no easier to define today than it was 80 years ago, when Modernist American painters and sculptors looked for artistic inspiration to work free from academic constraints.
Honoring Harvey and Isobel Kahn, collectors whose own envelope-pushing assemblage was the centerpiece of Northeast Auction’s sale on Saturday, August 3, the discussion brought together some big names in the field for two hours of lively conversation.
The event was moderated by Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, New York art dealers whose new book, American Vernacular, argues for the elimination of biases that have confined “folk,” “self-taught” and “outsider”art — three currently accepted terms — to the ghetto of the fine arts world. The acceptance of vernacular art on equal terms with fine art is a phenomenon called “crossover,” Maresca said. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s shaping our field.”
“For me, its not so much about crossover but change and continuum,” said Stacy C. Hollander, a curator at the American Folk Art Museum. “In the mainstream art world, chronology is commonplace. In our world, it has been unusual,” said Hollander. “American Anthem,” the museum’s current show, arranges folk, self-taught and outsider masterworks from the museum’s permanent collection by period, rather than by medium or subject matter. “We are asking what these pieces, taken together, say about our culture.”
Marna Anderson, a New Paltz, N.Y., dealer who is primarily known for Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folk art, acknowledged both the appeal and difficulty of Twentieth Century self-taught and outsider art. “Nineteenth Century material is much more predictable than what is potentially to be found in the Twentieth Century.” Where “outsider” art is concerned, she noted, “It is hard for anyone, even those who are incarcerated, to work in isolation today.”
Other speakers also cited the ambiguity of definitions and the need to distinguish between genuinely creative expression by self-taught artists and commercially motivated imitations. Agreeing with Anderson, Hollander said, “There is no such thing as being nonresponsive to the world around you.”
R. Scudder Smith, editor and publisher of Antiques and The Arts Weekly, observed, “I go to a great many shows. A lot of dealers are selling things that they call folk art that doesn’t even come close.”
Each panelist was asked to define folk art. Said Hollander, “It is not a schooled response. These are objects and art works that come out of the experience of living, and reflect that experience.”
Agreed Anderson, “Folk art is basically nonacademic art. Whether something is good art is a much more basic question.”
Concluded Ricco, “I’d like to avoid the question. Folk art is, well, you name it. We make it up as we go along. I’m more interested in art as art. My definition of art is that it has to take you someplace you’ve never been before. It has to change you.”
“As collectors, we never tried to be cutting-edge,” said Smith. “We bought game boards 20 or 30 years ago when they were $12 or $15 and no one wanted them. We bought much as Harvey and Isobel Kahn did: the object had to sing. I don’t think it matters what you collect so long as the works talk to you.”
Paul Paternostro, a thoroughbred horse dealer who collected factory weathervanes before switching to more individualistic material, likened folk art to horses. “You can talk to people all day long about horses — how they are built, what traits are desirable — but you can’t teach them to identify a champion. That’s intuitive.”
Held up by traffic, Jonathan Fairbanks an accomplished painter and writer who is curator emeritus of American decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, noted, “There is a gift of making art. There is also the gift of seeing it and recognizing it. It is our job to rediscover, collect and honor.” The audience was spellbound as Fairbanks recited a poem describing a pot as a vessel for holding life’s experiences, a vessel in which experiences of the external and internal worlds commingle.
In a final, humorous touch, Dr Larry Dumont, a therapist by vocation and a collector by avocation, suggested that obsessive tendencies link artist with collector. About his own collecting, he joked, “I buy if the Prozac is kicking in that day.”
Avant-garde in its time, the Kahn collection today is a model for an assemblage based on enduring values of form, surface, creativity and wit. A wide divide still separates collectors of traditional folk art and self-taught and outsider art. While only one person in the audience volunteered that she was primarily interested in contemporary work, the numbers will grow as new collectors look to the Kahns’ quiet example and take inspiration from these experts’ thoughtful guidance.
Ricco and Maresca offered signed copies of American Vernacular to the successful bidders of each of the Kahn rdf_Descriptions illustrated in Northeast Auction’s catalog, itself a valuable keepsake.