We have grouped a promiscuous array of things in this issue under the broad umbrella of “folk art”: schoolgirl drawings, trench art, manufactured advertising signs, as well as objects more conventionally agreed upon as “folky,” such as carved walking sticks and weather vanes.
While it is common to worry about the vagueness of the term folk art, I am inclined to enjoy its dodgy ambiguity. Folk artists operate outside the rules of the academy and, most important, apart from the market forces that drive fine art. The way in which they work behind the back of “great” art gives their work the freedom that draws us in and grants us a certain liberty too. I know how I am supposed to think and feel about the sublimity of nature in a Hudson River school landscape; I don’t have that certainty when I run across the large carved dog’s head in Allan and Penny Katz’s living room. Sometimes it’s a thrill to be on your own just as that carver undoubtedly was.
I hope it is not too jingoistic to say that there is something else I enjoy in this work-its Americanness, the persistent hum of populism that runs through most of it. I know I am treading on dangerous ground here since populism can be as scary (Father Coughlin, George Wallace) as it is inspiring (Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King), but the sense of ordinary people speaking eloquently and idiosyncratically in art strikes me as quintessentially American. Politicians ply the populist line by claiming to speak for the people, but in these carvings and paintings the people speak for themselves in a way that echoes the part of our founding creed that declares that individual vision matters and is (or can be) beautiful.
I do not mean to suggest that these makers and their works were any more virtuous or egalitarian than anyone else’s. If I were tempted to that kind of sentimentality Tim Hill set me straight when I asked him about the number of fantastical beasts on his collection of walking sticks. Many of them came to their makers in the midst of delirium tremens he suggested. So much for the virtuous folk vision. But there is something unbiddable, some impulse to speak without interference here. The work can be ignored or patronized, but it will not be suppressed. Its eloquence has given it a permanent place in the pages of ANTIQUES.