Folk + Abstraction: Core Aims


For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with the overlap between folk art and abstraction, and so here comes a New York exhibit I’d love to visit: Approaching Abstraction, at the American Folk Art Museum. There are many stereotypes about what folk art is, or where it comes from, but at the same time, the definition really encompasses an impressively wide spectrum: everything from Pennsylvania German, my personal favorite, to Mexican "outsider"collage, and all stops in-between.
The question I’m most interested in however, is: why abstraction? The answer can often come too easily. By nature of the work being by the “folk” or the common person, this often is meant as “untrained”. And academically speaking, this is often true – but not always. And here I think a key statement can be made: abstraction in folk art, being a step farther past the normal stylization, must have another impetus. I believe that “step farther” could be called core aim. I mean this in the sense which caused medieval artists to be almost wholly unconcerned about scientific perspective (vanishing point, etc.), only to have Renaissance artists pick up the very same principle and crown it king not long after: core aim. That is, what was the prevailing sentiment among artists of that particular time, culture or persuasion? What did they care enough about, to be picky about? And for folk artists, ignoring verisimilitude is not simply a necessity (i.e. something they couldn’t do), it’s that it didn’t really matter that much to them – it wasn’t their core aim
Now, as opposed to Abstract Expressionism, or even Color Field painting, abstraction was not so much a cause or a maxim, but simply a by-product. Thus the great inspiration of folk art to subsequent Modernists (the most famous example being African artifacts to Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, etc.) The Modernists and later artists picked up on the aesthetics of abstraction; saw its potential as a rallying cry and possibly an egalitarian tool, and they crowned it king, after overthrowing perspective. And that by-product of folk art, abstraction, seemingly emerged from certain limitations on the folk artist: training being one, but others being material limitations; narrow cultural beliefs, forms or distinctions, and of course time. Folk art in many cases was purely a sideline as far as commerce went; very little money was likely made. It was decorative; memorial/commemorative; life-affirming.
In my own work, I feel like those two core aims – that of a rallying call and egalitarian tool of the “high” abstraction and the formerly mentioned aims of folk art – come together. I am excited to see if this new exhibit sheds any more light on what that might mean for not only my work as it moves forward, but for artistic expressions writ large. 

MIke  – (Monday, 29 March, 2010)  

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