ISSUES RAISED BY FOLK ART PARODY
Beauvais Lyons, Ellen McClung Berry Professor of Art
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, School of Art
1715 Volunteer Blvd., Knoxville, TN 37996-2410
voice: 865-974-3202, email: email@example.com
In this essay I have outlined several issues that inform my current traveling exhibition "The George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection." I have assembled these comments to assist critics and curators interested in writing about, or exhibiting this project. Julia S. Ardery's recent book The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) offers a useful case study for looking at the subject through the work of Kentucky woodcarver Edgar Tolson. I encountered this book in 2000 during the last year of working on this project, and it confirmed many of my perceptions of issues in folk art. .Inquires about this statement may be directed to me at the address above.
MOCK ACADEMICS AND THE HOKES ARCHIVES
The task of inventing history raises the question of historical objectivity. I believe that history is a form of storytelling, and as such, tends to reflect the values and concerns of the storyteller more so that the history chronicled. Over two decades ago Hayden White went so far as to assert "historical narratives are verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found, and ... have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences." In other words, history is an art form - a work of fiction. Historical data provides the story elements which the narrator can put together in various ways.
If we view history from this vantage-point, it has a greater literary function than an epistemological one. In some of my previous articles ("The Excavation of the Apasht: Artifacts from an Imaginary Past," Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, Pergamon Press: Oxford University, Volume 18, no, 2, pp. 81-89, 1985; "The Object and the Encyclopedic Image," Contemporary Impressions, Volume 4, number 2, pp. 6-9, 1996.) I have noted that was the Argentinean librarian Jorges Luis Borgesí story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" has been a significant influence on my work.
In the spirit of Borges, for the past two decades I considered myself as a mock-academic, working primarily in the genre of archaeological fiction. In this role I have fabricated and documented imaginary cultures, including the Aazudians and the Apasht. See my web site for more on these projects (web.utk.edu/~blyons). My imaginary folk art collection uses many of the same ideas, except that the artifacts are contemporary rather than ancient. I am not alone in creating mock-academic exhibitions. Of the various artists working in this mode, David Wilson of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles has received much attention, though there are over 20 contemporary artists who have worked in this genre. Wilson's museum is a kind of meta-museum, a museum about museums, which revels in the mythologies of the museum.
Most historical surveys of the print stress a limited stable of names, most of whom are academically trained, and working in the major art mediums; painting and sculpture. As an artist who has devoted much of my creative life to the creation of prints, I am fully aware of the hierarchies of the art world. Most of the prints which have influenced me have been those which reflect populist values; circus posters, encyclopedia plates, travel prints, and scientific illustrations. We may find a theoretical parallel to this in the writings and architecture of Robert Venturi, whose book Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of architectural form, (1977) demonstrates the expressive and innovative worth of vernacular architecture.
From an anthropological perspective, there is a case for leveling all art to the status of artifact. Judgments of quality are simply reflections of cultural background and training. Pierre Bourdieu's contention that there is a socially constructed hierarchy in the arts, in which taste is a class construct, has relevance in considering the merits of all forms of cultural expression, whether they are archaeological book plates, marble statues, ash trays, door hinges, or whirligigs. George Kubler makes this case in his book The Shape of Time. My motivations in creating this work with the Hokes Archives, in great part, is because it doesn't conform to our standard notion of "fine art," and embraces a "low-brow" or "no-brow" aesthetic.
ART HISTORY AS ARTIST HISTORY
Art History is Artist History as it stresses biography as the central aspect of its narrative. It was Emerson who once said "There is properly no history, only biography." In deference to Emerson, this approach in art history is biased toward a genius-centered concept of art rather than one that is socially based. This Romantic myth of artistic genius is a common aspect of both art history and the historian of folk art. The standard text panel for a folk art exhibition is comprised of a short biographical narrative along with a photograph of the artist. In the context of the Spelvin Collection, we might think of these narratives the way we consider the development of character in a novel.
On another level, my creation of imaginary identities/artists for this project raises the issue of "who is Beauvais Lyons?" For me the artistic challenge of this work is akin to the method actor, whose mimetic and empathetic skills allow him/her to assume different roles. This mode of creation might be compared to the type-cast actor who always plays the same types of roles. Visual artists tend to fall into this latter category, limited by either the branding influence of market or the seduction of technical and visual refinement.
ROMANCE OF THE "OTHER"
Much was made of the exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern" curated by William Rubin. in 1984 at MoMA, in part because it raised the issue of stylistic appropriation of the "other," primarily African Art. Like the appropriation and display of African masks for their visual aesthetic, canceling out the cultural and ritual function of the objects, the MoMA show stressed the formal relationships between African Art and the art of Picasso and other early Modernists. This issue of colonial appropriation was raised with Paul Simons' "Graceland" album, and is one that we are more conscious of in a post-colonial world. In practice, whites tend to be the "gatekeepers" of all culture.
Eugene Metcalf wrote in 1983 that the Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that there was white support for black arts. Metcalf asserts that before the 1920's "blacks were condemned for being self indulgent, irresponsible, and childlike. By the 1920ís, they were applauded for being spontaneous and free. The image had not become more accurate, rather, white society's view of itself had changed, and whites now used blacks to justify their own rebellion against the discontents of civilization..."
Metcalf and Kenneth Ames have criticized the nostalgic and "rusticophilia" aspects of folk art, which appeal to the cultural elite's yearning for "non-modern people, places experiences, and artifacts with which to have the 'natural' and 'authentic' relationships that give substance and meaning to their lives." (Metcalf, "From Domination to Desire")
Like the Spelvins, and many other white liberals, I practice various forms of cultural appropriation and emulation of "otherness." I love Delta and Chicago Blues music, and have played the harmonica emulating the sounds of Junior Wells and Big Walter Horton since I was sixteen. As a teenager I studied with the goal of being a studio potter, a distinctly rusticophilic ambition. My students sometimes remark that I subject them to too much world music in the printshop at the University of Tennessee. Just as the (fictitious Spelvins), I am compelled by the authenticity of "other" cultures. These sensibilities have precedence in Picasso, Braque, Branccusi, the German Expressionists and other early Modernists who emulated "primitive" art forms.
However, it was the French artist Jean Dubuffet, who found a creative "other" in the art of the insane. In 1945, seeking an authentic, uncultured art, Dubuffet traveled to Switzerland where he visited psychiatric hospitals and prisons. There he encountered the work of Adolf Woolfi, as well as the Geneva psychiatrist Charles Ladame's collection of psychotic art. These experiences offered a paradigm for Dubuffet's concept of "Art Brut," which stressed madness as the quintessence of inventiveness.
Dubuffet defined "Art Brut" as: "...work produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry (as is invariably the case with intellectuals); so that such creators owe everything? their subject matter, their choice of materials, their modes of transcription, their rhythms and styles of drawing, and so on? to their own resources rather than to the stereotypes of artistic tradition or fashion. Here we are witness to the artistic operation in its pristine form, something unadulterated, something reinvented from scratch at all stages by its maker, who draws solely upon his private impulses." (Dubuffet, 1949) This definition is close to that which Roger Cardinal uses in speaking of the Outsider artist.
In contrast to "Art Brut" or "Outsider Art", the fictitious artists from the Spelvin Collection present a more normative conception of the creative person. As such, I have chosen to portray these artists simply as creating "Folk Art." While I hope not be get immersed in the semantics of the discipline, my intentions are to stress that creativity is a common human characteristic, rather than one that is rare or unique. I lean toward a more relaxed concept of Folk Art, as a term that is broadly descriptive rather than narrowly prescriptive. I tend to prefer this more inclusive definition, and question the notion that any art is purely "self taught", and that few artists remain as cultural outsiders for very long.
Utopian themes inform much of my previous work in mock-archaeology. The creation of imaginary cultures such as the Aazudians; where profane daily activities are regarded as sacred; where art, music, dance, poetry, horticulture and massage are held in high regard; and where there is no military or system of slavery, offers a utopian paradigm. These ideas represent an ideal social order. Utopian themes also manifest in the Spelvin Collection in terms of the ethnic and racial diversity of the represented artists, as well as the redemptive and transformative potential of art. One might look to "Inter-racial Rag-Doll Friendship Chain" of Loretta Howard or the boat paintings on beer bottles by Juanita Richardson to see art portrayed as both cathartic and community spirited. While the irony of parody is often regarded as an expression of cynicism, the utopian aspects of the show are an attempt to express various forms of hope and idealism.
THE QUESTION OF PROVENANCE
The central subject of the Spelvin Collection exhibition is really the imaginary collectors, and less the imaginary artists. In this respect, the question of who George and Helen are, and what values are expressed by their collecting practices is a core issue. While there are elements of satire in my treatment of the Spelvins, I also have to admit in sharing many of the same aesthetic and philosophic concerns as them. Like the Spelvins, I am white, college educated and upper middle-class.
The economics of folk art is one subject the exhibition text panels address. The Spelvins acquired this art through direct personal relations with the artists and seldom through a gallery. In this way their credibilty as collectors is enhanced, and we might surmise that they acquired this material below market-value. Critics of folk art have raised this issue, claiming that the work is often "netted" though sharecropping situations, in which, according to (Randall) Morris, "all their output is picked up for relatively small stipends by agents and pickers and then farmed out at huge markups around the country.... and to this day no one has called the concept racist in public." The same, of course, can be said of Appalachian, Native American, and Latino craftspeople, whose work is sold through fairs, churches, flea markets, or airports. While the George and Helen Spelvin Folk Art Collection is a work of fiction, it points to some of these issues.
ART AS SELF-TAUGHT
Howard Singerman's book Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University addresses the incorporation of artists into the university system. Among the subjects he tackles are whether creativity is teachable. As someone who has taught in public universities for over two decades, this issue strikes at the heart of what I do for a living. The claims that many outsider artists are "self taught" calls into question the value and purpose of art education. Maybe Iím in the wrong line of work? If some of these artists can make these wonderful things without schooling, what is my role as an educator?
Walter Gropius, who founded the Bau Haus in 1919 (which has since served as a model for most art school curriculums), asserted that creativity could NOT be taught. For Gropius, the very nature of creativity precludes teachability. What he claimed could be taught was craft and design, and that these were conscious, cognitive skills that were teachable. Singerman writes "Gropiusís equation makes technique and dexterity necessary to the practice of art, perhaps, but it assumes, as well, an essential separation of art from technique: art is the name of that which escapes teaching; technique, as the name of what can be taught, is destined to become "merely technique."
As a professional educator, I find Gropius' stance, as well as the issue of the self taught in folk art to offer a challenge and a riddle. Are artists made or born? Is this gift acquired or inherited? Rather than teaching art, the best we can do is impart manual skills, propose theoretical paradigms which can enable the student to be more thoughtful in their creative choices, and teach the language of visual design. They can take these skills, and make a good living, but according to Gropius, there is no way to that instruction will enable someone to be truly creative and innovative.
As an elementary school teacher, Helen Spelvin serves as my voice on this subject. The exhibition text panels speak of Helen Spelvin's belief that artistic creativity is learned by example and that aspects of art could be taught. Additionally, she disliked the term "Outsider Art," claiming that many of the artists in their collection play a stronger role in their communities than most academically trained artists. As someone who feels artists should be more involved in the community, this notion resonates for me.
The relationship between academically trained and folk artists is noted by Ardrey in her book on Edgar Tolson. Ardery delineates the close relationship between Tolson and many of the college students who worked for the Appalachian Volunteers in the 1960's. These contacts soon brought Tolson to the attention of Michael Hall, then a Professor of Sculpture at the University of Kentucky. Art Faculty and a succession of their students visited Tolson regularly. The growing attention and market for his work which resulted from his contact with academically trained artists had a significant influence on Tolson, not only in terms of the quantity of his work, but the subjects he chose to carve. UK Ceramics Professor John Tuska, following his own impulse to teach, advised Tolson to do complex arrangements of figures and to work from biblical themes. For example, Tuska and his wife Miriam commissioned Tolson to do his first Adam and Eve pairing.
ART AND COMMERCE
For the folk artist to remain truly outside of culture, he or she would have to avoid the art market. The growth of this field is due primarily to the systems of commerce that have grown around it. There is a growing bibliography on folk art, including numerous large, coffee table books brimming with color reproductions. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and the recently reopened American Folk Art Museum in New York offer good examples of folk art as a form of cultural tourism. The Quarterly Raw Vision, published in London, and the Folk Art Messenger, the journal of the Folk Art Society of America, both offer resources for the collector, subsidized through auction houses, internet galleries and an extensive network of galleries. Likewise the promotion of the Spelvin Collection on a national tour also capitalizes on the currency of Folk Art. The exhibition has now been booked to seven venues, with additional sites pending.
The relationship between art and commerce speaks to issues of intention, originality, and authenticity. Despite the capitalist values which fuel our economy, commercial motivations in both fine and folk art are viewed as suspect. This mythology creeps into the exhibition narrative for the Spelvin Collection. Charlotte Black's first velvet paintings of brides are portrayed as more significant than her later pet portraits and horse paintings. Rufus Martinez's face jugs are considered more valuable than his tortilla warmers, despite the fact that the latter are his "best selling" items. In cases such as E, B, Hazzard's "Alien Communication Device", Lester Coleman Dowdey's "limberjacks," or Lucas Farley's painted records, the work is regarded as having value because it was produced with no intention of being art (or marketed).
AUTHENTICITY IN FOLK ART
Much has been made recently of the questionable authenticity of some folk art. While examples abound, there's Robert Lawrence Trotter, an antiques dealer/picker who dabbled in furniture and progressed to creating at least 53 fake examples of 19th-century folk art; there are the auction houses, some 29 in all, stretching from Maine to Virginia, which from 1985 to 1990 sold art consigned by people who gave such pseudonyms as Roberta Trotter, Larry Trotter, Caroline Trotter, Pat Rauch, Lisa Clayton, Pat Farro, and Ed Farro; and there are the numerous buyers, some prominent. Given the increased value of folk art, and the potential to produce it without a high degree of technical proficiency, it is possible this practice is more pervasive than is acknowledged.
For the first showing of the project at Carnegie Mellon University's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery (Janaury-March 2001) the exhibition was not disclosed as a parody. One local reviewer for the weekly cultural magazine In Pittsburgh wrote about the show assuming it to be real. In every other venue the Spelvin Collection has been presented as a work of parody or "entirely fictitious." In either case, even if someone left the exhibition assuming it to be real, he or she would most likely find out later the exhibition is fiction. In such cases, the viewer would most likely be compelled to return to the gallery to decode the presentation. In no instance is the work presented for sale, and thus could not be considered illegal or fraudulent.
Michel Thevoz (of the Art Brut Museum) is highly skeptical of the high profile given to the growing field of "Outsider Art." and asserts: "Might not current fads in the art world, which for some time has been raving for anything which seems a tiny bit wierd, would induce the professional to engage in the deliberate and artificial manufacture of Art Brut?"
He continues: "Why not test the thing out for yourself? Why not have a go at making a work of phony Art Brut? At the outset, you will certainly feel ham-fisted and lacking in authority... However, once you engage fully in the process, you will inevitably find yourself getting more end more involved in this business of forgery, perhaps even to the point of neglecting everything else around you: your daily chores, your appointments, your professional and family obligations. You will run the risk of losing your job, your salary, and, in consequence, your partnerís affections. You will end up with an altered personality, for you will have lost your ego, having come to realize that this, too, was only an image, a sham, the most pernicious of all simulacra. As Neitzsche put it, 'Happy are the poor of spirit who contain not a single immortal soul but a thousand mortal souls.' In this way, as a compensation for the loss of a few social inconveniences which are in truth no more than illusions anyway, you will come to experience the nomadic mentality, and above all, the sheer pleasure of making "genuine forgeries." Rather than produce counterfeit bank notes in the normal way, you will begin to issue your own personal currency, caring nothing for the value it might have on the market. What will happen next is that you will be invited to the museum of Art Brut by the front door, that is, as a creator and no longer as a passive visitor. In short, your mental health will be restored to the full! All roads lead to Rome, alas, bar that of madness, which is another way of saying total simulation. So this is the very road you need to follow if you want to create Art Brut...." (Hall-Metcalf, p. 71-72)
Maybe this is what I have done with this exhibition?
While some of the issues outlined above compelled me to begin the creation of "The George and Hellen Spelvin Folk Art Collection" in 1996-97, many of these ideas were manifest in the process of working on the project. I have always considered art a way for me to visualize ideas and problems, and while I considered some of these concepts a priori, many of the ideas took shape through the process and experience of making this art.