Folk Art
Traditional Crafts: Definition, History, Characteristics, Types.

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Congolese Figurine (1900s)
Fetish effigy of Nkisi Nkondi
BNK collection. A striking example
of 20th century African folk art.

Folk Art


Historical Examples of Folk Art
Other Related Types of Art
History of Folk Art
Types of Folk Art
American Folk Art Museum


Traditional Meaning

Within the world of visual art, the vague term "folk art" is of rapidly declining significance, for several reasons. First, no one can agree on what it means. This is partly because the concept of "folk" springs largely from criteria laid down by 19th century aesthetes and aestheticians, rather than from any objective characteristics. Second, the amount of authentic art and design produced by traditional folk artists nowadays is vastly exceeded by artificial "folk art". Third, all forms of traditionally-made arts and crafts are under threat from globalized culture.

On the face of it, the phrase should have a fairly simple meaning - something like: "art made by the common people, notably from rural areas." Except the phrase implies a degree of cultural insularity, which - thanks to the explosion of mass-market culture - has more or less disappeared. To complicate matters further, the general nostalgia for traditional artifacts has led to the emergence of a growing crafts industry, as any search of the Internet - for terms such as "folk art designs", "folk art decorations", "folk art paintings" or "folk crafts" - will reveal. These folk products are typically manufactured in local, decidedly unfolkish urban centres, or in Third World sweatshops - neither operation having an intimate connection with the sort of historical traditions that typically characterize authentic folk arts.

During the 19th century, it was the Industrial Revolution that undermined "folk art"; in the 20th century it was mass-produced culture - everything from sodas and denin jeans, to TV programs; in the 21st century it is computers, the Internet and globalization. In general, therefore, "folk art" is a dying activity, and now survives only in isolated areas whose inhabitants have a proud tradition of handicrafts and making things for themselves.

A Current Definition

"Folk art" is mostly utilitarian or decorative art created by an unaffluent social class of peasants, artisans and tradespeople who live in rural areas of civilized but not highly industrialized societies; it also encompasses nomadic groups like gypsies. A few such places can still be found in areas of Central and Eastern Europe, and doubtless in areas on other continents, although their number is shrinking. The term "folk art" may also encompass art produced by ethnic minorities in more developed societies, who have succeeded in preserving their beliefs and customs by living in separate communities apart from the mainstream (eg. Amish Mennonite communities).



Examples of Folk Art

The early 19th century settlers who set out in their covered wagons from the East Coast of the United States, to find a new life in the Mid-West, often lived isolated lives well away from mainstream sources of materials and culture. This necessitated a self-reliance which led to the widespread production of "folk arts and crafts" within these communities: crafts that reflected the diverse European origins of the people concerned. See also: American Colonial art. At the same time, Native-Americans maintained their own distinctive artistic folk culture: first (and most successfully) in their nomadic villages; then later on reservations. See: American Indian art for more details, and Sand art for a specific example.

Other Related Types of Art

Several other types of art overlap slightly with folk art. They include: "naive art" (refers mostly to painters who lack the academic illusionistic skills of composition, like perspective); "outsider", "intuitive" or "vernacular" (used interchangeably to describe works created by people outside the professional art world or outside the conventional boundaries of official culture); "Art Brut" (a phrase coined by Jean Dubuffet to describe outsider art made, in particular, by artists with mental disabilities); "primitive art" (a vague and unavoidably ethnocentric term which refers to African, Aboriginal, Oceanic and other types of Tribal art from the Americas and South-East Asia). Other more general descriptive phrases like "people's art", "traditional art", "working class art" and the like, are of less significance.

History/Origins of Folk Art

The acceptance of "folk art" as a special category did not happen until the late 19th century, and was first confined to European peasant art - the "art of the land". The intellectual and cultural climate of the time attached an exaggerated Romanticism to the simple life lived by the common people. Their art, in particular, hand-crafted with traditional tools, had a great appeal for the post-Industrial Revolution urban mainstream. This unrealistic appreciation of rural life, fuelled by the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement championed by William Morris and others, led to a consideration of "folk art" as anything non-elitist, primitive or homemade - art that preserved some kind of cultural heritage.

In other words, "folk art" is a term invented by 19th century white Christian well-educated urbanites to describe the quaint arts and crafts of rustic societies. Because the concept was invented by people well-versed in cultural history, they excluded arts from the major civilizations (eg. Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, Minoan, Persian, and so on), and from Classical Antiquity (Ancient Greece and Rome), and Islamic societies. These cultures were deemed too well-developed to give rise to "folk art".


The most distinctive characteristics of "folk art" concern the materials and creative techniques used. Thus, unlike in more sophisticated art, "folk art" tended to make use of natural substances like wood, straw, clay and so on. Tools tended to be fewer in number but invariably multi-purpose. Items were often (but not always) produced on a smaller scale - perhaps for reasons of portability or cost. (Miniature works are a typical specialty of "folk art".) In contrast to the teaching of elite artforms like conventional painting or sculpture, "folk art skills" were inculcated widely in each generation of the community involved, albeit with some divisions of tasks between the genders, so that most people were productive.



Types of Folk Art

The focus here was on simple dwelling houses and religious buildings. Examples of "folk architecture" include the steep Alpine roof designed for snowy conditions; the cave dwellings of the Iberian peninsula; the American log cabin and the Mexican adobe hut. See also American Architecture (1600-present).

Votive paintings (eg. icons), in oil, watercolour or pastel were not uncommon, but most painting was in the form of decorative embellishment of other objects or structures (including murals on interior and exterior walls). Thus for example, painting on textiles, glass items, chests, often using stencils, was widespread. Illustration of texts was also seen. A major artist who was influenced by folk art, is Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), one of the most valuable Russian artists in history. She and her husband Mikhail Larionov created a number of traditional Russian designs for Sergei Diaghilev and his ballet company. (See also Leon Bakst.) A twentieth century school which utilized elements of populist folk art, was the Mexican Murals movement conceived by education minister Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), and put into practice by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and others.

Figurative sculpture, as well as some sort of incised relief decoration, can be seen in almost every society. In "folk art" the most common type of sculpture was wood-carving, followed by sculptured stone monuments. Wood-carving was particularly popular, and involved everything from large totem poles to miniature ships in bottles. Other popular applications of plastic art included papier-mache, often used for large-scale objects/figures especially in carnivals.

The natural medium for making "folk prints" was the woodblock (woodcuts) , which was usually cut very simply and then crudely coloured or stencilled. Block-printing was utilized to make games, simple forms and announcements, as well as signs.

In addition to standard practices including crochet, embroidery, felt-making, knitting, lace-making, macrame, and quilting, folk artists also developed highly specialist skills, involving carpet-weaving, and tapestry.

For obvious practical reasons, the general category of applied arts was invariably the most important and most avidly practised of all arts and crafts in folk communities. The range of activities varied according to the resources available, but included some or all of the following: basket weaving, doll-making, enamelling, furniture-making, Wood-turning, lacquerware, ceramics or pottery (earthenware, stoneware), leatherwork, metalwork, knife-making, mosaic art, jewellery-making, stained glass (see also stained glass materials/ methods), tattoo art and toy-making.

The American Folk Art Museum

Opened in September 1963, the museum is located in New York at 45 West 53rd Street, and 2 Lincoln Square. Known to begin with as the Museum of Early American Folk Arts and focused mainly on the vernacular arts of 18th-century and 19th century America, notably of the Atlantic Northeast, the institution changed its name in 1966 to the Museum of American Folk Art, and in 2001 to American Folk Art Museum. Since American art can only be fully understood in an international context, the museums exhibits are not exclusively confined to works by indigenous folk artists. Although reliant on public donations, in 2007, it benefited frompart of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Highlights of the collection of the American Folk Art Museum include: Flag Gate (c.1876), the Archangel Gabriel Weathervane (c.1840), the St Tammany Weathervane (c.1890), Bird of Paradise Quilt Top (1858-63) and Ammi Phillips's Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830-35). The museum has also received important works of early folk art from the celebrated Ralph O. Esmerian collection.

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