If you’ve made friendship bracelets or mail box stands from scratch, guess what, you’ve participated in folk art. It’s a global and significant human activity.
One of the main areas of material culture that folklorists study – and that the public associates with our field – is folk art. We tend to use folk art and folk craft interchangeably, though they have slightly different connotations. Art tends to imply visual excellence, while craft connotes functionality, daily use, and mundane contexts.
Jan Brunvand writes that folk crafts “are usually thought of as amateur labor resulting in traditional homemade objects that are primarily functional” (544) whereas “folk art is usually thought of as the purely decorative or representational items produced by traditional means” (547). The two obviously overlap, though, which is a major reason we study them as a continuum. One person’s art might be another’s craft and all that.
Henry Glassie, one of the preeminent scholars of folk art, reminds us that such categories are relative:
When a view from within a tradition is adopted, art separates from other activities, good art separates from bad art, but nothing separates folk and other art. Distinctions arise when we view the art of one tradition from the perspective of another. When that is done, it seems as though one’s own tradition produces art, while the tradition of the other produces folk art (271).
McNeill frames this discussion more in terms of what makes something a folk object, highlighting its patterns of use and circulation rather than its origin (having a folk context of creation still counts, but relying on it as the only trait we’re interested in significantly narrows what we’d study as material culture and folk art in particular). From there, she discusses friendship bracelets as an example of folk art, which a student might hypothetically collect from their sister:
There’s obviously a pattern of creation: this object is handmade, using a technique that your sister learned from her friends on the swim team, and this individual bracelet, like all the others she’s made, uses a common and easy-to-produce design that your sister has enhanced with her own creative embellishments and color choices. Other girls on the swim team make similar, but not identical, bracelets on a regular basis. There’s tradition in the style and technique, and variation in the color choices and unique patterns of knots. Clearly a folk object. (53-54)
In addition to examples from children’s folklore like friendship bracelets and fortune tellers or cootie catchers, other types of folk art include quilting, basket-making, pottery, mailbox stands, accessories for hunting or agriculture like cattle guards and fencing types, wood-carving, rag rug weaving, spinning, knitting and crocheting, dyeing, blacksmithing, carpentry, barrelmaking, and more. There are as many examples as there are ways for people to engage with tradition in their daily lives, though some genres are more widespread than others (e.g. most cultures develop a way to store and carry things whereas scrapbooking is pretty uniquely contemporary due to the availability of supplies for it). And there’s often a gendered dimension to this work, with some of the lower-status crafts relegated to women (which I discuss a bit in my post on women’s folklore).In the larger art world, folk artists are sometimes thought of as outsider artists, self-trained artists, and so on. But due to how folklorists are oriented towards culture and group identity, we’re fond of reminding others that art never happens in a vacuum, no matter how high-art it might be considered. John Vlach, a major scholar of material culture, writes:
No genuine folk artist can ever be completely self-taught. Certainly folk artists may work alone, even in seclusion, but they will work within a socially sanctioned set of rules for artistic production which they expect will insure the acceptability of their completed pieces. Thus they are mentally connected even if physically isolated (quoted in Brunvand, 551).
So, clearly folklorists approach the idea of art a bit differently than people with training in fine arts. While we may interview individuals in our fieldwork, we always study the individual within the context of tradition. And we like to think that we do so without the elitist lens that some fine-arts-oriented people apply, judging the merit of the artistic technique rather than engaging with it in a broader cultural context.
I’ll close with another Glassie quote, and encourage you to read his work if you want to know more about the study of folk art:
But if we wish to learn what art is, if we wish to understand the things we call folk art for themselves and not as ciphers in the small system of our consciousness, then folk art demands a different context, not a context conditioned by Kandinsky and Picasso and shaped by dealers and scholars, but a context constructed by the people who made the art. In its own context, when the weaver sits at her loom, when the supplicant touches his forehead to the prayer rug, folk art is not a corollary or critique of modern art, it is a part of the experience of life. At life’s center, in the midst of common work, people have always found and always will find ways to create things that simultaneously enfold themselves, present their social affinities, and mutter about the enormity of the universe. In that context these things are not folk art. They are art. (273-274)
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
Glassie, Henry. “The Idea of Folk Art.” In Folk Art and Art Worlds, eds. John Vlach and Simon Bronner. Ann Arbor: U. M. I. Research Press, 1992. 269-274.
McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.