American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

The definition of American folk art is notoriously difficult to pin down. In the twentieth century “folk art” has embraced everything from Pennsylvania German frakturs to eccentric architectural environments.

Holger Cahill in his landmark 1932 exhibition American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, for the Museum of Modern Art, looked to the pre-industrial past for “the simple and unaffected childlike expression of men and women who had little or no school training in art, and who did not even know that they were producing art.” In the 1940s, art critic and collector Jean Lipman pointed to folk art as the product of a great democracy. It was spontaneous, home-grown, non-derivative, and non-academic. Three decades later, Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and Julia Weissman in their book Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists, expanded the scope to include living artists, and asserted that &ldqou;the vision of the folk artist is a private one, a personal universe, a world of his own making,” unaffected by the mainstream art world.

The Archives of American Art has collected a wealth of primary sources documenting the contested terrain of American folk art. In celebration of the opening of the American Folk Art Museum’s new building at 45 West 53rd Street, the Archives presents selected documents from the papers of the tastemakers who advanced the aesthetic appreciation of these individual expressions.