eli bartra
Does folk art exist? Or is it an anachronism, no longer meaningful and per-
haps even reactionary? It is, without a doubt, a problematic concept. Still,
folk art remains a sufficiently clear referent that enables me to communicate,
from the outset, what I would like to discuss. Further, a better term does
not exist at the moment to define this specific group of artistically designed
objects. I avoid the perhaps simpler term, art, in order to emphasize that I
am interested in discussing creative production that differs from ‘‘great’’ or
‘‘high’’ art. Removing the modifier does not magically grant folk art higher
value or improve its subaltern, marginalized status.
My insistence on the term folk art is part of a larger effort to vindicate a
particular form of artistic expression, to identify its difference. Its social ori-
gins, means of production, distribution, and consumption, and its functions
veer from what we typically imagine art to be. Folk art persists without an
accurate name. Perhaps this is due to the fact that those frequently portrayed
as unknown, faceless artists create it.
I do not believe that one would be better served by turning to one of the
1001 names that have been thrown about for at least the past hundred years
as if they were indistinct, interchangeable synonyms of folk art: craft, handi-
craft, primitive art, touristic art, fourth world art, curiosities, outsider art, deco-
rative art, ornamental art, savage art, the art of savages, applied arts, popular
arts, ethnic art, native art, exotic art, tribal art, traditional rural crafts, cot-
tage industry production, or village art. Not everyone considers these terms
synonymous, but distinguishing them often creates additional problems. For
example, one scholar explains that ‘‘folk art is the derivative art from a high
art form in the same culture, whereas what we call primitive art is the most
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