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In this lesson, you will explore the characteristics of both folk art and academic art and discover how artists differentiated between them, particularly in the 19th century.

Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

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Art

I have an issue with the world of art. Here I made this lovely piece of macaroni art, and nobody wants it. I’ve called every museum in America, two in France, even one in Italy, and nobody will take it! Italy – I mean come on, at least they should appreciate a landscape made from pasta on canvas. This harsh and entirely unacceptable snobbery from the world of high art has plunged me into a period of deep introspection from which I have arrived at a difficult question – what is art? I mean really, what makes something true art, as opposed to just a craft? This is a question that academics have struggled with for years. One solution has been to divide true art into two categories: that which is produced by professional artists and that which is not.

But even this distinction can get pretty slippery since not all cultures treat art as a profession in the way we do. Now, for a long time there were pretty clear divides between what was considered high art and what was not, but since the late 19th century, those lines have been blurred, erased, redrawn and blurred some more.

Folk Art

Like I said, art is generally divided into two categories, based on who made it.

High art is made by professionals: other art is not. That other art is most often referred to as folk art. Folk art, as an official category, generally must meet a few characteristics. After all, this is still considered ‘art’. Folk art is generally produced by artists who did not receive a formal artistic education, is native to an indigenous culture, does not employ rules or techniques of high art (like linear perspective) and has function beyond just being a piece of art.

How about some examples? This is a Tatanua mask from Papua New Guinea. This obviously required lots of artistic skill to create, so let’s run it down the folk art checklist. Is it from an artist with a formal education? No. The artist who made this was not trained in a formal art institute, although he or she would have been trained in the traditions of their culture. Is it native to an indigenous culture? Yes. This is a traditional mask from the people of a specific island of Papua New Guinea.

Does it employ techniques of high art? Since high art is generally based on classical proportions of the face, we can say that this does not use high art techniques. Finally, does it have purpose beyond just being art? Yes. This mask is used in a funeral ceremony called the Malanggan, which helps the soul of deceased transition to the world of the dead.So, there you go, folk art in a nutshell. But it’s not always that simple. The Tatanua fits all of the definitions of folk art, but who’s to say that those definitions really matter? If the artist was trained by their own workshops, is that less valuable than a formal artistic education? And if art has purpose, does that mean it is not high art? This is a difficult question, and drawing that line can be very hard.

For example, some Amerindian pottery has become so popular that local artists will receive an immense amount of training and can sell their pots for literally millions of dollars. Is this still folk art? Or what about ancient Roman art, which was almost always functional? We treat Classical art as high art, but really it fits more characteristics of folk art. So, this can be a very, very tricky question and one that the academic community struggles with to this day.

Academic Art

So, that’s one side of art. Now for the other: high art, or academic art, is that which is produced by a professional artist with a formal artistic education and awareness of formal techniques and is generally created purely for aesthetic, not functional, value. Here’s a great example. This is Oath of the Horatii, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1784.

David was highly educated, having studied at the Royal Academy, the most prestigious art school in France. His painting displays his education – the subject is a historical moment from ancient Rome – as well as his mastery of traditional techniques, like linear perspective, perfectly modeled and proportioned human figures and the use of shadow and light to create spatial depth. Now, this painting has a purpose, which is to inspire patriotism, but that function is completely tied to its recognition as art, so we don’t actually consider it ‘functional’. David is considered one of the most influential academic artists of the 19th century, so this is a pretty good idea of what defines academic art.As the 19th century was moving closer and closer towards the 20th century, artists began blurring some of the lines between academic and folk art and looked to non-traditional sources for inspiration.

;douard Manet was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and created images that had heavier lines and an overall flatness to the composition. This aesthetic also strongly influenced impressionists like Edgar Degas. Later, Paul Gauguin found inspiration in the folk arts of Tahiti and introduced Tahitian subjects, colors and styles to French art. Henri Rousseau challenged the world of academic art even further, not only because of the inspiration he found in tropical, often African styles, but because he was not a formally trained artist. Rousseau was self-taught, an amateur, who openly rejected traditional styles of high art. Yet all of the paintings produced by these men are still considered academic art? Why? For one, their art has no functional value detached from the fact that it is art.

Also, these paintings were created for and displayed in galleries, at academic exhibitions and throughout high society. Finally, and there is an argument to be made here, these artists are all European. Throughout the 20th century, academic artists would find inspiration in folk art, and folk art would continue to gain recognition amongst academic artists, but the distinction between the two remains to this day.

Lesson Summary

In the world of art, works are often categorized according to the artist and the reason for their creation. Folk art is that which is generally produced by an artist without formal artistic education, is made in local or indigenous styles and has function beyond being art. The opposite of this is academic art, which is produced by artists educated in academic techniques and is made for the sake of art, not for functional value. Folk art very often has daily or ceremonial use and was not created for the approval of an academic community, while academic art is.

Despite these general distinctions, the line between these two categories is often blurry. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, academic artists looked more and more to folk art for inspiration, and folk art gained more recognition amongst intellectuals. Artists from both categories have defied the expectations of their genres and challenged the very meaning of art. And, yet, I still can’t sell a single macaroni landscape!

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