Q and Art: Luce Center Edition

The Luce Foundation Center is joining our series Q and Art, where we delve into the inner workings of the museum and its collection. This is the first post where we will ask resident experts from the American Art staff questions that we frequently receive in the Luce Center.

What do a southern Baptist minister, a professional boxer, and a vaudeville gymnast have in common? They are all folk artists in the American Art Museum's collection. But what is folk art? We often get asked this question in the Luce Foundation Center. I always thought the general description was that folk artists were mostly not educated in art and didn't make the object to be viewed as art. It wasn't until I spoke to Leslie Umberger, curator of Folk and Self-taught Art, that I discovered my definition was not telling the entire story.

Leslie described the category of non-academic art as a spectrum with tradition at one end and innovation at the other. She said she thought of folk art as something based in tradition, like basket weaving, wood carving, or any form in which teachings are passed down by earlier generations. At the other end of the spectrum innovation takes precedence over tradition, as is the case with The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by the self-taught artist James Hampton, a life's work in which individual interpretation and personal vision are the primary guides.

In the age of the Internet it's less common for artists to be unaware of or entirely uninfluenced by the world around them. In Leslie's opinion, "Artists may receive varied degrees of education or exposure to mainstream society or the art world. That makes sweeping generalizations about what to call artists much more challenging. Considering degrees of tradition and innovation and the specific intentions of the artist is critical."

I also learned that "outsider" is not an appropriate term to describe artists in this field. The phrase has negative connotations and places an emphasis on the artist's social status or class, rather than letting the art, and an understanding of it, come first. I will make sure to keep my definition limited to the terms "folk" or "self-taught" for future talks, tours, and information desk queries at the Luce Center!

I would like to thank Leslie Umberger for taking the time to speak with me.

Do you have a question that you'd like Luce staff to inspect for you? Email AmericanArtLuce@si.edu.