Mary Magoulick ~ Georgia College & State University ~ Fall 2001
Keynote speech delivered at the opening of the folk art exhibits
at Georgia's Antebellum Capital Museum in Milledgeville, GA
As we gather to participate in and celebrate our community through these exhibits of folk art, we realize and demonstrate the vitality and persistence of folklore in all our lives. Folklore is a process much broader and more contemporary than the word itself likely suggests to most people. Many people have associations with the word folklore that connect it to notions of falsehood or nonsense, something childish perhaps, or old-fashioned. Such preconceptions evaporate as we realize folklore’s interconnections with tradition, community, creativity, and innovation.
When William Thoms coined the term "folk lore" in 1846 in England, "the folk," were considered the illiterate peasantry of a given region: "European peasants specifically, and no one else" (Dundes 1980, 4). For centuries intellectuals have been collecting and recording folktales throughout Europe. Straparola first collected fairy tales in 16th century Italy, a practice taken up by Salon culture of 18th century France and then academics like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 19th century Germany. Educated, "civilized" people studying the folk did not consider themselves part of the folk, but instead believed themselves "above" the folk, civilized, more rational, more adult. These scholars often romanticized the folk, admired their lore, and sometimes lamented the loss of folklore in their own "enlightened" lives. By the middle of the 19th century, evolutionary perspectives from science influenced social scientists as well, leading to explicit notions of primitive versus civilized within and among societies. The folk, even while they were admired with a somewhat piquant nostalgia, were typically characterized as quaint, childish, perhaps foolish in their customs, superstitions, and stories. Many of our conceptions about folklore as childish, insignificant, or untrue reflect the bias of early scholars who thought of the folk, however much they were admired, as being on a lower rung of what was literally conceptualized as a social ladder.
Once increasing numbers of scholars in folklore and anthropology actually spent time in the field living with the cultures and people they studied beginning in the late 19th century, their observations and first-hand experiences taught them that our similarities as humans are greater than our differences. Many of the previously judgmental notions evaporated when fieldworkers found the societies and people who had literally been referred to as "others" or "primitives" to be in fact as complex, humane, technically astute, artistically inspired and enriching, philosophically profound, morally deep, and as fully mature as their own. Finally in the 1960's and 70's scholars officially discarded the evolutionary perspective of early folklorists and re-shaped the term folklore to reflect a more inclusive and accurate definition, so that today we recognize as folk any collectivity (a group or a culture): "Who are the folk? Among others, we are!" Alan Dundes proclaimed in 1977 (1980, 19).
The shift to recognizing all of us as folk reflects a reorientation in thinking that asserts the universality of the human condition and the vital importance, even centrality, of folklore to all cultures. The definition of lore expanded as well. "Lore" was originally seen as texts of stories and songs, and now encompasses any willed, individual, creative expression. Since the 1960's and 70's folklore has been defined as "artistic communication in small groups" (Ben-Amos 1972) or "the study of human creativity in its own context" (Glassie, 1993). Folklorists today (and for at least the last 30 years) focus upon the relationship of individual creativity to the collective order. It’s this connection between the individual and his or her community, the confluence of inspiration, innovation, as well as methods, insights, and techniques of others that leads to great folk art. Folk art is not art made to look quaint or primitive, but rather art made with an awareness of and a connection to tradition and community.
Both tradition and folklore today are understood as dynamic processes much more about building community than notions such as authenticity might suggest. For folklorists, what makes something authentic or traditional is that it is created out of a sense of community, building on methods or insights of others, but also including individual inspiration, insight and will. Cultures and individuals have always shared, adapted, and tried to improve their methods, techniques, and designs based on changing times, technological innovations, cultural exchange, or even personal inspiration. Technology does not destroy tradition. Rather tradition helps connect us to the past while showing very clear awareness of the present and acceptance of our responsibility to shape the future.
Let us take as an example Pueblo pottery from the Southwestern United States. In the Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico, potters today produce some of the finest, most sought-after and admired pots in the world. They do so in strong communities of potters, where they attend to methods, techniques, materials, and even designs dating back many generations. Families of potters learn and practice their art together. But each Pueblo pot is unique; each potter follows her own inspiration in designing and decorating her pots. The goal is not to copy those pots from hundreds of years ago. The most successful and renowned potters today (as was likely true in the past) are those whose designs are fresh and original, even while they choose to borrow techniques of previous generations. As Henry Glassie says of potters from Georgia and Acoma "In a time dominated by industrial production, potters at Acoma and in Georgia have determined to hold to elder techniques, digging their own clay and forming it in their own hands, while their nimble minds direct the process of creation. This mix of accommodation and resistance establishes a frame of adaptive revival within which forms and techniques hold steady but functions shift" (1999, 56). While in the past such Pueblo pots were used primarily to carry water, today their function has shifted. The original functions holds primarily in a sacred ceremonial context. More often pots are made today specifically as ornaments. A single pot made today at Acoma or another Pueblo may sell for a thousand dollars or more. And these are highly sought after by tourists, museums, galleries, and collectors in both Native and non-Native communities.
Much folk art today similarly reflects a past where the "art" was more "craft," in other words, it was made to serve a specific and important function – to be used in everyday life by those who made it, to serve as furniture, tools, and for other workaday needs. When such objects, like caned chairs, quilts, pots, and baskets were made to be used, they were nonetheless decorative in form, proportion, and detail. The current "relocation [of such objects] in a decorative setting requires no radical alteration of technique or form, though it inspires greater precision in ornamentation. Enhancing and refining ornament, artists challenge themselves and invest their works with a quality that excites the eye and attracts the attention of buyers who understand the art incompletely. In the new age, the potters of Acoma and Georgia do not surrender their tradition. They drive it toward new perfection" (Glassie, 1999, 56).
Folklore is not static. Tradition is not static, nor is it in the past. Neither folklore nor tradition remain fixed, for they are not things, but processes as mutable, as dynamic as the lives and minds of the humans who create them. Folklore is not the artifacts you see in the cases in this museum. The art is merely the product of the process of convergence between individual, willed creativity and communal life. As Glassie writes, tradition "is rooted in volition and it flowers in variation and innovation. It opposes the alien and imposed . . ." so that the "center [of folklore] is the merger of individual creativity and social order. Philosophically, politically, my discipline upholds the human right to the construction of a meaningful universe through artistic action; it stresses the interdependence of the personal, the social, the sacred; the aesthetic, the ethical, the cosmological; the beautiful, the good, the true. Practically, folklore is the study of human creativity in its own context" (1993, 9).
We all practice and enjoy various kinds of folklore, for we are all folk living in communities. Folklore includes stories and songs still today. But whereas originally that lore was limited primarily to fairy tales and ballads, today it encompasses as well urban legends, joke cycles, rap, blues, media-based beliefs like UFO’s or Bigfoot, garage bands, internet hoaxes, foodways, and yard art. Like our ancestors, we continue to single out certain examples of folklore to celebrate and enjoy, as in these exhibits. We recognize such examples of contemporary folk art as especially competent, inspired, or profound. So while we all participate in folklore, we are not all great folk artists, and it is wonderful when we can come together to recognize genius in our communities as in exhibits like this one. Art embodies the values and visions of its makers. Art allows for an expression of how culture has shaped us, even while the artist may challenge the present and shape the future. Unlike most art in museums, such as paintings we are trained to consider as art, folk art is not limited to a frame. Throughout time and space, many of our most profound arts globally were folk arts like textiles, ceramics, and stories, which urge us to glimpses of excellence even within our daily lives (Glassie, 1999, 18-19).
Folklore, art expressed and created within and among community, shapes our world as much as it reflects our own lives or the past. Studying and making folklore are interesting, complex, sometimes hard to articulate processes, but intuitively, folklore is perfectly natural. We live such processes. Our sense of history is built partly from folklore, just as folklore directs us or allows us to imagine how to live. We are simultaneously forward-thinking and reflective creatures, we humans.
One very popular and much-studied oral genre within folklore, myths have been considered as spoken versions of history. In fact some languages like French still do not distinguish between the words for history and story, and the word myth itself (from the Greek) means story or word. Words and symbols form the basis of our communication, which linguistically largely revolves around stories, even today. Some might describe myths as metaphorical interpretations of the past. Myth and history both help people to try to understand their tragedies and to imagine the constraints and options of human possibility. Since our tragedies and constraints shift, so too our myths, like all our other creative expressions, change to accommodate our lives (Glassie, 1999b). But created in community, any art (whether verbal or material) learned from relatives, mentors, friends, even strangers, also connects us to each other, drawing on collective experience and wisdom. When such communal learning and individual inspiration both flourish, folklore and (I believe) all art thrives most richly.
This dynamic conceptualization of folklore helps us to realize a potential need to change our perspectives and definitions. Recognizing the dynamic and fluid nature of all culture and learning to appreciate the context from which art flows, helps us all to recognize the artistic genius in communities all around the world, communities of women, Muslims, Asians, Africans, people of color, and poor people. There are artists in all communities. Henry Glassie writes, "Wishing truly to understand, we will not merely ask people beyond our walls for facts to assimilate into our schemes. We will learn to engage in collegial exchange with non-academic intellectuals, discovering in conversation new arts of discourse and new theories of time" (1999b, p. 9). Thus there are political ramifications to studying and understanding folklore. By enlarging our circle of whom we engage in all our conversations (academically, artistically, historically) and by attending to the stories and art of folk artists around the world, by listening to the artists in their own context, we learn to appreciate others and ourselves more fully. Any notion of an alien or exotic "other" vanishes once we realize the logic of their art and community. The context helps us understand the art, the art helps us understand the humanity of the so-called others, and thus we realize our sympathies and interconnections. Realized within the context of both the individual lives and the communities crucial to its creation, folk art teaches us tolerance and understanding.
We find folklore fundamentally appealing because it typically displays the best of our humanity, shows the strengths of our community, and binds us to traditions while helping to shape our future. The greatest thing that folklore teaches us is our common humanity. We are all the folk. Not all of us may have the skills or have learned the expertise of a given art – like basket making, weaving textiles, making pottery, storytelling, making music, or performing oratory (which is not to say we do not all have the potential to participate much more competently in many kinds of folk art). But always there are those whose competency flowers into art. Our folk artists celebrated here today, caner Revel Wylly Pogue, quilters Francis Rewis and Kathy Boylan (and more), potter Pat Black, basket weaver Floyd Anderson, carver Sarah Finney, and the other folk artists from other communities whom we have come to admire in these exhibits, have much in common with folk artists around the world. Though we are not all folk artists automatically, we are all part of communities that these arts grow out of and express. The art here resonates locally and globally. A rug maker in Turkey, a wood carver in Africa, a Navajo performing the night-way chant, a Maori telling a myth, a quilter from Georgia, a singer from Appalachia, a fiddler in France, a potter in Bangladesh, all learn, use, perform, or display their art in communities. On panel after panel in the exhibit you’ll read of such communal connections. Communities who appreciate their folk artists enrich themselves most of all. At its best, all art, whether folk art or fine art, either engages a process of "transcendence of consciousness" or leads us "into an awareness of our position in the cosmos" (Glassie, 1999, 119). So let us appreciate this lovely folk art, for in so doing we celebrate our community and our humanity.
References (and recommended bibliography)
Dundes, Alan. Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
Glassie, Henry. Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999 (b)
___. The Potter’s Art. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999
___. Turkish Traditional Art Today. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993
Oring, Elliot. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1986.
Paredes, Américo and Richard Bauman (editors). Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. Bloomington: Trickster Press, 2000 (originally published as the Journal of American Folklore, 1972), includes Ben-Amos article "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context"
Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore, revised and expanded edition. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996.
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