Unreal Nature

December 23, 2014

The Dying Out of Folk Art

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… The [primitive] artist makes up for a certain repetitiveness by his quiet, steady fervor …

This is from ‘Primitive Painting’ (1943) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

“Primitive” painting belongs to the Industrial Age. It emerged toward the close of the eighteenth century and defined itself as independent of tradition, whether that of sophisticated art or that of folk art. It was mainly an effort to find a new outlet for the plebian “artistic energy” that was left without an object by the dying out of folk art in an urban civilization. This outlet could not be found in sophisticated art, because the persons who embodied such “energy” were too poor or too isolated to possess themselves of the culture that sophisticated art presupposes.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] All this was pointed out by a German scholar, Nicola Michailow, in a very important, almost epochal, article (prompted partly, one may suppose, by the Nazis’ solicitude for anything and everything that can be construed as “folk”). The practitioners of Laienmalerei (lay or unprofessional painting), as Michailow calls it, had to fill by their own independent efforts the vacuum left by the extinction of living folk art. It is to the lack of formal training and of almost every other advantage of a continuous tradition that their painting owes its “primitive” character. The self-taught painter, Michailow adds, is to be found mostly among the petty bourgeoisie, that much-maligned class, which more than any other has inherited the “primeval creative urge of the Volk.”

… Michailow and Jean Lipman, in her recent book, both tend to exaggerate by omission the non-derivative character of primitive and popular painting. Yet I feel sure that in most cases it was through acquaintance with reproductions that the purchaser came to want pictures and the amateur to want to paint them. Moreover, it is unthinkable that self-taught artists would have dared to paint, as they did so often, pure landscapes and still lifes, had not sophisticated art already provided them with examples. Consider only how long it was before sophisticated art arrived at the landscape and the still life.

… The [primitive] artist makes up for a certain repetitiveness by his quiet, steady fervor and his appetite for his work. His painting goes back to the first assumptions of pictorial art and re-examines them in all their original freshness, reminding one again of the excitement there is in simply discovering that it is possible to depict three-dimensional things on a flat surface. But unlike children’s art, this painting is not simple-minded; it achieves subtleties by means that seem only in themselves simple and crude. Its best common quality, in fact, is this ambiguity created by the simple thing itself and the richness of its effect.

There are, however, demands which this art cannot ordinarily meet. The reliance upon formulas and ready-made elements is often hardly compensated for by the freshness of invention elsewhere. The tight design and the insistent rhythms, to which the naive artist is always prone to surrender himself, are a liability as well as an asset, for they tend to overcome everything else and destroy dramatic movement; and it is only by its very intensity that even some of the best of this popular painting can retrieve itself from decoration.

… The American popular painting trade was unable to survive the competition of photography and the cheap reproduction . According to Mrs. Lipman, it can be considered to have died in the eighteen-seventies.




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