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High and Low Art at the American Folk Art Museum

Published on
November 24

Visiting The American Folk Art Museum is like going to your crazy Aunt Mildred’s for a meatloaf and potato dinner. Her living room is a kitschy, hoarder’s delight. How and when did she have time to collect an original Kewpie doll? Why does she have such a large rubber band ball? Why in the world would anyone want these soda cap robots, Jesus woodcarvings, tobacco shop Zouaves, Abraham Lincoln whirligigs, Amish quilts, and paper cut lamps? Is that an aluminum deer head that I see? Boy, Aunt Mildred is really weird.

The museum is like a scrapbook and longitudinal study in American crafting. There are hints of high art, but mostly instances of low art. The curatorial staff, with their explanatory labels, was constantly questioning what past Americana obsessions can be counted as real collectibles or real art and which were merely put in the annals of the bygone strange. The overall museum vibe was very innocent and a bit naïve. Usually buttons, spoons, thimbles, plastic bags, and bits of carpet do not a museum make. However, it was nice to be challenged as to one’s current concept of “what art is”. Too often museums rest on the conventions of yore. The American Folk Art Museum lingers on the precipice of high art and low art, sometimes balancing the tight rope perfectly. A continual question that kept reoccurring on all floors of the museum was, “Are self-taught artists conscious of themselves as artists?” Morris Hirshfield, whose piece The Artist and His Model (1945) was on display, definitely seemed to interact with the zeitgeist of his art world. For example, try comparing any one of his painting to a Henri Rousseau. Although Hirshfield is considered an outside artist and naïve painter, his images have hints of early surrealism. Thomas Cole’s famous landscaping work and light play for the Hudson River School is renown in the art world, yet Thomas Chamber’s landscape art is not. They do not differ all that much except for the fact that Cole is displayed at the National Gallery of Art and Chambers is displayed as outsider art in The American Folk Art Museum.

The museum also attempts to breakdown preconceived notions about self-taught artists; they are not all hermits, they are not all rural, they are not all obsessive compulsive. Yet, some of them on display really are all of the aforementioned; the stereotype persists for a reason. Henry Darger, known for his fantastical, “Alice in Wonderland” type scenarios, wrote a 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He also produced several hundred illustrations to accompany the story, modeled after coloring books and various advertisements from his day. His mental health was questionable. He seemed to exist in the realms of the unreal, but so too did J. R. Tolkien, John Tenniel, and Madeleine L’Engle who are now considered greats. During his life time his art was never art, yet posthumously, critics have decided to define it as such. The museum has even created a Henry Darger Study Center in 2001.

As famed cultural critic Dave Hickey argues in his seminal work “The Invisible Dragon”, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Hickey states, “These people [museums] were setting themselves up as guardians of public taste. My argument was, basically, beauty allows us direct access to art without public oversight.” Although The American Museum of Folk Art is still an institutional gatekeeper, it is taking a step in the right direction, which seems to be away from the patronage system of Michelangelos and Monets.