Folk Art: The Art of The Marginalized
In the Georgia Museum of Art, there are two large glazed stoneware jars painted with simple flower decorations. The placard next to them states that they were made by anonymous slave women. These unknown artists transformed a utilitarian object that they were ordered to make into a method of self-expression and an assertion of their individuality, even as they labored under a system that saw them not as persons or individuals, but as living property. If we look at other utilitarian objects in the museum, we see a similar pattern.
Disadvantaged artists transformed necessary household objects into works of art. Indeed, one of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the famous applique quilts of the freed slave Harriet Powers, who was a resident of Athens, Georgia. Powers had no formal education in art and achieved only a basic level of literacy, yet she used quilting to produce detailed pictorial narratives from the Bible and from local history. As an African American woman in the 19th century, quilting was one of the few possible means for her artistic self-expression.
For those used to the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel or the exquisite delicacy of a fine Ming vase, proclaiming a rather simply decorated utilitarian object, produced by individuals with no artistic training, as a work of art may very well seem ridiculous. However, such an elite perspective ignores the fact that art is essentially self-expression.
Most artists throughout history did not have access to the training and education that characterizes the highly trained artisans hired by the societal elite to produce art that conformed to their worldview. Art education was often limited to men of a certain class and ethnic background. As a result, most of the professionally produced art has historically excluded the perspective of women and the non-elite, as well as the perspectives of religious and ethnic minorities. Members of these groups, when depicted in professionally produced art, often were subject to representation based on the stereotypes and prejudice of the elite male perspective.
By confining our study of art history to the art produced by professionally trained artists, we ignore the realities and perspectives of marginalized folk artists, who used their innate talent and the little training that they had to produce art that was fully integrated with and reflective of their lives and experiences, and we cut ourselves off from most of the human experience.