Thoughts on "Folk Art" in the 21st Century

While in Krakow, I had the opportunity to have coffee a couple of times with a woman named Ewelina who works in the EthnoDesign department which is a part of The Ethnographic Museum.  The EthnoDesign Festival in Krakow is building bridges and making connections between the old peasant, ethnographic images, traditions especially from the Malopolska region (lower Poland) and current designs made by artists and designers who are working now, in the 21st century. The festival encourages dialogue and thoughts that provoke us to look at the past, to look at our interconnections, to look at the transference of images, story, traditions, does the past become the present? How are past design elements being threaded into our culture today? Truly this has been happening and is happening all of the time in all cultures. And, as you can imagine this is very exciting to me as I have begun to thread these inspirations into my new work. I think the festival that this department organizes and what this department is doing is brilliant. Unfortunately the festival did not happen this year because of changes in the it's funding situation. I hope this is just a hiccup and the festival can move ahead and celebrate creative traditions and connections for years to come.

Now, I'd like to talk about the tern "Folk Art" and how this term is used today, because there is a big difference between the mass produced and the authentic.Thoughts which have been on my mind regarding this term are making me feel edgy, like I need to express something. I'm not sure I have all the words yet but it's time to try to express these thoughts. Fortunately Ewelina and I had the time to talk about some of these things together and it was confirmation to me that people in the field are wrestling with the same questions.

Although it is not my intention, I feel like I've been in danger of idealizing the folk art, peasant art, ethnographic art that I've been seeing, experiencing and talking about on this blog. It seems that Folk Art isn't really even the appropriate term to use when addressing these aesthetics and traditions. A woman named Magdalena Zych had this to say in promotional materials for Krakow's EthnoDesign Festival in 2010.

Mythicising Folklore

"...there is no single Malopolska object nor is there a Maloposka pattern, similarly what is colloquially called "folk culture" is only a certain model, involving the general phenomena that make up the culture of the the 19th century countryside, captured at the point of impact with the industrialization of the last century. It is also a creation whose emanations you can see today at all kinds of folk events or in marketing. The popular vision of folk culture is based on its mythicised image referring to the idyllic "once upon a time."

Folk culture does not exist and probably never has, we can only talk about folk-type culture. It was the culture of the peasants, the rural population. As distinct from the culture of the nobility, the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie, it aroused interest. What were it's features? First of all, a coherent vision of the world, extremely independent, precisely defining the place of mankind with permanent identity, where change, the inherent part of the social order, was closely governed by rites. Tradition was associated with oral transmission. Individual practices were poorly evaluated. The relation between the familiar and the strange formed an important axis of social organization, this was possible due to a precise definition of what it constituted. This model is also based on the belief that human life takes place simultaneously in two dimensions, which are closely bound together: the temporal dimension, and the timeless sacred world." 

During my trip to Poland and to Hungary I have begun what will need to be ongoing conversations. I've seen directly how  the term "Folk Art" can conjure up ideas of idealization and commercialization. This is especially true in heavy tourist locales where national identity and images that reflect this are mass produced by someone who may have no real knowledge of the crafts and the traditions. Perhaps the creators of these items may not even live in the country that the objects are trying to reflect.

"Folk Art" and traditions were shared, transferred and used to promote a sense of  identity in positive and not so positive ways especially in times around war or loss of national independence due to lands and people being under the rule of other countries or ideologies. The peasant art, it's transference and the traditions helped keep a peoples identity alive. Yet in some aspects the "folk art" was used to show and glorify an ideal that may not be entirely true.

I've heard that folk art was propagandized and idealized, used to show happy people performing folkloric traditions and  making their crafts in countries under communist rule like in Poland and Hungary from after WWII until the late 1980's. This was a form of propaganda with hopes to show the people of a nation and the world that there was a sense of individual national identity and an active alive culture. In reality, in everyday life, one's sense of individuality and people's expressions of their ideas and individualism were suppressed and constantly in danger being squashed

I see idealization and mass marketing happening now with the tourist markets, souvenir shops, and programs aimed to package an aesthetic, an ideal and sell it to a mass audience. With this kind of commercialization something is lost, the traditions become a show rather than something truly grounded and authentic. A great example of this phenomenon happened during my visit to Zakopane. After seeing such fabulous wood carving and architecture, which is the true passing on of  some of the the folk traditions in that region, I walked to the market street where I was bombarded with stands selling mass produced items mimicking or trying to capture the feel of the true thing. Ick. Who is making these millions of cloth beads and wooden carved boxes? I'm looking for the real thing. I'm looking for authenticity.

In Budapest I had the opportunity to spend two days at an annual Folk Festival which felt to be very authentic. Men and women who studied and learned the traditional methods and who carry on the traditions of the arts and crafts like embroidery, lace making, bone carving, pottery, woodcarving, blacksmithing, weaving, painting, clothing making, etc. had booths and were making their wares before your eyes. A young man invited me to sit at his carving bench where he taught me to carve a flower from a piece of soft, pulpy wood. A Latvian woman cut one of her paper cut designs as I stood and watched. We couldn't speak each others language but I still learned from her and we connected with each other. I bought her book, she gave me a paper cut and I learned about paper cut design. Her technique answered some questions I had about symmetrical and asymmetrical designs. I met the daughter of a master embroiderer who told me of a two year school in Hungary where one can go to study, and master a craft.

I'm heartened that in this contemporary world of mass consumption, one can still learn a "slow" trade and share their authentic wares and traditions with the public. One may have to do a little more searching, step further off the beaten tourist path and pay more money for these hand made objects. It is so worth it!

We now live in a fast paced world which is full of technologies that can both help and distract us with the ability to interconnect. My hopes are to promote the practice, study and creation of authentic traditions.  My intention is to slow down and build bridges, in my own personal and authentic way, using symbols, ideas, traditions found in the folk-type art. I want to bring inspirations from the past and combine them with who I am and where I am now, in the 21st century.

One of the things I've learned on this quest is that there are many connections with who I am and my roots here in Poland and Hungary. There have been so many meetings, ah-ha moments, when I've said to myself..."That explains why..." Places, the traditions, the lifestyle, the aesthetic which up until now were more or less unconsciously known to me are met with awareness, the beginning of understanding and a true connection. I plan to express these relationships in my own art work and to pursue these ideas in my studies. There is a lot to experiment with and a lot to learn and I am looking forward to the journey ahead.

I love this part of the quote from above:
"This model is also based on the belief that human life takes place simultaneously in two dimensions, which are closely bound together: the temporal dimension, and the timeless sacred world."  

I believe with my whole heart that this is life. We live in the temporal dimension and in the timeless sacred world in all our time. The awareness of and the bridging of these two places makes my heart beat fast. The peasants creating the beautiful work that I love so much were acknowledging this in both their everyday objects and their ritual objects...everything was infused with meaning. This idea makes me think of the concept, of the place and the moment where and when earth and sky meet and when the invisible becomes visible.

Images and the quote used in this post were taken at Krakow's Ethnographic museum and from materials generated by the museum.(copyright: The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Krakow.)

I am struck with their designs which on one hand seem so fresh and contemporary. Geometrical straw wall hangings, hanging sculptural pieces made from wafer, paper flower hangings, are colorful symbols of ritual and tradition made around holidays and to express meaning, relationships to the seasons, to beliefs and festivity.