Fine Arts, Folk Arts & Feminism

Posted by: Joan Braderman


The following is an excerpt from an article by Judith Friedlander that appeared in Heresies, Vol. I, No.4, Winter 1977-78

What do we mean by the traditional arts of women? All too often we are talking about activities that are not considered art either by the women who perform the tasks or by the societies in which they live. Some peoples do not conceptualize transforming mere cultural activities into the domain of art. When the category does exist, women rarely emerge as the great artists. Coming from a society where art is recognized, valued and produced almost entirely by men, it is not surprising that American feminists are interested in looking at the relationship women have to art in other cultures, to see if the comparison sheds additional light on the American condition. Before entering into such a discussion with material from Mexico, however, we should provide a more specific context for the cross-cultural analysis by reviewing some issues concerning art in the United States.

Our society has a hierarchical view of art, making rigorous distinctions between the so-called fine arts and the traditional or folk. The nature of fine arts is individualistic, that of the folk collective. The fine arts represent the work of specialists, recognized personalities who dedicate themselves almost exclusively to their art. Even when they supplement their incomes with additional jobs, the culture sees them as artists first. The folk arts, on the contrary, are the work of non-specialists, unknown people who are, perhaps, farmers, fishermen and miners, individuals who make modest livings in “old-fashioned” ways and happen to produce folk art on the side. What is more, according to cultural definitions, folk artists do not create so much as carry on timeless traditions. They are living vestiges of the past and the more obscure they are, the more authentic they appear.

In a culture where progress, specialization and rugged individualism are valued, why have we created and maintained such a static category as the traditional arts? We could argue that the anonymity and timelessness imposed on folk art permit those who practice the fine arts to borrow freely from traditional motifs. Who would accuse a Bartok of plagiarism just because he used Hungarian peasant melodies? Less cynically, but troubling all the same, we might suggest that the alienation of our lives in modern America has awakened in many a yearning for simpler times and forms. Yet in order to have the “folk,” a group of people must preserve for us the ways of the past-in the hills of Appalachia, in the African bush or in mud huts in Mexico.

Feminists today are well acquainted with the cultural strategy that keeps folk artists in the obscurity of their grass-roots authenticity, for women have been erased in similar ways. Like the folk artist, woman is by definition a non-specialist and a carrier of traditions. She is first and foremost a wife and mother whose social and economic duties prevent her from having the time to specialize. Then, even if class privilege gives her the option to refuse her sex’s destiny, she still has to fight the culture’s traditional view that her creative powers are limited by her biology.

Our culture has so successfully confined the arts to the male sphere that it has developed sex-specific vocabularies to distinguish work done by men (specialized) from that done by women (generalized). Thus, although tasks traditionally assigned to women usually fall outside the arts entirely, a number of skills become lesser arts when performed by male specialists. Women. For example, do sewing and cooking.  Men are couturiérs or chefs. Careful to mark the status relationship, we borrow terms from the lofty French to describe the specialized work of a man, leaving the lower-class Anglo-Saxon to identify the chores that fragment a woman’s day. Of course there are female couturiérs and chefs, and the numbers are undoubtedly growing as women today succeed in becoming professionals in these and other fields. Yet recent changes do not negate the long cultural history of the sexes in American society in which men (at least of certain classes) have been encouraged to specialize, while women (despite their class) have almost always been less rigorously trained, at best educated to dabble in a few areas, but by and large inadequately prepared for anything other than, perhaps, wifing and mothering.

While feminist artists continue their struggle to change cultural definitions and thereby gain entry into the male dominated world of the fine arts, some are also trying to open the Academy to work usually associated with the ”inferior” crafts or simply with the domain of women’s work. In the process, they have been collecting the nearly forgotten traditions of women in rural America and abroad, creating a specifically female folk culture by bringing to light previously unrecognized skills of unknown women who never had the chance to specialize. Given feminist consciousness, we can hope that those who produce the recently recognized art will emerge from obscurity as individuals, instead of being reduced to the collective anonymity so characteristically the fate of traditional artists. Still, lingering questions must be raised, for it is not entirely clear that we see what our interest in folk art may mean for those women who happen to be carrying on our timeless, authentic female culture.

Photo courtesy of Traditions  


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