Comparing Folk Art & Academic Art

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  • 0:00 Art
  • 1:06 Folk Art
  • 3:42 Academic Art
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the characteristics of both folk art and academic art and discover how artists differentiated between them, particularly in the 19th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


I have an issue with the world of art. Here I made this lovely piece of macaroni art, and nobody wants it. I've called every museum in America, two in France, even one in Italy, and nobody will take it! Italy - I mean come on, at least they should appreciate a landscape made from pasta on canvas. This harsh and entirely unacceptable snobbery from the world of high art has plunged me into a period of deep introspection from which I have arrived at a difficult question - what is art? I mean really, what makes something true art, as opposed to just a craft? This is a question that academics have struggled with for years. One solution has been to divide true art into two categories: that which is produced by professional artists and that which is not. But even this distinction can get pretty slippery since not all cultures treat art as a profession in the way we do. Now, for a long time there were pretty clear divides between what was considered high art and what was not, but since the late 19th century, those lines have been blurred, erased, redrawn and blurred some more.

Folk Art

Like I said, art is generally divided into two categories, based on who made it. High art is made by professionals: other art is not. That other art is most often referred to as folk art. Folk art, as an official category, generally must meet a few characteristics. After all, this is still considered 'art'. Folk art is generally produced by artists who did not receive a formal artistic education, is native to an indigenous culture, does not employ rules or techniques of high art (like linear perspective) and has function beyond just being a piece of art. How about some examples? This is a Tatanua mask from Papua New Guinea. This obviously required lots of artistic skill to create, so let's run it down the folk art checklist. Is it from an artist with a formal education? No. The artist who made this was not trained in a formal art institute, although he or she would have been trained in the traditions of their culture. Is it native to an indigenous culture? Yes. This is a traditional mask from the people of a specific island of Papua New Guinea. Does it employ techniques of high art? Since high art is generally based on classical proportions of the face, we can say that this does not use high art techniques. Finally, does it have purpose beyond just being art? Yes. This mask is used in a funeral ceremony called the Malanggan, which helps the soul of deceased transition to the world of the dead.

So, there you go, folk art in a nutshell. But it's not always that simple. The Tatanua fits all of the definitions of folk art, but who's to say that those definitions really matter? If the artist was trained by their own workshops, is that less valuable than a formal artistic education? And if art has purpose, does that mean it is not high art? This is a difficult question, and drawing that line can be very hard. For example, some Amerindian pottery has become so popular that local artists will receive an immense amount of training and can sell their pots for literally millions of dollars. Is this still folk art? Or what about ancient Roman art, which was almost always functional? We treat Classical art as high art, but really it fits more characteristics of folk art. So, this can be a very, very tricky question and one that the academic community struggles with to this day.

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