Comparing Self-Taught Artists & the Regionalists

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  • 0:02 Folk Art vs Fine Art
  • 0:55 Regionalism & Folk Art
  • 2:09 Regionalists
  • 4:24 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.

What makes something fine art versus folk art? This was an important question of the Regionalists, who tried to save American art from European influences. Explore this relationship and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Folk Art vs. Fine Art

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. This sounds nice, but is it still flattery if the imitation gets more accolades than the original? For example, if a famous, highly trained artist starts imitating folk art, something generally made by an untrained artist, how flattered should the folk artists be? Granted, their work is being appreciated, but at the same time, the famous artist is going to get more recognition for it than they ever would. Not to mention, the famous artist's piece will be considered fine art, while the folk artist's will always be folk art. Man, this is complicated. Well, this question has been asked several times throughout art history, and today we're going to ask it again. So, let's step on back into the early 20th century and look at some artistic imitations.

Regionalism & Folk Art

In the early 20th century, American artists found themselves caught up in the middle of a pretty big debate. Now the folk art/fine art debate, that's coming up. No, this debate was about modern art. In 1913, New York hosted an international modern art exhibit called the Armory Show, which introduced many Americans to abstract art for the first time. Some people loved it. Others saw it as too European and were afraid that American styles would be lost if American artists turned to modern, abstract art. For the people who were afraid of modern art, the solution was obvious: focus on scenes of rural America and emphasize less abstract styles. No brainer, right? This style was called regionalism, and in its search for more American styles, it often ended up imitating folk art. But the self-taught styles of folk artists and the masterpieces of the regionalists are not the same thing. Folk art often breaks traditional rules of art because the artist is not trained in those rules. Regionalist artists were highly educated and trained and broke rules intentionally in clear-cut ways.


Let's take a look at some of that regionalist art. There are three painters often considered to be the greatest regionalists. Here comes one of them now, Thomas Hart Benton, and this is one of his paintings, New York, Early Twenties. Let's compare that to a painting by one of America's most famous folk artists of the early 20th century, Grandma Moses. Notice any similarities? There's a lack of perfect spatial depth and realism in both. However, whereas Grandma Moses was self-taught, Benton was educated in some of the best art institutes and was very highly trained. For him, adopting this style expressed a commitment to American art as opposed to European modernism.

How about another regionalist? This is John Steuart Curry. Curry was from Kansas, and in keeping with the regionalist devotion to Midwestern America, he most often painted scenes of his home state. This meant things like cows, rural baptisms, farmers, and of course, tornadoes. Curry's personal style mixed realism and some slight abstraction that imitated folk art, portraying life in Kansas as something simple, dramatic, and pure. In a time when European modernism was questioning the meaning of art and moving increasingly towards complete abstraction, this was a comfort to many people and confirmed that America would not become a knock-off version of Europe.

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