Review of For Folk's Sake. Art and Economy in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia
McGill/Queen’s University Press, Montréal, Quebec, 2016
424 pp., illus. 76 col. Trade: $108.00; paper, $40.46
ISBN: 978-0-7735-4811-4; ISBN: 978-0-7735-4812-1
Visitors of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are immediately and inevitably struck by the combination of two cultural facts: the apparent invisibility of contemporary art, whatever this term may mean, and the no less visible ubiquity of kitsch, mostly in the form of Sunday painters and photographers landscape paintings and pictures for sale in hotel lobbies and countless little galleries around the tourist venues. This colorful, naïve and relatively affordable mass production may be charming, at least in foreigners’ eyes, and it undoubtedly reinforces the marketable perception of these regions as untouched by certain excesses of urban and modern civilization, but what do these superficial observations on the art production and allegedly authentic taste of the common people actually mean? The challenging study of Erin Morton, professor of history at the University of New Brunswick, shows not only how deceiving these impressions are, they also demonstrate that a better understanding of what really happens when folk art comes so much to the fore has a lot to tell about art, culture, and politics in general. Morton’s book is indeed a meticulous examination of the larger framework and network that helps understand the many hidden aspects of the emergence of certain forms of popular culture as folk art.
The theoretical basis of Morton’s book relies on two pillars. First of all, the author’s approach of art and culture is strongly determined by the idea of presentism, that is the fact that present-day perspectives inform and thus change the representation and the interpretation of the past; it is a kind of bias that prevents us of seeing the past as something that has to be seen as radically different from the present. In this case, the contact with folk art in today’s culture becomes part of a larger phenomenon of cultural nostalgia and its projection of modern longing and desires on cultural artefacts and practices that are misread and misunderstood. Second, Morton’s interpretation of folk art is systematically put in relationship with the history of capitalism, in this case the two most recent phases in the transformation of capitalism which are “late capitalism” (well-known in cultural interpretations thanks to Frederic Jameson’s work on postmodernism) and “neoliberalism”, the former characterized by the dismantling of classic hierarchies, the latter by the increasing privatization of the public domain.
In light of this double theoretical framework, economical on the one hand, historical on the other hand, Morton advances—and brilliantly illustrates—her main thesis that the emergence of folk art in Nova Scotia, a longtime very rural province, was not something that happened spontaneously, but that it was the result of a complex set of converging historical, political, and institutional changes that reshaped art and culture in the decade 1967–1977. These changes had to do with the growing entanglement of culture and tourism, the sudden public intervention in the field of art, the rapid modernization and technologization of all aspects of life in Nova Scotia, the unforeseen but highly influential appearance of cultural entrepreneurs in the area, and finally the crisis of modern art in the rest of Canada and the Western world, which not only made room for folk art as well as the production of “contemporary” folk art, explicitly made to cater to new audiences belonging to completely different worlds, but which made the “folk art turn” almost a necessity, at least from a commercial and economic point of view.
The close reading of all these aspects offers a complex yet always very cautious and nuanced approach of the work of mainly woodcarvings and paintings by well-known and obscure self-taught makers. It displays a subtle understanding of how this “art” was suddenly positioned and redefined as “folk art”. On the one hand, Morton also gives an extremely well-thought contextual analysis of the artists and artefacts that she studies: the personal history of the people that suddenly appear in the no longer anonymous field of folk art is scrupulously interrogated by replacing it in the larger context of a wide range of institutions, public as well as private, for profit as well as for non-profit, local as well as national and international, cultural as well as economic. On the other hand, Morton’s book has a strong sense of the historical transformations of works, practices, and discourses on folk art, and her study testifies of great archival research qualities.
Most artists, authors, critics, curators, politicians, journalists, buyers, collectors, institutions, museums, schools, etc. mentioned in this book are probably totally unknown outside the little or big world of folk art under scrutiny in this book—and there may be good chances that this will always remain the case. But the mechanisms that Morton studies have an almost universal value, such as the relationship between art and cultural policies, the shifting transformations of the discourse and appreciation of art over time, the semantic and ideological complexity of a notion such as value, the convergent as well as divergent interests of all actors in the field, the importance of power relationships in the cultural field, in short the impossibility to accept that art, be it the special type of art that is folk art, can exist just “for art’s sake”—all these questions are carefully discussed in this passionately committed book that deserves a wide readership.