CHERYL BELL: Your book, For Folk’s Sake: Art and Economy in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, is coming out this autumn. Can you talk about how the idea for it developed and the main objective you had in writing it?
ERIN MORTON: I became interested in the concept of “folk art” growing up in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, near the birthplace of the self-taught painter Maud Lewis. In the early 2000s, discussions were taking place around creating a new branch of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia there. I was struck by conversations surrounding Maud Lewis and the role she played in helping to justify the creation of the Western Branch of the agns. Lewis had become famous outside of Nova Scotia by this time, partly thanks to media such as cbc radio and television interviews with her in the 1960s and a National Film Board documentary in 1976, and partly due to a touring 1997 retrospective of her work by the agns. I wanted to better understand the discrepancy between the mythology of the self-taught or “folk” artist and the mechanics of the elite art world, and how this was manifested in Nova Scotia in particular.
A lot of patrons and private collectors have constructed a “discovery narrative” of folk art, which is the perception that a collector can come into contact with a self-taught artist, declare his or her work to be art in terms that the art world understands, and then put it in a public art gallery. Lewis died in 1970 and in 1976 the inaugural public museum treatment of her work at the agns took place in an exhibition entitled Folk Art of Nova Scotia. There was a set of art historians, professional artists, collectors, and curators who wanted to elevate her work to this fine art context. At the same time, these cultural elites needed those whom they imagined as “folk” to be appropriately naïve and isolated. This is part of the romanticization of folk art, in which self-taught artists such as Lewis are perceived to be noble in their poverty. This doesn’t acknowledge the economic reality of rural workers during the late 20th century, who, by the 1970s, were the largest poverty group in Nova Scotia.
CB: What about the connection between folk art and outsider art and the idea that both are constructs created by the art institutions?
EM: In the context of Nova Scotia and Canada, and extending into the larger North American context, the concept of folk art is tied to the mythology of benevolent European settler colonialism. What this means is that there is a myth that rural, typically white, self-taught artists are tied to the land and to the lifestyles of the past two centuries in ways that contemporary trained artists are not. In other words, art critics often understand historical self-taught artists such as Lewis as representing a simpler time, but the mythology of what makes this time “simple” is actually quite complex. What historians know is that the late capitalist period in which Lewis worked was anything but simple, and, more broadly, that the need to define Nova Scotia and Canada as a folk society is deeply connected to advancing mythologies about peaceful European settlement there and also erasing the historical Indigenous presence and ownership of the land that is now within Canada’s contested borders.
Outsider art is a term that the British art historian Roger Cardinal coined in 1972 as an English-language category for the French concept art brut. The term outsider art now operates as a catch-all phrase for artists that the sociologist Gary Alan Fine describes as lacking “social capital”. Critics and collectors often want to determine the boundaries of exclusion, and this isn’t unique to ideas about folk art or outsider art.
CB: Why is there an apparent need for artists to be perceived as outside the mainstream, even as the art world is busily making them part of the mainstream?
EM: A lot of art historians, collectors, and curators are interested in the concept of folk art from both a social and an aesthetic perspective. So it is a top-down category that has been created by cultural elites. And often self-taught artists also adopt it. Art history is a discipline that is built around elite institutions like museums, art galleries, and universities. Part of the appeal of outsider art and folk art as categories is that elites define it according to its supposed separation from these elite art spaces that elites also ironically build and participate in.
The well-known Canadian art historian and curator J. Russell Harper curated the first major folk art survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 1973, which did a lot to validate folk art as a category in a fine art context. Yet the folk art category had been in play in Canadian public art discourse for decades before that. So on the one hand you have people mourning what they see as a lost folkloric past that is dead in the contemporary moment, and on the other hand there is always a new writer, curator, or critic who will define new iterations of folk art in the present.
CB: How do you feel about the way in which Nova Scotia folk art has been connected to the Nova Scotia tourism industry?
EM: In his seminal book, The Quest of the Folk, Canadian historian Ian McKay argues that the conception of Nova Scotia as a purer, simpler folk society was largely invented by middle-class cultural elites, taken up by both locals and tourists to the province. He looks at two Nova Scotia heroes, Helen Creighton and Mary Black, and considers how they either mythologized or outright invented a folk history in the early 20th century, Creighton through collecting songs and Black through inventing handicrafts. Others, like the NS premier Angus MacDonald, also expanded ideas about the province’s foundations in Scottish heritage, which was part of building a tourism economy and industry there (including the provincial highway system) during the 1930s. These are the kinds of historical contexts that connected folklore in the province to mythic notions of European heritage rather than to actual histories of settler colonial violence there. Folk art has a romance that is appealing to tourism for a reason, because it presents a very appealing version of the past.
CB: Can you talk about your statement that objects labelled folk art helped to shape a politics of the past – what you refer to as “historical presentism” – and refers to past changes in the cultural cycles of capitalism?
EM: Historical presentism is a term that I adopted from the literary theorist Lauren Berlant’s concept of the historical present. It refers to the belief that it is impossible to look at the past without your own presentist perspective shaping that looking. This is also connected to the history of capitalism. There is often a perception that certain periods were a “golden age”. To use one example that is always in the media, the filmmaker Michael Moore often describes the Fordist phase of capitalism (named after industrialist Henry Ford because of the supposed efficiency he employed in his car factories) as a golden age when capitalism was better for workers and for society at large. This leads us to look at the post-war capitalist era through a lens that is not entirely accurate. That period was not really great for everyone, especially women, queer folks, and folks who weren’t white. often people worked in poorly paid factory jobs, or, in the case of rural non-factory workers in Nova Scotia, their incomes went down. Yet the perception of the past as a better time drives the desire for folk art. And we see it in the way that Maud Lewis’s work is usually described as happy and cheerful, such in the 1976 nfb film about her life, Maud Lewis: World Without Shadows. The title says it all.
CB: Is folk art and outsider art defined – and destroyed – by being institutionalised and turned into something marketable?
EM: The question I would ask is where is the centre of these categories and who determines it? Is the process of determining these terms ultimately marginalising? I am less interested in thinking about which categories are still viable than I am in asking who needs these categories in the first place. As an art historian at a university, I am self-aware of my own position as an elite who helps to determine the terms by which people define art.
CB: What is the future for folk art and other forms of outsider art?
EM: No question, art institutions like the Beaverbrook Art Gallery are today engaging the public and generating interest in their collections through these terms, often with a critical lens. Mireille Eagan, the curator of contemporary art at The Rooms, recently curated an exhibition called Folklore and Other Panics. These kinds of shows are important to our critical understanding of these terms and what we do with them.