Cultural Traditions and the Value of Folk Art

Folk art tends to be filled with culture. The design and the purpose is as much about the community surrounding the artist as it is about the technique or relative marketability of the art (artists have to make a living too!). People don’t buy and display garden gnomes because they are excellent examples of artistic form, they buy them because they are good luck charms and fun representations of European mythology and tradition. I love that.

Traditional Garden Gnome on Etsy

Unfortunately, the cultural emphasis has a tendency to devalue some amazing forms of art based on westernized perspectives. For example, European folk art tends to be higher valued (e.g.: more costly) than South American pottery. In an honest apples-to-apples comparison, a European garden gnome, a Mexican terracotta chicken garden planter and an Italian terracota garden planter are on an equal artistic level. They serve similar purposes and require (approximately) similar levels and types of skills to create. Yet, a quick google shopping search for these categories of items returns decorative Italian planters that range from $30 to several hundred, Mexican planters ranging from $10 to about $200, and garden gnomes ranging from $10 to about $200.

Non-traditional garden gnome on Etsy

From a resale perspective, my own experience has shown that good condition garden gnomes will usually fetch a higher price than Mexican pottery – even when the gnomes are clearly factory made and mass marketed. Also, anything officially identified as Italian tends to be automatically placed in a higher price bracket. Why? Several reasons: 1) Average middle-income white Americans view garden gnomes as safe no-offensive gifts and (sometimes) household essentials. 2) The word Italian is associated with things only accessible to the upper class (e.g.: cars, suits, etc). 3) Mexican pottery is associated with low cost tourist mementos.

I will leave the racial, cultural, cultural appropriation and class-system based discussions to another person (or another day). For now, I will move the focus away from garden gnomes and terracotta pots to sand art and clay whistles.

Ocarina Whistle on Wild Raccoon Market

Both sand art and ocarina whistles tend to be attributed to Native American tribes, particularly those living in the southwestern United States.

Ocarina whistles have a history spanning the entire world – Native American flutes look and sound very different.

Sand art is a Navajo tradition. Sandpaintings are amazing. I can’t even imagine how it is done, much less done well. Nationally recognized artists can fetch a good price for their work and I’ve seen a few that are simply stunning.

Sadly, in the used items market, the reality is that sandpaintings tend to be associated with low-cost tourist trinkets and head-shops (read: businesses catering to people who smoke marijuana). Therefore, they can be hard to sell at an appropriate price, in a general marketplace (e.g.: standard flea markets and resale shops).

The most frustrating thing about this is the fact that it’s a matter of (white) cultural perspective – garden gnomes are appropriate for good upstanding families and sandpaintings are displayed by wild teens and college students. When the wild youth settles down and starts a family, the sandpaintings are replaced with garden gnomes.

Navajo Sandpainting on Wild Raccoon Market

I would like to say this is a distinctly Midwestern presumption and attitude, but I haveĀ  traveled all of the lower 48 states and lived in every region (time zone) this country has – in the lower 48 (my hopes of visiting Alaska and Hawaii have not yet been realized). In my solitary-person experience with different communities, people and regional used items markets, these perspectives are pretty consistent nation wide.

It’s also an excellent example of a problem that extends to all forms of art: (de)value by ownership association. An amazing painting owned and cared for by person X will be summarily refused by person Y because of the time spent under the care of person X. Sometimes this is because person X has a bad reputation and sometimes it is because person X has a GOOD reputation. Effectively, person Y does not want to be: 1) associated with person X, 2) seen owning person X’s discarded decor and/or 3) known as the person who paid good money for person X’s vacation-find.

If you have ever wondered why some second-hand chain stores (the Goodwill included) will move large quantities of items across country, effectively selling slightly-different versions of the exact same stuff, here’s an explanation: breaking ownership association is one of the many key aspects to making used items easier to sell.

Art rescue is as much about the often perplexing perspectives of human beings and society’s entirely illogical value-system as it is about preventing quality and beauty from experiencing a dreadful and unwarranted death at the local dump.

As an individual actively involved in art rescue and a fan of all forms of folk art, I challenge you to try and divorce the art from the owner. The quality of an object should not be exclusively determined by ownership history…items previously owned by famous or historic people notwithstanding (that is an entirely different conversation).

Respect Artists Tees

Wild Raccoon Press on Zazzle

Also, inappropriate cultural association is something that should be challenged. Thousands of years of Native American tradition cannot be dispensed with because a few (mostly white) people happen to like both sand paintings and recreational drugs. Equally lengthy Mexican traditions also cannot be tossed away simply because American’s habitually take their summer vacations in the area.

Think about it. Comment on it. Blog about it (send me the links). But, whatever you choose to do, respect the art and the artist.

Respect.

Always.

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