The following post was written by Jill Rudy, a Faculty Fellow for the Center.
As a folklorist, I recognize this year’s Humanities Center theme, The Work of Art, resonates with issues of memorable and mundane learning. Is art something we must travel to see and to admire? Is it unique, costly, and rare? Does it exist simply for its own sake? Can art be part of the everyday? Is it common, free, and abundant? If art teaches or works, if art is functional, is it less art and more craft? Is art for everyone? All these yes/no questions imply a multitude of answers. Mine revolve around the relationship of art and life.
The Humanities Center theme accentuates the work element which suggests that art accomplishes something for someone. While in many ways art is an important universal given, art also remains an historical and social construct. Gerald Pocius identifies the Renaissance and colonialism with a converging Western secularism, individualism, and elitism that distinguished art and genius from a medieval understanding of skill and divine order and with a Eurocentric understanding of primitive others.[i] Constructing the term does not grant exclusive rights to creativity and an aesthetic impulse.
Dividing art from excellence is difficult, perhaps impossible. Henry Glassie asserts, “Art is what is best, deepest, richest in every culture,”[ii] yet he also reminds, “Art is thinking and it is doing. It comes out of plans and it comes out of thousands of decisions and reactions made as things unfold out of plans in unanticipated and accidental ways.”[iii] Studying in the humanities affirms that since art comes from thinking, planning, doing, deciding, and adapting, its reception should also involve those acts.
As students and advocates of people’s learning, folklorists remember that “we all strive for the skill to create forms that illuminate the human complexities of daily living.”[iv] The forms folklorists love may be verbal, customary, and material—preferring those that are traditional. This means expressions learned and shared through personal, situated interaction that repeats and varies through group sanction. Proverbs, tales, rites of passage, holiday celebrations, quilts, birthday cakes, and pottery are a few of those forms.
Thinking of traditional forms expressed through daily living, the yearly round of holidays and seasons, and the rites of the human life cycle, folklorists gravitate toward an art that is selectively skilled, keenly evaluated, and utterly common. The work of this art is getting children to put toys away by singing the “Clean Up” song. It is teaching a lesson without giving a lecture by aptly inserting, “Don’t count your chicks before they’ve hatched,” into a friendly conversation. It is laughing and crying about a favorite story. It is marking “us” from “them” by telling an ethnic joke or sharing a conspiracy theory. It is acknowledging the onset of winter with a Halloween costume and the coming of spring with a dance. It is holding an infant up toward the congregation and placing a flower, a rock, a beverage, or a meal on a gravestone.
Bert Wilson acknowledges this relationship of traditional forms shared in apt situations as behavior modification and world building. He asserts, “Through the things people make with their words, hands, and actions, they attempt to create a social world more to their own liking.”[v] This art works to change minds and to confirm continuities. He writes that when people “tell a story, or make a quilt, or perform an initiation ceremony, they are usually attempting, through the power of artistically successful forms, to influence the way people act, including at times themselves.”[vi] This observation links tradition with rhetoric and denotes the persuasive possibilities and consequences of any art work.
This work intentionally and unintentionally identifies individuals with groups and provides worldviews and ways of knowing and believing. Can a work of art be a mentor? My mentors, including Bert Wilson, still serve as guides who ask questions, make suggestions, and open up possibilities that I wouldn’t have noticed by myself. Art can do that.
Since the 1970s, fairy tales have been scrutinized particularly for the possibility that, though imaginative fictions, they provide scripts for living. Alison Lurie[vii] advocated heroines as proactive models for women, referring to lesser known folk tales, while Marcia Lieberman[viii] countered with a withering critique of Disney versions. Decades later, the debate continues over if, how, or how much, the stories and other arts and media we read, listen to, and view may actually influence individual and collective attitudes, beliefs, values, and decisions.
Research my Fairy Tales on Television (FTTV) students recently presented at the Western States Folklore Society meeting at UC Berkeley takes up some of these questions of the real-life work of stories. Ariel Peterson demonstrated that fairy godmothers, as portrayed in movies, tend to be fat and witless which discriminates by connecting body type and intelligence. Lauren Redding’s analysis of fairy tale mash ups in children’s television found that shows always feature female characters but not always males. Preston Wittwer toured television commercials since the 1950s looking for innovative, rather than clichéd, uses of tales to pitch products. The pop-up ads in his YouTube clips implicitly demonstrated how pervasive and targeted advertising has become.
In every case, whether films, shows, or commercials, audiences see fairy tale characters working through human difficulties in productions that tap into powerful traditional forms that therefore should be evaluated on being “aesthetically appropriate to the particular situation.”[ix] The work of art rewards skillful expression and creativity and invites scrutiny and accountability because, as Wilson also observes, “Art, music, literature, and dance come into being not when we move beyond necessity but when we move to a deeper necessity, to the deeper human need to create order, beauty, and meaning out of chaos.”[x] Complicities of chaos and creation manifest as art forms with the mundane acts and ultimate practices that work into everlasting lives.
[i] Pocius, “Art.” Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, edited by Burt Feintuch, U of Illinois P, 2003, 44-48.
[ii] Glassie, The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 39.
[iii] Ibid., 41.
[iv] Pocius, 60.
[v] Wilson, The Marrow of Human Experience. Utah State UP, 2006, 87.
[vi] Ibid, 87.
[vii] Lurie, “Fairy Tale Liberation.” New York Review of Books, 17 Dec. 1970: 42-44.
[viii] Lieberman, “’Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” College English 34.3 (1972): 383-395.
[ix] Dell Hymes, “Folklore’s Nature and the Sun’s Myth.” Journal of American Folklore 88.350 (1975): 345-69.
[x] Wilson, 13.