Identity Art: The Social and Aesthetic Market for Contemporary "Folk" Art

May, 2000

From the introduction:

To understand the structure of the world of self-taught art means taking into account the considerations of the market and of the professional infrastructure that surrounds the market. In this argument, my attention will not only be focused upon the creator of folk art, but also on those who surround the artist. The standard model of an economic market focuses on minimally three social roles: the producer, distributor/seller, and purchaser/consumer. Indeed, in some worlds the producer and the distributor are the same (for instance, those who run roadside markets, in which they sell their own produce). In the art world, these roles are labeled: the artist (the producer of the object), the dealer (the distributor of the object), and the collector (the purchaser of the object). Various art fairs, such as Kentuck, are designed to collapse the first two categories. Within many art worlds the third category can be divided as to whether the purchaser is an individual or a representative of a corporate entity. In the later case we speak of "curators." Finally, in art worlds (and in other social worlds linked to expressive culture) we find a fifth category of actors, the critics -- an individual typically affiliated with a cultural institution (a journal or a university). Critics are as a formal matter outside of the art market (although they may also be artists, dealers, collectors, or curators); their job is to serve as gatekeepers for the art market either by evaluating recent creations (as in the case of reviewers) or long-term trends (as in the case of art historians). While different segments of the art world give different weight and different elaboration to these roles, they tend to characterize all art markets (In general, lower-status art world segments [decorative art, regional art, portraiture] tend to have a less well-developed curatorial or critical apparatus).

I propose to examine each of these players within the world of self-taught art to determine the characteristics of this market. I shall not focus, as a sociologist, on the qualities of the work itself, but shall keep my attention tightly focused on social structure.

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