Fall/Winter 1999 Newsletter
Authenticity and Kitsch:
A Hungarian-American embroiderer revisits the folk art of her native land
I have a long-term interest in kitsch in the context of art history and in the issues of what is so-called "good taste" and who decides what is good art. I will further elaborate on kitsch and folk art. My examples and conclusions are based on my experiences and exposure to how these themes play out in Hungary, although I believe the situation is similar in most Eastern European countries.
The ownership of art objects reveals information about the owners wealth, taste, education, and social status; these cannot be foreseen without visiting ones home. My interest in this issue started in early childhood while listening to snickering comments by grown-ups (not my parents) about other peoples taste. Calling somebodys decorations "kitschy" was a negative label, which made long term social contact with them undesirable.
Living here in the United States it was interesting to observe visiting Hungarians coming into my house and sighing a sound of relief that my living room was "tastefully decorated." What they didnt know was that I hid every kitschy item I owned before people with "taste" came to visit. At one point however, I started to feel guilty about removing trinkets that were given to me by friends and relatives; some of them had passed away by then. Finally, I began to question the right of other people to judge my taste.
The worry about kitsch or tastelessness is not limited to the fine art objects found in city homes; it is also an issue in regard to folk art. Folk art is regional in its native land; it is the decorative art of a rural community shaped by centuries of tradition. In Hungary, the art of the village folk became popular with city folks, especially artists, at the end of the nineteenth century when they started to visit the villages and discovered the simple beauty of the items made by the villagers. Since villagers lived meagerly, many well-intentioned middle class dignitaries made it their cause to uplift the life of the poor villagers by turning the pretty home decorations into a moneymaking venture.
It is a good question whether cranking out embroideries or painted objects fast was any less strenuous or more economical than working in the fields. Nevertheless, it was one more way of making money. These items made good souvenirs, and folk embroidery was brought into vogue to decorate city homes. In this transformation, the embroideries had to lose their original function because they had no function in city life.
The ownership of folk art items was upheld as admirable by the government. It was equated with the expression of national pride and indicated the exceptional good taste of the owner. These items were also moderately priced in comparison with art objects.
When folk art became widely popular, its production became a profitable cottage industry. In the twentieth century, regional folk art styles became widely known throughout the country. Artisans from outside the traditional artistic communities began producing imitations altering style, coloring, and materials to suit the buyers taste and to make the production cost efficient.
I have been interested in studying and practicing Hungarian folk art embroidery for a very long time and have become knowledgeable about it. At one point I realized that folk art embroideries in the illustrations of scholarly books looked different than the store-bought embroidery patterns from Hungary with which I worked. Since I considered my embroideries to be real folk art, I started to wonder how my own work fared in comparison to original pieces created in traditional Hungarian villages. My curiosity was satisfied when I took a tour in the fall of 1998 to study with famous folk embroiderers in Hungary. Yes indeed, my embroideries were done in a watered-down folk art style which was reinterpreted in design and coloring to suit the taste of the city populace. I came to accept that I couldnt recreate authentic folk art pieces. The aprons and headpieces made in the villages had no function in my life; I would not use them or wear them to mass on Sundays. Besides, the original embroidery is so tiny and intricate compared to the patterns I had been using, I doubted I could replicate it.
During this trip, I couldnt help but notice the importance Hungarian folk artists and professionals put on the approximate quality and authenticity of Hungarian folk art. A folk art style is not static but changes are instituted slowly. The changes are accepted or rejected by the community not by only one person. Even though most folk art areas are identified by certain characteristics, the issue of authenticity is not that simple. In most regions defined by a particular style of folk art, various segments of the population have different taste. A professional folk artist has his or her own individual style yet formulates the decoration according to the clienteles requirements; the same folk artist uses different colors and imagery at different times. To add to the confusion, several styles are practiced in any given folk art area. For instance in the village of Buzsák in Hungary, besides the well known "hearts and roses," the "bewitching embroidery" and appliqué work also flourish, yet the latter two are almost never discussed in scholarly literature.
While upholding the quality and authenticity of folk art has been an issue since the 1920s, it was the communist government that institutionalized a quality-control body to regulate the folk art industry. A filtering body of knowledgeable critics, the "jury," was formed to inspect the quality of folk art. Their approval meant higher prices for an artists wares. Disapproval was a "buyer beware" signal. People named to the jury supposedly had expertise in their fields. For instance, a well-known lace maker and lace researcher was named to pass judgement on laces. The jury has nine members so when they vote on the acceptance of an item the vote is never a tie. The president of the jury invites people to become members. Jury members are paid for their services, but membership is rotated; not always the same people participate.
An artist needs 15 category B classifications to become a Master Craftsman. Having 20 is a lot because artists become tired of sending in their work to be classified. By last year, master folk costume tailor and embroidery designer Judith Erdész had earned 136 classification Bs only because she took the trouble to turn in her work to be judged. The jury system might seem on the surface to be an ideal solution to regulate the cottage folk art industry, however it has serious problems.
Our embroidery study tour walked around with the president of the jury in the Great Folk Art Fair in Buda. It was obvious that she embodied power. Everybody smiled at her and greeted her with friendship. Her good will assured future invitations to the lucrative folk art fair. I stopped by a Transylvanian tole painters booth to purchase an item. I heard later that the head of the quality monitoring body was shocked to find out that the mans wares included several styles of painted wooden objects rather than classical Hungarian colors and styles exclusively. In the painters native village, three ethnic populations live together and order painted items, each to their taste. The folk artist brought all the wares he sells. For that he might pay by not being invited again to participate in the fair.
This incident exposed for me the main problem with the quality regulating issue. In Hungary, scholarly studies examining the development of individual folk art styles usually refer to a pinnacle or "classical phase." Everything is held up to what the authority considers to be the classical phase. Many times the jury members are asked to judge outside of their area of expertise or their competitors. A bobbin lace scholar might not have the expertise to pass good judgement on needle-made laces. Consequently, sometimes less than perfect decisions result, which bewilders the producer of folk art and sometimes promotes the works of less talented entrepreneurs.
In the United States the issue of what is good folk art is more complicated than meets the eye. Basically, the issue can broken down into two points; what is considered to be folk art by the organizers of festivals and what is considered to be folk art by the ethnic community.
A lot more craftspeople are accepted as folk artists by United States standards. At a typical folk arts and crafts festival or festival of nations, a less talented folk artist stands to make the same income from his or her work as a highly talented one. Someone decorating eggs with magic marker in a sort of generalized Hungarian style is as accepted by the festival audience as an artist who uses the traditional wax and dye method and designs; and she may even make more sales. A craftsperson making simplistic embroideries in decorator colors may be more popular than one sticking to the traditional patterns and colors. Even when a professional folklorist is involved in choosing festival participants, he or she is more likely to look at issues of community and connection than of artistic excellence and the artists fidelity to the practices of a particular regional folk style (I am speaking here of artists from immigrant communities).
Members of the ethnic community snicker at an artisans work if it is not up to standards accepted in their native region. To be truthful, however, there are few real folk artists who work in a single regional style in the Hungarian immigrant communities in the United States. Unlike the earlier, pre-World War I communities, which were commonly composed of people from one village or region, present-day Hungarian-American communities are no longer homogeneous; they are made up of people from all parts of Hungary. Embroiderers here are more likely to have learned from books or examples of embroidered work than from a traditional village artist, and they are likely to practice the styles of many regions of Hungary. The quality of work of secondary folk artiststhose who learned from books and examplesdoesnt hold up to the standards of specific regional styles in the native land.
In both Hungary and in the United States judgement on the question of what is folk art is made by experts. The quality-control body is more formally organized in Hungary; membership is based on previous background in the field. In the United States, individual folklorists who pass judgement on and make decisions about quality are a lot more accepting. The interesting question emerges of whether folk art quality should be better monitored in the United States, and is there any harm if it is not? Should customers who buy folk art be protected from tastelessness/kitsch or do they have the right to their preference in colors and design elements however tasteless?
Eniko Farkas is a skilled Hungarian-American embroiderer and one of the leading experts in this country on the subject of traditional Hungarian embroidery. She teaches embroidery, and has written correspondence courses and articles about it. Her work has been featured in many exhibitions, and she is in demand as a speaker and demonstrator. She has also conducted numerous oral history interviews with Hungarian-Americans in New York State. Eniko holds a BA degree in art history from Cornell University. She was featured as a community scholar in the summer 1998 newsletter, and her last contribution, “Crossing the Border: Stories of the 56ers” appeared in that same issue.
When folk art became widely popular, its production became a profitable cottage industry. In the twentieth century, regional folk art styles became widely known through the country. Artisans from outside the traditional artistic communites began producing imitations altering style, coloring, and materials to suit the buyers' taste and to make the production cost efficient.
Transylvanian tole painter, Castle of Buda, 1998, St. Stephens Day Great Folk Art Fair. Photograph by Eniko Farkas.
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