Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

“But, you know, that’s a part of poverty—not having the time for what we call ‘the higher things in life.’…If you’re poor, you just don’t have time for Shakespeare.” —Gene Klavan, host of Voices of VISTA Episode No. 147

Guest: William Shatner

“The best piece I ever made…It was a woman, Eve was at the tree here and there was an old snag here and she was bent over and holding two limbs and Adam was pokin’ it to her behind. And there was a snake down under her coiled up over this limb here and had her by the tit….I’ve had a hundred calls for that damn piece.”

—Edgar Tolson

In Gene Klavan’s patronizing terms, woodcarver Edgar Tolson was so poor he didn’t have time for Shakespeare. Yet when he died in 1984 at age 80, he had spent the better part of two decades as an artist. The journey of an unemployed ex-preacher from drunken obscurity in Wolfe County, Ky., to still-drunken renown at the center of the burgeoning field of contemporary folk art is one of the most fascinating and fraught tales of the anything-goes art world of the 1970s. But this Appalachian saga had never been told well or in full until journalist-turned-scholar Julia S. Ardery made it the subject of her doctoral dissertation. Using storytelling where it’s appropriate, theory where it’s helpful, and dogged research everywhere else, she repeatedly turns over the stone of Edgar Tolson’s tale, but it resists being rubbed smooth.

The story, as Ardery sees it, is not so much that of the man as of the idea of contemporary folk art as something distinct from craft, mainstream contemporary art, and pre-20th-century folk art. And it starts with Mr. Klavan’s employer, the Volunteers in Service to America, a War on Poverty-era domestic Peace Corps charged with easing the lot of the inhabitants of the U.S.A.’s own slice of the Third World. The VISTA kids thought it would be a good idea for the mountain folk to make a little money selling crafts. Tolson had whittled all his life, so his carvings were naturally included in sales such as the fair held in May 1967 by the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, where Miriam Tuska, the wife of a University of Kentucky professor, noticed his work. The following year, Tolson appeared at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, and back home he met Michael Hall, another Kentucky prof, who would later become his dealer.

It is with these early entanglements that Tolson’s tale gets complicated, and naive notions of purity and authenticity start to fall away. We can expect such ideas to take a beating at the hands of a recent grad student, to whom postmodern analytical concepts are like mother’s milk. We can also count on encountering the concept of history as narrative—or, rather, multiple narratives. But Ardery has wisely chosen a subject that doesn’t resist such theoretical apparatus; in fact, Tolson’s story requires it.

Tolson became known for lapsarian biblical tableaux, supposedly heartfelt evocations of his strong but tormented faith. But Ardery reveals that the subject of Adam and Eve was actually either proposed by Tuska and her husband or arrived at by Tolson after the Tuskas suggested he try his hand at nudes. Formal innovation, not spiritual expression, was what the art-schooled couple were after. Tolson’s treatment of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden first appeared in 1968 and may have been inspired by the work of New Mexico carver George López, a fellow Folklife Festival exhibitor whose family had treated the subject since at least the 1920s. Later, as Tolson’s work became widely known, he would carve to order; early exhibition catalogs ended up serving distant collectors as mail-order sales brochures. And Tolson wasn’t too particular about maintaining the high-art image Hall and others had secured for him. Hall once had to step in when Tolson was on the brink of inking a deal to allow plastic replicas of his work to be sold in state park gift shops throughout Kentucky.

Despite myriad similar departures from the myth of the isolated visionary driven to create by his muse, in many an observer’s mind Tolson was the embodiment of the “authentic” folk artist. Inclusion in the 1973 Whitney Biennial and representation by Phyllis Kind did little to change this perception.

Notwithstanding her skill in describing how Tolson’s work was absorbed by the art establishment, Ardery inadvertently lets it be known that this is not her world. (The author biography does call her a sociologist rather than an art historian.) She flubs the names of political installation artist Hans Haacke, Washington dealer Jo Tartt, and once-noted collector Robert Scull, and she credits the Corcoran Gallery of Art with “mounting such controversial work as Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs,” when, in fact, the museum is still reviled in some quarters for reneging on its commitment to his 1989 retrospective.

Ardery’s language draws from the window dressing of the small-town journalist she once was and the argot of the credentialed scholar she has become. She occasionally indulges in ham-fisted imagery (“On the point of this injury, Tolson’s relation to the world began grindingly to rotate”; “Tolson’s ever widening circle of admirers assumed the shape of a trap or noose”) and is profligate in her use of the all-purpose verb “rationalize.” She also adopts a too-dispassionate tone that is the downfall of many an academic work: The thoroughness of her investigation at times emerges as a low-level captiousness simmering beneath her criticisms, establishing a tone that makes it seem as if no philosophical stance is defensible.

But most damaging is the difficulty Ardery has reacting to Tolson’s work as art. Although she relates many curator, critic, and dealer testimonials, she doesn’t venture her own assessment of Tolson’s work. If you ask me, Tolson was a natural for his role, amenable to being exploited and temperamentally distant enough that legends could easily be woven around his colorful past (which involved a prankish church bombing and imprisonment for desertion of his family). His oeuvre had great stylistic integrity; each piece was recognizable as his own (at least until his son Donny came along). But the work itself is rather inexpressive, blank enough to safely be called totemic by commentators of a mythologizing bent, able to absorb whatever intent, satiric or tragic, viewers ascribe to it.

That The Temptation survives its shortcomings is a credit to Ardery’s ability to keep the strands of her story untangled. She examines the Tolson phenomenon from the perspective of relatives, neighbors, champions, opportunists, and do-gooders; she regards the artist himself as a product of geography, economics, accident, art-world power shifts, and personal drives and demons. She provides much of the raw material for future discussions in her field and chronicles the conversation so far. But perhaps because, like many academics who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, she holds out the possibility for substantive political change, she underplays the inevitability of the conflict between the cultures of the folk artist and of his audience, as suggested by her choice of title.

Ardery could have illuminated the unique situation of the visual artist by contrasting his lot with that of, say, the old-time musician, who makes work that cannot be traded for enormous sums and endures and enjoys a virtually nonexistent market, monetarily speaking, for his performances. The visual artist can suffer cultural dislocations back home if somewhere out in the world merely the context of his work changes, whereas the old-time (in musical circles, this term is preferred over “folk,” which describes another beast entirely) musician risks same only if he starts playing something mainstream listeners want to hear. To be a successful contemporary folk artist is to be a successful contemporary artist, with all that title implies, from an escalating resale market to the buzzing of interpreters who swarm your work as soon as it leaves the studio.

In her conclusion, Ardery returns to her title metaphor: “There arises a temptation: to take refuge in private sacrifice, philanthropy, and the eloquent object, which in its beauty and immediacy promises a gateway, heretofore invisible, back into the garden. Folk art ultimately may lead away from rather than toward the goal of justice owing to its suggestion of such a shortcut.” What she misses is that this danger is inevitable because of what visual art is. If all the circumstances of a person’s life are conditioned by poverty, it’s impossible to introduce any significant amount of money into the equation without uprooting the person. And since the work of art is a physical, salable thing that distinguishes the artist from those who cannot do what he does, few other people are going to be brought along for the ride.

We may never come up with a satisfactory taxonomy for the work of artists who are separated from the mainstream—even an avant-garde mainstream—by birth, class, schooling, and mental state, but all our stumbling efforts at labeling persist precisely because they are somehow useful. (One exhibit title, “Contemporary American Folk and Naive Art: An Exhibition of the Personal Visions of Self-Taught Artists,” manages to touch on most of them.) That the handiest of such tools, the idea of “contemporary folk art,” also proves philosophically untenable should perhaps surprise us less than it does. We still need to be able to point to those things we can’t fully assimilate—even if the terms we use do little more than manifest the strangeness of what remains tantalizingly foreign to us.

Theorists have tired of talking about “the Other” since its heyday several years ago. In more charitable moments, I like to think it is because they have come to realize not only that Otherness is inevitable and ineradicable, but that it is glorious. If all were knowable from within, there would be little intellectual adventure in the world. All our metaphors for such questing would melt away: There would be no picaresque tradition, no travel—literal or metaphorical—nothing in folk tales sending innocents out to seek their fortunes. It’s good that there are people like Ardery around to outfit us with knowledge of our prejudices before we set out, but we shouldn’t let the ineluctability of our biases keep us from the trip. CP