Few art collectors have achieved the notoriety of Bill Arnett. The subject of a controversial episode of the popular American television show 60 Minutes, and currently the focus of a sensationalised ‘non-fiction novel,’ The Last Folk Hero, Arnett has been portrayed for years by some as a dark and satanic figure, a ‘king of outsider art’ who had taken advantage of unsuspecting folk artists and manipulated the art market, he has recently been viewed as a hero after orchestrating the wildly popular exhibition of African American quilts, ‘The Quilts of Gee’s Bend’.
Arnett’s reputation, and the stories told about him, are larger than life; for in the popular imagination he has become a mythical figure who represents not only controversial issues in the world of American folk art, but a challenge to established views of American identity and democracy. To understand how this is the case and what it says about Arnett and American society, we need a little historical perspective.
American folk art was discovered in the early decades of the twentieth century during a period of cultural transformation. Confronted with unprecedented changes like the expansion of industrial technology, developing corporate capitalism and the rise of the city, many Americans experienced a crisis in personal and social identity and struggled to develop new means of understanding themselves and their place in the world.
Battered by the forces of change, some Americans retreated into conservative ideologies and practices to combat cultural transformation by attempting to avoid or deny it. The discovery and promotion of American folk art was one such practice, and it represents, in many ways, a process which is still going on today.
Central to this retreat was an attempt to deny growing class divisions and the massive immigration of peoples of non Western-European origin. Middle and upper class Americans sought refuge in a myth of cultural homogeneity, the idea of the great melting pot of democracy. Yet the model for this American democratic identity was white and Anglo-Saxon, excluding people of colour. This exclusionary view was reflected in American folk art. Said by museum curator Holger Cahill to be the representative art of America, folk art was made largely by Americans of Anglo Saxon descent.