Avant-garde and modernist artists often sought critical alternatives to modernity in folk cultural forms. In their attempts to reconcile “high” and “low” culture, these artists located their work within purportedly authentic traditions beyond the pale of cosmopolitan modernity, offering antidotes to the social, cultural, and economic problems of their present through recourse to cultural materials distant in space and time. At the same time, the emergence of an ethnographic turn within the social sciences offered to catalogue and archive materials from rapidly disappearing vernacular cultures. This panel seeks papers that interrogate this critical juncture between avant-garde practice and the ethnographic attitude regarding folk and vernacular cultures. How do vernacular traditions supply avant gardes including dada and surrealism, as well as “renaissances” in Irish and African-American writing, with the tantalizing ideal of a social reality outside modern bourgeois society characterized by its alternate modes of (aesthetic) production? How do avant-garde practitioners adopt/appropriate vernacular traditions and folk styles such as the blues, ballads, storytelling, and the like as a means of critiquing urban-industrial modernity? How are labels such as “folk,” “vernacular,” “ethnic,” or “outsider” applied to artists and writers assumed to exist outside networks of modern, cosmopolitan cultural production—and how do these labels become misleading?
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