i make therefore i am

Posted on Feb 21, 2012

A few years back I had the good fortune to write this piece for Gadfly Magazine, a profile of Henry Glassie—  author, artist, folklorist and friend. The best part of the experience was the near 90 minutes I spent on the phone chatting with Henry about his life, his work, and the ideas of art and creation. He is one of the most insightful and inspiring scholars I have known. Henry is now Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.


“I Make Therefore I Am”

FOLKLORE: That middle ground of experience and wisdom where history, art, culture and tradition weave together like the individual threads in a magnificent loom. It is the realm of the artist, the storyteller, the musician, the craftsman, the architect—anyone who humble themselves before the very act of creation. No one is more familiar with this magical realm than Henry Glassie, the world’s preeminent folklorist.

A professor at Indiana University, Glassie has spent a lifetime making sense of the sheer act of making itself: getting at the humanity behind the things people create. A student of material culture—”culture made material”—Glassie believes that the creation of art undergirds our shared experience as human beings. His most celebrated books, among them Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, Passing the Time in Ballymenone and Turkish Traditional Art Today, are required reading in universities around the world.

“Our responsibility,” he has written, “is to keep the idea of art wide and useful, so that the old man’s basket, the kid’s chopped coupe, the old lady’s beautiful kitchen composed of cheap goods, and our own earnest writings will be taken seriously. The job is to get up, go out, and find the things that will help us learn how others manage in the world we share. We need to meet them, joining in appreciation of their creations, in hatred of the forces that thwart them, overcoming our separation in a oneness of humanity.”

Whether in rural Virginia, the back roads of Dublin or in the crowded markets of Istanbul, Glassie has been at home with the artisans of the world. He has written over a dozen books, has received numerous awards for his scholarship and is generally credited with revolutionizing our ideas about art and culture. In a recent interview, Henry Glassie reflected on his remarkable career and shared some of his thoughts about folklore and art.

A native of Warrenton, Virginia, Glassie earned his Ph.D. in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. At a time when the study of folk art was dominated by an obsession with traditional music and oral literature, Glassie found himself fascinated rather by log cabins and barns. His appreciation for the aesthetic essence in vernacular architecture, coupled with an apprenticeship with noted cultural geographer Fred Kniffen, led him down a much different path.

Whether vernacular architecture or traditional pottery, Glassie maintains that the act of making allows us to craft a unique identity, to reach out to others and to express the transcendent. “I think therefore I am is empty,” he said. “I make therefore I am is convincing. If I make something, the whole virtue of it is that I can step away from it and say, I made that. I think that is one of the reasons why we find a massive insanity and epidemic of anxiety in the modern United States— people don’t make stuff. There’s absolutely no consequence to the kind of work that most Americans do today. By actually making nothing, people literally lose a grip on who they are.

“But anybody who makes—anybody who farms, has built a house, has made a pot, has gardened and watched tulips grow—those people have a full understanding that at least they exist.”

Glassie’s work reflects a deep appreciation for St. Thomas Aquinas (“the greatest theorist art has ever known”), the historical imagination and humanity of English artist William Morris and the romantic existentialism of novelist Iris Murdoch. He is also inspired by James Joyce’s passion for the common experiences of life, so eloquently portrayed in Dubliners, which Glassie describes as “one of the great books of folklore.”

In his pioneering search for patterns in art and culture, Glassie keeps faith with a great Boasian vision in anthropology that values fieldwork and “overcoming our separation” from the people with whom we share the planet.

Much of what passes for art today, Glassie observes, is either commodity or propaganda. “Its reason for being is not to make people aware of the complexity of existence…. The work of the artist is to make people aware—that all people are alone, that all people are members of society, that all societies are in fact ultimately limited in their power because they exist in the world. So the purpose is to talk about the self, the society and the world. And the things that are deserving of the word ‘art’ all do that. So, what’s art? Certainly the Sistine Chapel is art; Chartres Cathedral is art; the Taj Mahal is art. But so is the shoe maker who does right by his craft, or the mother who raises a proper child, or the gardener who knows how to work with wind and weather in order to bring out of the garden a pretty bed of petunias…. I don’t think there’s any obligation for art to be great or known; it’s just that art has to be the work done by a human being whose purpose in doing that work is sincere—I think it’s almost that simple. When I do work sincerely as a scholar, when I do work sincerely as a potter, when I do work sincerely as a painter, when I do work sincerely as a father, then that sincerity will necessarily require me to put the fullness of my being into that work. And the fullness of my being has got to be personal, it’s got to be social, and it’s got to entail the transcendent.”