QUALITY is difficult to describe, let alone define. It can be perceived in different ways by different people. And even widely acknowledged works of art may be admired for certain reasons in one century and quite different reasons in the next. Still, the search for a workable definition goes on. One of the intriguing efforts to arrive at one was set in motion by Jean Lipman, the well-known authority on American folk art. Worried that quality was being sacrificed for profit and prestige in today's gallery world, she decided it was time to do an exhibition and a book examining the significance of artistic quality.
Mrs. Lipman first asked a number of art professionals for their definitions. Eighteen responded, and their comments are included in the book. Then - in close collaboration with Robert Bishop, Elizabeth Warren, and Sharon Eisenstat - she began selecting works that would form the basis for her project.
The result is ``Five-Star Folk Art,'' a first-rate exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art here, and the book of the same title that doubles as the show's catalog. The exhibition includes more than 60 outstanding works selected from the 100 reproduced in the catalog.
According to Mrs. Lipman, ``Our team of authors ... believed that quality was the key to any desirable art,'' and they sought out 100 of the ``finest works of folk art that exist. ... We four authors agreed that no matter how important the artist or the owner; no matter how famous, much publicized, or prestigiously exhibited the work; and no matter how dramatically high its purchase price had been - the sole criterion for every choice would be five-star quality, as best we could define it.''
On their first look at a work, they expected nothing less than a ``sense of pleasure, excitement, power.'' On second look, they wanted everything to add up ``to a consistent whole - subject, line, color - all of a piece.'' And finally, everything had to be ``surehanded ... no flaws, ... exactly right for what the artist attempted.''
The experience and expertise of the four authors was considerable, and the number of public and private collections they could ``raid'' was large. Not surprisingly, their selection turned out to be comprehensive and of remarkably high quality.
The pieces in the show make up one of the most delightful and heart-warming displays of human creativity I've encountered in quite some time. And the book is almost as enjoyable.
There are three basic categories: Paintings, sculpture and the decorative arts. The pictures and other two-dimensional works were created for a variety of decorative and utilitarian purposes, primarily in the home. The three-dimensional objects were fashioned to appeal to a deity, commemorate the dead, forecast the weather, advertise a business, lure wildfowl, or provoke amusement. And the decorative items, such as bed coverings, furniture and household accessories, and textiles, were made to adorn the homes of the artists or their friends and relatives.
A number of the pieces are remarkable works of art - whether or not one tacks on the word ``folk.'' My personal favorites are the portraits of ``Captain and Mrs. Samuel Chandler,'' painted about 1780 by the Captain's younger brother, Winthrop Chandler. There may be passages of ``naive'' draftsmanship on these canvases, but the two heads are almost worthy of Holbein.
And how can one not be moved by Horace Pippin's oil ``John Brown Going to his Hanging,'' or Erastus Field's (c. 1865) painting, ``The Garden of Eden,'' or Edward Hicks's 1844 version of ``The Peaceable Kingdom''? All are excellent paintings that transcend whatever clumsiness of execution may occasionally be found in them.
No matter where one looks in this show, there's something special. It may be a stunning quilt, a delightful whirligig such as ``Uncle Sam Riding a Bicycle,'' decorated furniture from Pennsylvania, cigar-store Indians, or a calligraphic drawing. But whatever it is, one can rest assured that it's the best of its kind - that it is, indeed, five-star folk art.
At the Museum of American Folk Art through Dec. 2.