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Not just another cute scene

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PRIMITIVE''artists are far from scarce, but good ones are very difficult to find. Ever since Henri Rousseau became famous, and the Western world got to know the work of Grandma Moses, Camille Bombois, Louis Vivin, John Kane, and a handful of other ``naive'' painters, dealers and curators have been looking for individuals with no formal art training but with an extraordinary knack for making art. It's not that there aren't enough ``primitive'' painters around or that they aren't aware of the fame and fortune that await them should the art world decide they have that special quality. In truth, quite the opposite is the case, as is proved by the large numbers of such artists who show their work in local exhibitions from Maine to California, and the number who make a comfortable income by selling their canvases through galleries specializing in what is loosely described as ``folk art.''

No, the problem is not one of scarcity, nor even of lack of ability, but of cuteness and coyness, and of a self-conscious posturing that takes refuge in whimsy, nostalgia, and a bittersweet call for a return to ``the good old days.''

Most of today's so-called primitive art is extremely sophisticated and calculated, both in technique and in theme, and is made and packaged as shrewdly as any other product with a particular market in mind. Snow-covered farm scenes with horses and buggies, cattle next to barns, and forests and fields in the background are especially popular, as are Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with dozens of colorfully dressed people celebrating in various ways in lively and charmingly decorative compositions. And if everything else fails, there are always the paintings of stiff-looking children holding their pets, old-fashioned villages with quaint little buildings all lined up in a row, and Grandpa and Grandma out for a ride in the old Model T.

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