Thomas Crow
Getty Research Institute

The Getty Research Institute devoted its 2000-2001 Scholar Year to discussions and research on the theme of reproductions and originals in the creative arts. Harry Smith (1923-1991), one of the most significant, multifaceted, and underrecognized American artists of the past century, offers a fascinating case study of the importance of these issues to our own cultural inheritance. In April 2001, The Research Institute held a major symposium at the Getty devoted to Smith, bringing together a large number of experts on his work, accompanied by screenings of restored versions of his films and performances to showcase the continued vibrancy of his musical legacy.

Self-taught as anthropologist, film-maker, painter, and museologist, Harry Smith left behind a monument of "reproduction" in his recorded Anthology of American Folk Music—a vast and shaded aural allegory of the nation-while pursuing in his visual art the visionary "originality" of a committed avant-gardist. The great photographer Robert Frank pronounced Smith the only true genius he had encountered over his long career in the circles of advanced art.

Having displayed in his private life a genuine disdain for material advantage that now exists largely in bohemian myth, Smith left behind a creative record of such variety and fragmentary preservation that significant work of recovery remains to be done. Those critics and scholars who have already begun to elucidate Smith's contributions are divided between those who study the films and those who trace the seismic reverberations of his folk-music collecting through popular culture. The Getty conference brought these groups together for the first time, an event that sparked both new knowledge and new questions, while providing an interested public with a fascinating initiation or a stimulating re-immersion into Harry Smith's creative universe.

Beyond its great intrinsic interest, the Getty Research Institute conceived "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular" as a way to break down barriers between differing cultural constituencies and different kinds of cultural knowledge. The Research Institute is devoted to the advanced study of the visual arts among the most able scholars, critics, curators, and practicing artists; but it does not regard that activity as divorced from either an awareness of other media or a larger public sphere, where new ideas must find their ultimate destination. In the coming years, we will be trying, as here, to find the most vivid and exciting topics to foster this crossover from specialized inquiry to broadly shared experience.