On Interpreting the Material World
When I arrive at the house, I am first greeted warmly by the homeowners, and secondly by Sadie, the chicly-outfitted mannequin that stands in the hallway by the stairs. She’s just one of many odds and ends and pieces of art that speckle every room in the house. Her companion in the other room is an inflatable pink flamingo seated on a wooden highchair next to the dining table. On the kitchen, a tiny gargoyle head hangs out on a little extra piece of wall between the doorway and the cabinetry. Stacks of books and magazines cover several end tables throughout the house, along with dozens of glass paper weights, a favorite item that the owners have collected over the years from local art fairs.
The house is also filled with furniture, nothing unusual, except that each piece is unique. Yet they blends well with the rest of the room. The effect is puzzling. It’s not clutter, because the arrangement is not distracting or overwhelming, rather it feels like a home should be, welcoming and warm, personal. Half of the things are items that I would simply pass by were I to see them at a rummage sale; for example, the flamingo. But because it has been arranged with care, been placed in a way that I would see and question it, I am led to expect that it must hold a story, and thus value. Although I do not know the story, or even to what degree its owners value it, I am free to imagine that the flamingo is valuable because the rules of hierarchy say that something seemingly arbitrary that has been placed in an area of display must be, by default, not arbitrary. Thus, all of my emotions around it are based on this dynamic interaction between presentation and imagination. I don’t mean to make a museum out of the common home, but one must wonder as to why we non-artists and non-archeologists value five-hundred-year-old wooden spoons locked behind glass and guarded with tripwires if not either for the stories they carry that entice our imagination, or because of the way we have been tricked to see them by those who have placed them so beautifully for us. And, who is to say that the stories of these homeowners — of their ordinary and thus extraordinary lives of community events and school functions and childrearing in the late twentieth century — should not be equally valued as I, their audience, sit and admire them as my curious mind weaves about the room.
It’s no surprise then that the basement fascinates me even more. Layers of vibrant colors define the face of one of the walls. Stencils of characters, mostly fish from a Dr. Seuss story, garnish the scene. It’s a series of graffiti left by their son. It’s nice enough of a story to think of any child sitting alone and working there, experimenting with color combinations and strokes, but this story has a better ending: the son grew up and became a mural artist, and now makes a living livening up the city with color.
The power of this mural is that I can sit and look at it and imagine a child I’ve never met, before he became a man I’ve never seen — sitting there alone and creating the evidence before my eyes. In this case, knowledge of the author of the artifact contributes to the value. We might think of him having some wild ‘‘eureka’’ moment in which he commits unwaveringly to dedicate his life to beautifying walls, but the story in my mind is different; that of a curious teenager acting partly out of defiance and partly for the thrill that comes with marking a forbidden or unusual surface, completing his objective and moving on, perhaps unaware at the time of the foreshadowing – having one of those ordinary everyday experiences that we don’t give due credit to, but that brew up inside of us and manifest later to make us who we are. Neither story may be correct, but we all exercise the right to prescribe narrative to whatever information enters our heads, thus deduction and reason both stem from imagination predicated on some known or visualized information.
A similar basement story was evidenced in another house I entered. This basement contains graffiti left from the previous owners of that house. The graffiti consists of a few arrows and some simple drawings and phrases. It appears to have been a children’s game. The current homeowner explains that her granddaughter was always afraid to enter the basement because of the drawings. This statement about her granddaughter fascinates me, and I ask myself, ‘‘What story must she have had in her mind about these drawings that caused her to feel fear?’’ This is a perfect example of how the imagination ‘‘fills in’’ information about an artifact and derives a meaning that seems logical to the observer regardless of what the reality may be. Perhaps this is how the genre of horror functions, to trick the mind into fearing the unknown, to deduce falsely for the sake of entertainment, blending reality with unreality.
Isn’t that why a photograph has value? Because it gives you just enough information to recall how someone or something existed at a previous time, or envision what a place you’ve never seen might look like? Expanding the concept beyond tangible objects, consider that a novel helps you imagine not what was or what might be, but rather what if. The same logic applies to film. Our taste in art or entertainment or decoration stems from what we can identify with, what speaks to our imaginations based on previous experience or information within a context. Therefore, would it be too bold to suppose that giving an object value is an empathetic act?
Unfinished basements create a unique context for the interpretation of objects. The feeling of being underground in itself creates an unhomely detachment from reality. It not the living area of the house, the space where the known exists. This is the realm of the unknown, deep inside the ground, in darkness, where the heating and electrical systems, the stored objects and workshop tools, other odds and ends are kept. Unlike the rest of the house, it is not a place of display, where objects might be exhibited to guests. If the pink flamingo in the first house was in a box in the basement, I would have interpreted very differently and given it much less importance. Likewise, if their son’s graffiti was in the living room, it would be interpreted as an art piece rather than the remnants of experimentation. Parts of the basement can become a place for conjuring, for escaping the home whilst still being in it, and therefore it is territory for a flourishing imagination.
If every object, everything in our physical world is entirely based on the human ability to imagine, then the value of the tangible and real world is entirely dependent on the non-real, on the suppositions and movie-like stories we conjure in our heads every day, however brief or unaware we are of them. The counter example to this theory would be an object that is purely functional. An example might be the wrapper of a candy bar. For the manufacturer and the purchaser, the wrapper as an object is very valuable. It functions to catch the eye, market the product, and convey an idea as well as data about the contents. Once the wrapper is torn and its contents removed, it no longer serves a function and becomes entirely worthless. It is not simply a damaged object, as that would be a different discussion, but under general conditions it is discarded as garbage.
Now to illustrate, the wrapper could attain value under certain conditions. If I keep the wrapper and put it in a picture frame and hang it in my living room, any observer would interpret this now as a valuable object through presentation or hierarchy. If it is on sale for several hundred dollars on eBay with an accompanying text that explains that it was the first ever Hershey wrapper, the object takes on a value based on a collective decision by ‘‘experts’’ to deem it so. Likewise, if the wrapper was designed by a very famous artist and of a special limited-edition series, it takes on value through authorship. Finally, the wrapper may be given value through personal sentiment, which obviously must include a backstory. For example, perhaps I played soccer in elementary school, and for a long time it was the best part of my life. One summer my team won the tournament, and as a prize everyone on the team received a giant Hershey bar. I saved the wrapper to remember the event, and put it in a special shoe box under my bed where I hid my yo-yo, some stickers, and holographic cards.
All of these ways in which an object can gain value beyond its prescribed functional value are based on the ability of the observer to imagine a story, to view the object but think beyond it to a past event, or of its relation to other people or events of given importance. Either way, it is up to the observer to give it value, to empathize with its history, and decide what it means. It is a personal experience and personal decision. However, the power of the object is not to give an emotion directly, but to evoke an existing idea that resides within the individual, to recall the fabrics of a thousand personal truths that resound in the mind, and empower the individual to unconsciously weave them into a story; an image that is very real even if it only exists in the observer’s mind. These houses have made this clear.
What is Material Culture? by Sophie Woodward
The study of material culture raises questions as to what methods can help to understand the non-verbal. What role can interviews have within this and what other methods can be utilized? There is not straightforward ‘answer’ to these dilemmas, but there are a range of methods that have been adopted by researchers to move towards understanding the material relationships that people have to objects.
Paul Groth on Cultural Landscapes