Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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7 / Domestic Life

Alexandra Griffith Winton: The home is one of the most intimate and most personal spaces that people look at for information about themselves and one another.

Soyoung Lee: Behind our front doors are objects that define us, that give us meaning.

Faith Ringgold: Every culture creates things that are useful in their lives. Whether they are in a cold climate, in a hot climate, or the place that they live in, and they do the best they can to live there. And out of that comes different forms of art.

Great art comes out of the way they live and what they make to live in that way.

Segment Title: Art as a Way of Life

Tom Seligman: The Tuareg are a nomadic pastoral people whose central homeland is the middle of the Sahara. The inaden, the “smiths,” their job is to make things for the Tuareg to use.

So what do they make? Well, pastoral people have animals, so they make leather things. Bags, tents, camel trappings, saddles for camels.

They move a lot in a harsh environment. So the stuff has to be durable. It has to function absolutely well. Has to be lightweight, easily manipulated, transported. You could make a very simple, functional bag out of leather.

But Tuareg don’t do that. They make very elaborate, decorative bags, objects that you wear or have, and not just functionally better, but aesthetically better. I think there’s something in all of us that we want to put ourselves clearly there. And how do you do that? You’re going to embellish, you’re going to enhance, you’re going to make beautiful your world.

And you’re expressing your Tuareg-ness, your Tuareg world, you’re the human world in contrast to this stark, natural world that’s around you.

Faith Ringgold: Much of the art forms and activities that we know about do come out of domesticity. Sometimes out of a need for something, like quilts, a need to keep the family warm, because quilts were originally to cover the bed.

When slaves came here from Africa, they became the quilt makers at the plantation. The master would not allow the slaves to be down there, painting a picture or even sculpting a mask or doing anything creative that was not useful and useful to them. Quilting was allowed because it’s useful. It’s a very interesting way that people came together to do something other than hard work, do something creative. And then the tradition continued and I’m fascinated by it.

I started making quilts in 1980 out of pieces of canvas that I painted. And then my mother sewed the pieces of canvas together. And from then I’ve been doing quilts.

Story quilts are traditionally images that tell a story and the quilt maker comes and tells you the story from the images that they have there. But I’m writing the actual story down, word for word, on the quilt.

The domestic life of a family in the 1930s, in Harlem, in New York, would center in the summertime, would center around Tar Beach. It was hot and the family wants to be together, but it’s miserable in the house. So you go up on the roof. That’s Tar Beach. That experience was so much a part of my life as a child growing up in Harlem that the story seemed to have been written before I wrote it.

The beginning is, “I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.” And I created this little girl named Cassie, who thinks that she can fly. Because she needs to help her family do this and that. Like if Daddy doesn’t have a job, Daddy, loses his job, they can make up for that somehow.

Tar Beach was special. Everybody was on the roof. Your mother and father sitting up there playing cards and you laying on the mattress. So imprinted in my mind was that experience. It was a family experience. And there was nothing ever bad about it, it was always good.

When you look at it, a lot of the great themes in art have come from domestic life. In fact, I think that the whole art of quilt-making had to come from a domestic scene.

Most of us artists, we think of ourselves isolated creating this masterpiece all by ourselves. With quilts—it doesn’t even make sense to try to do that by yourself. Because the quilting takes a long time.

Look at the Gee’s Bend people. They are coming together, they sing together, and they enjoy each other’s company, and they work on each other’s work. This is a family production.

John Beardsley: Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a small community inside a bend in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. It’s a majority black community; it’s been there for a couple centuries. It’s populated mostly by the descendants of slaves of a family named Pettway who owned the whole area as part of a large plantation in the nineteenth century. Their descendants stayed on as sharecroppers, surviving in very impoverished circumstances, and developed a remarkable tradition of quilt-making, and often reused salvaged material, old field dresses and work clothes, to make quilts.

Faith Ringgold: They took that poverty of materials and made it into something really great and wonderful.

John Beardsley: In African American quilt-making traditions, the goal is to break the pattern. So that each quilt is different. So it is an expression of the imagination of the maker.

Although quilt making is typically considered a craft, this level of artistry and this level of invention makes it much more akin to high art. So one of the reasons that Gee’s Bend quilts, I think, have been such a phenomenon in contemporary American culture, is that they look like the most sophisticated abstract painting.

Segment Title: Living with Art

Soyoung Lee: In the traditional Western methodology of teaching or talking about art history, there is this divide between fine arts and decorative arts. In Asian art, you cannot just look at paintings, the traditionally considered fine art, to understand the culture. In fact these everyday items, or items that were part of domestic ware, or items that were used, functional in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, tell us much more about the culture.

Jeff Spur: It’s hard to exaggerate the role of textiles, broadly defined, in the lives of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia, since essentially everything about their society was defined by some sort of textile. These peoples lived in these steppe environments that were pretty bleak, and they seemed to have compensated by this extraordinary delight in visual power within their domestic environment. So it was, in a sense, a decorative oasis.

The portable house, the yurt, would, for any given tribal group, have a form characteristic of it and distinct from other groups. And much like everything else in the culture would, therefore, be a point of recognition for other people who might encounter this group.

You have to imagine the yurt—pile carpets, felts or flat weaves, bedding, decorative textiles, the many bags that were used to contain anything needing containing in their cultures.

All of these products were a source of pride in a representation to the world, of the virtue of not only this one domestic environment, but signs to other people that they might encounter.

It would appear that in many societies, and these nomadic ones are no exception, that pride in self-presentation was a very powerful value.

Arthur Wheelock: In the late sixteenth century, the Dutch revolted against Spanish control. It’s a small little country, the Netherlands, and they were against enormous odds because Spain was one of the most powerful countries in the world. But with their efforts over the years, the Dutch established their independence in 1648, and there came a sense, at that time, of enormous pride.

You see it in their still lives, these things that they brought back from the far reaches of the world. You see this it in the depictions of their homes.

One of the exciting things about Dutch art is that the Dutch lived with their art. Mostly art created in the seventeenth century was for a domestic audience. There are all these inventories of painting collections in homes in a tailor’s house or the baker’s home. They weren’t just paintings for wealthy clients. It was a basically a Protestant world and there was not a lot of showy excess, but they wanted to decorate their homes, show that pride in that world that they had established.

Bettina Bergmann: In decorating a home, one is thinking about the audience. Who is going to see this? You are always thinking of a viewer, you are thinking of somebody coming in.

If I were a Roman of some standing, I would reserve my morning for visitors for so-called clientes, clients. I would open my front door, and anybody who walked by could come in and wait in my atrium for an appointment with me.

However, in the evening, late afternoon, evening, if I wanted to have a dinner party, I would have invited my guests and those guests would be invited into the triclinium, or dining room. The more elaborate triclinia that we have are decorated with mythological subjects, and we think that that was because they provided a stimulus to dinner conversation.

We can imagine them reclining there together and drinking and discussing the mythological scenes on the walls and maybe spinning out different narrations for them. So I think they were very much a part of this convivial entertainment. To the modern eye, one of the most striking aspects of Roman interiors are those that present an entirely different space than what they are, and they also made it so rich, with so many different dimensions and illusions, that one could spend a long time and go in a serial fashion and always see something different, or have a new insight, and that’s really brilliant.

Soyoung Lee: Most of the time Asian paintings were not hung on the walls the way that Western paintings or European paintings were. They would be stored away and brought out for the particular occasions.

In Korean history, and let’s just talk about the Chosôn history, which was the last 500 years up to 1910, a good part of painting that was produced was produced for the court. But, of course, they were produced for private enjoyment as well, particularly for the elites for them to bring out to look by themselves or with their group of friends.

During the Chosôn Dynasty the head of the household and his own practices of the arts and his friends’ enjoyment of the artworks would take place in his study, known as the sarangbang, which is basically the center of the household and so it was very important that he decorated it in the most appropriate way, usually not ostentatious, with the most sort of understated wooden furniture, with the kind of ceramic or metal scholar’s utensils, such as brush holders and water droppers.

This particular brush holder is porcelain that is undecorated, that is undecorated with any kind of color.

The elite men—the yangban—those who had influence over Korean society, adopted and lived by Neo-Confucian principle. The appeal of the undecorated pure white porcelain had very much to do with, in fact, with Confucian aesthetics that emphasized understated elegance, understated beauty, purity, and frugality.

They reflect a purity of form, an essence of the objects and they’re uniquely Korean manifestations of these themes, but they’re also themes that are universal that you find in other cultures—in the Arts and Crafts Movement, for example.

Segment Title: “Good” Design

Sarah Coffin: The Arts and Crafts Movement started in England in the 1830s and ’40s, and moved on through William Morris to the late nineteenth century, both in England and in the United States, as well as having influence all over the place.

This particular group that centered around William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painters felt that truth was important in their mission.

The idea of the going back to the honesty of handmade objects and hand-done, not only objects, but fabrics, textiles, even block printing, old techniques of printing.

Reaction is against the Industrial Age and the proliferation of cheaply made and not necessarily well-designed objects. It was a very much a reaction against what was perceived as false.

They had a very grand notion that good design impacts everybody’s life. And that uninspired, bad design, rather, denigrates the idea of the quality of life.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was very much about creating a better quality of life through good design for a broader spectrum of society.

Of course, the cost of hand-producing things was high. And that was the fundamental flaw in this mission. But the idea was then firmly entrenched, I think, for the modernist movement of the simplicity and the idea of functionality.

Alexandra Griffith Winton: The Bauhaus began in Germany in 1924, to create these objects that are beautiful and, yet, functional, and crucially, mass-producible—these were the underlying goals of the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus was, in a sense, a kind of a good design movement. It was an attempt to redesign the way people were living. It was an attempt to strip away what they believed was unnecessary.

One of the most famous objects that came out of that era is Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair. It was inspired by this extruded steel framework of his bicycle. He was riding his bicycle one day and he thought this is a marvelous material.

It’s strong, it’s flexible, it’s lightweight—we should make furniture using this material. So, completely abandoning the traditional wood, he was able to create this chair, which is essentially as dematerialized as a chair can be with while still being a chair, while still having some structure and some presence.

The lifespan of the Bauhaus was actually quite short. It was started in the mid-1920s and by 1933 it was shut down.

Despite this, because its ideas were so potent, it is still the touchstone of modernist design and something that designers and architects are continually returning to.

The whole Good Design movement that we see in the United States starting in the late ’40s and the 1950s–the way these objects looked is usually quite different from Bauhaus objects. But there is this tremendous interest in expanding the influence of modern design in the domestic area.

Segment Title: How People Live

Alexandra Griffith Winton: The idea of the home is very important in America from the early nineteenth century onward. The idea of owning one’s own home is a consistent thread throughout the American narrative, you know, really until today. And during the Great Depression there was an effort to support and encourage home ownership.

Jeff Rosenheim: When people think about the Great Depression, they think of Walker Evans’ photographs, whether they know his name or not.

Hale County, Alabama. The tenant farmers, the Southern sharecroppers. This is the community that Evans first photographed in his effort to photograph the cruel conditions under which Americans lived during the Depression.

Allie May Burroughs and her husband Floyd Burroughs and their children were sharecroppers. And what that means is that at the end of the season, the growing season, they owed half of their cotton production, their crop, and half of their corn crop and anything else they grow to the landlord. They did not own their land, they did not own their house, and at the end of every year they owed more to the landlord than they had when they began the season. It’s a terrible cycle of poverty. And Allie May and Floyd were actually willing to allow Evans to stay with them to record their daily lives.

And Evans made photographs of all the members of the family both inside and outside the cabin. And these cabins had very little in them. But what was in them was so beautifully described by the camera. The facades of the walls, the rough hewn timbers, the shapes of the bedding, the iron beds and the curlicues that are some of the only decorative elements that Evans found in these homes. There’s nothing fancy there. The fanciest thing is just opening the door to let the light in.

Each of these pictures are nearly pure, descriptive, investigations of how people live. The camera’s ability to define those spaces is about trying to understand what makes us Americans. What makes our spaces—domestic or otherwise—an American space.

Alexandra Griffith Winton: There are people who say, “Well, I could never live in a space like that. I could never live in a modern house. I could never live in a brownstone.” Their ideas about themselves are so wrapped up in these ideas of how to live that it really kind of defines them.

One’s home says something about you as a person—your values and your goals.

Jeff Rosenheim: Our house, our home and all it encompasses says everything about who we are, where we’ve been and what we want to be.