The Social Life of Objects: Interpreting Our Material Culture

By Feldhusen, Mary | Art Education, November 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Social Life of Objects: Interpreting Our Material Culture

Feldhusen, Mary, Art Education

Recommended for grades 8-12

Works of art are just one type of the many objects we encounter, make, and use in our everyday lives. Objects have a social life because of the many roles they serve in our construction of daily life. Art and objects are made and collected for many reasons. Through the things we make and produce we commemorate ourselves, mark life's passages, and establish and signify social relations. We create to express ourselves: we collect to reminisce. The objects we use - even the ones to which we pay little attention - speak volumes about who we are.

Beyond the combinations of form, color, texture, and mass that comprise works of art and other objects are the religious, historical, social, political, economic, and other contexts that gave rise to them (Thistlewood, 1989). Consequently, the primary historical record of our lives is not written, but survives as the things gathered about us, as the objects we make, use, and discard (Schlereth, 1985). We are inextricably linked and influenced by the world around us, by our friends, family, interests, as well as our geographical and national identity. These many contexts are our visual, material, and ideological cultures.

The objects that we choose to incorporate into our lives are the ones by which we will be remembered. Material culture is a term that describes the research, writing, teaching, and publishing done by individuals who interpret past human activity largely through the objects we leave behind. Through material culture we gain unique insight into people and society (Schlereth, 1985; Berger, 1992). A single object can tell many stories and should be read not only its original context, but also in light of the ways the object functioned from owner to owner and from society to society. We should construct the meanings of objects in relation to their creators as well as the social and historical conditions that produced them. Simultaneously, we should observe the objects from points of view that enable new questions to be asked (Rogoff, 2003; Feldman, 1994).

Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson (1990) point out that seeing is not something that happens instantaneously in front of an artwork or object. There is a difference between looking at objects and understanding them. Understanding is a social practice that requires looking closely, asking questions, and informing our inferences. In exploring art and objects during a classroom lesson, students become part of a community of interpreters (Barrett, 2003). Research supports the idea that group interaction increases the quality of discussion outcomes, especially when the groups are composed of heterogeneous members (Bradford, 1984). The activities provided in this Instructional Resource (IR) are based on a material culture approach to interpretation. All of the objects used are from the Rienzi Collection of European decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. They are displayed in a house donated to the museum by the collectors, the Rienzi family. Students will be led to examine the artworks and objects through the lens of domestic life. As Schlereth (1985) explains, the inhabitants of homes followed patterns of behavior that related to such objects as furnishings, food, clothing, adornments, and the organization of domestic space. These behaviors and objects serve as means for gaining insight into the social identities of a culture. In other words, decorative arts serve as insightful indices of a society's values. The decorative arts in this resource hail from the eighteenth century, a time when houses, gardens, and objects followed the dictates of beauty and reason- orderly, classical proportions and neoclassicism.


As students observe and inquire into the nature of the decorative artworks used here they will:

* Analyze and interpret how objects reflect the history of the cultures in which they were produced.

* Hypothesize about social history by exploring and discussing the major historical and cultural movements that surround the objects.

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