Director's Welcome

Spring 2015


The Material Culture Issue.

Decorative art, material culture, and visual culture have been on my mind a lot lately. Objects that fit into these three overlapping categories increasingly are coming to the forefront of both museum display and our work with students, faculty, and the community. Considering the current heightened interest in these terms, it is worth examining why material objects are so valuable in teaching.

Let’s consider these terms briefly.

First, all art is material culture, but not all material culture is art. When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he created one of the most readily identified artworks in history. Few would argue ascribing the title “art” to this magnificent work. But it is also a reflection of the values, beliefs, aspirations, and activities of the people living in Rome in the first decades of the 16th century. We learn the significance of the Papal palaces, the Christian faith, the power and politics of Rome, and the role of attending services in the chapel, all from studying the ceiling without regard to its artistic merit—that is, by studying it as material culture. And we can also learn a lot from other objects that we would not construe as art. Imagine if we had Michelangelo’s brushes, the clothes he wore to paint and those he wore to greet the Pope at the unveiling of the ceiling, or his favorite wine glass or serving dish. These objects would speak volumes about the life and times of the Renaissance painter and would handsomely repay scholarly attention.

Likewise, all decorative arts are material culture, but not all material culture is decorative art. Of course, there are areas of debate and overlap in these definitions, but generally speaking, decorative arts are the domain of objects whose function is soundly trumped by the exquisiteness of their manufacture. Think of a common wine carafe and then turn your attention to the great Greek red-figure krater by the Eupolis Painter in the Museum’s collection. While both were made to hold wine, there is really very little else in comparison. The first was mass-produced mechanically while the krater was hand-constructed and beautifully painted. The care and inspiration that went into the ancient piece far surpasses its role as a container, whereas mostly the carafe succeeds only on a functional basis. Now we can complicate matters even more by introducing a 19th century pig-shaped glass bottle from the Skinner Museum collection. It held an elixir reputed to have healing powers, and yet, it is clearly much more alluring and complex than a common carafe. It is fascinating and lovely, but is it decorative art? With thoughtful analysis, the krater, the carafe, and the bottle all reveal important and interesting narratives about the times in which they were created and, to some extent, about the lives of the people who created and used them. The categories into which they fit can be harder to settle upon than the roles they have played for the people who lived with them.

Finally, visual culture refers to the domain of objects where the primary function is the visual exchange of information. Of course the Eupolis krater spans this gap. It is an object to be lifted, held, and moved around, but we also take in the pictures on the side. Other objects are more simply visual. We do not typically handle the fruit crate labels in the collecting or use them physically; they exist to convey information through text and image. Regardless, most of us are hard pressed to consider them art. Happily, in the context of visual culture studies such designations are irrelevant. Understanding these images provides valuable insight into the people who sold the fruit as well as those who consumed it. These are charged, complicated examples of visual rhetoric and they need to be understood in the context of history, geography, sociology, and political science. Some of the methods used in art history come in handy to get there. This, then, is the rich field of visual culture studies.

As you can see, taking all our objects seriously is opening new and complex avenues for study. We can and should analyze both the elixir bottle and the new Etienne Aubry painting. While we do not confuse the two—they are categorically quite far apart in terms of use, aesthetic complexity, and mode of interaction—they do both inspire intellectual engagement, and the Museum is working daily to encourage scholarly encounters with all the objects in its collection. I hope you have a chance to come to see for yourself the many new and recently rediscovered objects on view at the Museum.

John R. Stomberg

Florence Finch Abbott Director