Prown, Jules David & Kenneth Haltman (eds). American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture.

East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000.

Basically, “material culture” refers to stuff. Mostly ordinary, everyday stuff. An “artifact” is anything made or modified by humans, which means every work of art is an artifact, but not all artifacts are “art.” Prown is Emeritus Professor of Art History at Yale, so he’s a very big gun indeed.

Although he took over the university’s material culture course as a stop-gap when the previous professor died, he has become so identified with the field now that his process of examining, analyzing, and interpreting everyday things has become known as “Prownian analysis.”

This collection presents a dozen essays by Prown’s former students (plus a short theoretical chapter by Prown himself), the best of some hundreds, and each of them follows the same system, more or less, of describing an artifact in great detail, working out why it was made that way (the predecessor designs, the creator’s intentions, artistic vs. practical aspects), what its purpose was, how it fits into the context of human society, how it “signifies,” the examiner’s emotional responses, and other points that the inexperienced viewer probably would never have thought of. But this is all of great interest to the social historian.

And the selection of artifacts considered is very wide: A Victorian cellerette or wine cooler, with remarkable mourning imagery. A 1923 model candlestick telephone. An Amish quilt. A woman’s corset from the 1880s. An iron footbridge located in a public park near the Yale campus. A tortoiseshell locket from the Gilded Age. A hand-cranked kitchen food mill from the 1920s. A novelty Lucite table lighter from c.1985. A lava lamp, very like the one I used to have in the dorm.

No great art, no oils or sculptures, just ordinary items that almost any individual or family might have owned — and that’s the point. Works we create as individual pieces are consciously different in their intent from items manufactured in some quantity for general consumption. And by studying a souvenir doll from an amusement park, or a carved Federal doorway, or a Winchester ‘73 rifle, or a Polaroid camera, or a cheap pair of drugstore sunglasses, or even a steam locomotive, you can get a better grasp of the society, the social context, in which each of them was made. And that tells you about the people who made them, the worlds in which they lived, and what they thought about and what they considered important.

Depending on your own interests, some of these essays will hold you more than others, but all are very well written. Prown, in fact, made a point of instructing his students to “make their research disappear,” to write in a way that was easy and appealing to read. There are a great many illustrations, too. This is a terrific book for encouraging one to look at one’s surrounding world and its contents in a much more thoughtful way.

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Published in: on 12 December 2015 at 6:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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