Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Dead People's Stuff

When I heard that one of our local antiques stores was closing, I was stricken with guilt. I am the problem small local businesses face, the person who is rah-rah for independent shops and yet never actually patronizes them. So I hied me down on December 23, the penultimate day, to browse through the booths and see if I could find a Christmas present or two.

What I found was that the store was closing not because local shoppers were penurious, but because the building had been sold out from under them. That's a sign of the real estate market in our town -- pretty hopping among the old downtown area where we live. In the Federalist buildings of our one or two main streets, microbreweries and on-trend restaurants have sprouted like dandelions. In the former newspaper building, a co-working space is under construction, complete with some big metal framework which blocks the historic facade.

Our downtown was built in an era in which buildings were decorative as well as substantial. Some structures will never look better than the day they were constructed -- our former suburban box house was one of them. Others even decay beautifully. Every few months I drive past a huge, elegant, abandoned house, probably past the point of salvage by now, and think how gloriously it could be restored. No one's ever been inspired by vacant strip mall.

It's easy to fetishize the past, to think that if something has endured for a long time, it must be chockful of some kind of significance, if only we could tease it out. The idea of roaming through an antiques store and finding a hidden treasure has a hold on the popular imagination, because why would someone preserve something so carefully unless it were valuable in some way? Lots of reasons, as it turns out. Inertia. Guilt. Personal significance. Family history. All motives that have nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the item itself.

All this was on display at Dead People's Stuff, as the antiques store was so charmingly named. Booths were brimful of things that had been preserved from the past. Some were originally useful -- old gloves, kitchen utensils, farm implements, cookbooks, pie safes, buttons, keys. Some were decorative. A rare few were beautiful. But most of it was just Stuff, the detritus of earlier lives. I have had to furnish a theater set, and know how helpful it can be to find a repository of odds and ends. Yet once those odds and ends are disconnected with the lives that gave them meaning, they are simply ugly junk.

Perhaps a working definition of art is something that has beauty and value in and of itself, without reference to its creation or who owned it. Or maybe that's too subjective still. I looked at the bulging shelf of Hummel figurines and saw kitsch that would be no loss to the world were it to be smashed (which was perhaps the view of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, who reluctantly licensed her sketches of local children [artwork detested by Hitler himself] to a figurines company to help support her convent). Others see adorable innocence immortalized in ceramic.

At my own house, on a shelf in my daughter's bedroom, is one of those figurines of girls in a big ballgown, something like a friend of mine used to get every birthday. Our dancing girl came with the house, and I would have no qualms about throwing it away, but my daughter thinks it's pretty and likes to keep it. It's neither a matter of faith or morals or space or unified design choices or my having to see it all the time, so I allow it. But to me it's Dead People's Stuff, of no worth independently.

All creation should tell of the glory of God. One of my life goals is to keep from bringing into the house anything that, should we all vanish, would just be junk someone will have to dispose of. Certain kinds of plastic toys fit that bill. Books not worth the paper they're printed on. Electronics that will be obsolete in a year or two. Cheap clothes that wear out before they're out of fashion. Craft projects that shed pieces. Hobby equipment forgotten in a closet. You can't take it with you, of course. But often, you shouldn't have gotten it in the first place.

1 comment:

BenK said...

Beauty is not a property something has, really. It's an emergent property from an interaction. There is the aspect seen, the viewer, the appreciation, the revelation. In that, there is beauty. The same object can be seen by different people and beauty only arise in one of the interactions. Is isn't that the beauty is independent of the object (in the eye of the beholder) or that it is purely a trait of the object (and those who can't see it are boors).