The new feminism of the mid-20th century brought several opportunities and expectations for women. Among them was the idea that women no longer had to stay confined to the home. As a result, the domestic arts that women had so long preserved and cultivated in the home came to be seen as products of the emerging consumer culture. For the most part, families now buy their clothes and quilts and pre-packaged food items. The ease of consuming, rather than making, began to clear the road to modern culture.
Alongside this consumerism was an accompanying placelessness—a tendency to move frequently, which often results in a lack of belonging to a particular region. The big businesses that sell those “indispensable” consumer goods dot our homogenous towns and cities, resulting in what many scholars call the “McDonaldization” of culture.
Both of these two tendencies—consumerism and placelessness–might be combatted by giving attention to human making, and a renewal of the domestic arts in everyday culture can contribute to an attendant renewal of a sense of place. I will explore the strong link between making and placedness by addressing three main qualities associated with them.
1. A relationship to physical materials. We are all physical, embodied creatures in place. It is easy to forget the significance of materiality in an age that values abstract goods and means of communication. While things like the Internet have no doubt changed our culture in many good ways, when we can get a product from halfway around the world in the click of a button, we often become disconnected from the products we consume and so cultivate an attitude of apathy to the methods of making that brought them to our doorstep. We rarely know the origin of our food, and the ethically questionable ways that many products are made can easily be forgotten when we are so detached from the actual process of making. By making the things we use, on the other hand, we gain a fuller understanding of what goes into products and, as a result, tend to use them more responsibly. We also develop a relationship to the physical materials and therefore tend to keep the things we make for a longer time. By developing an attitude of conservation in the home, we might also reflect that attitude to the places and communities we are a part of. Perhaps we can more easily notice the effects of our actions on wider places when we see them directly on the physical materials we use daily inside the home.
2. Attentiveness to the particularity of materials and places. In order to work well with a material, one must pay attention to it. The grain of a piece of wood, the thickness of a fabric, the type of soil in garden—all of these things matter to how well a person works with that material. Cultivating this attitude of attentiveness can carry over into other areas of our lives as well, such as our relationships to other people, non-human creatures, places, and God. When we become more attentive to making things rather than merely consuming them, when we “question” the qualities of a material or object and “localize” it in a particular context, we can see it not only for its physical qualities, but also cultivate an attitude of spiritual reflection. Particularizing the people and places in which we live can not only combat the wider consumer culture of the 21st century, but can also teach us things so simple and complex as “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” seeing them in their own particularity and place as creatures of God.
3. Learning from a broader communal tradition of making and design. Learning how to make something requires a relationship to a previous person or community of knowledge. And whether we read it in a book or ask a parent or friend, the tradition of making is passed down through each object and action we undertake. The moving of basic goods production outside the home meant that often whole strands of knowledge and tradition were lost. A grandmother’s cake recipe is replaced by Betty Crocker’s box mix. The individualism and placelessness of modern culture (resulting largely from a lack of connection to communities) can be combatted by situating oneself deeply within a community of knowledge and making. And the further one is grounded in a community or place, the more likely one is to stay there for a long time and develop a sense of belonging within it.
There are no doubt other things about the processes involved in the domestic arts that convey a sense of place and attitude of spiritual reflection.
Would you add anything to my list?
Jennifer Allen Craft is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places. She lives in St. Andrews with her husband Brandon who is currently pursuing an MSc in Forestry.
1. I acknowledge that domestic arts are not only a women’s craft, though because that has been the general rule until contemporary times, I situate in in the context of feminism. I should say, my husband can piece a quilt or embroider a felt brooch as good as the next person, and has helped me do these things on several occasions.
2. There are no doubt many other causes for consumerism and placelessness, and I am not implying that this is the only direct correlation between the two. They do seem to be to be indelibly linked, though.