Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/21/2012

“. . . a reworking of surfaces. . .” (a continuation)

Wardie Willis, Plantation Life c. 2000

Most of us who grew up in middle class homes in the ‘50s knew of Emily Post. She was the arbiter of “good taste,” and our mothers (mine, at any rate) delighted in telling us we were not following Emily Post’s dicta when our lack of manners upset them. The source of this information, we were led to believe, was more important than the Encyclopedia Britannica or Life magazine and only a tad lower than our elders and the Bible.

Offending the rules of etiquette could be both objective and subjective. Parents (mine, at any rate) confused us by referencing (or teaching us the Sitz im Leben from which they came) Post’s admonitions that

. . . on the one hand. . .  it is In bad taste to add to one’s décor “senseless and inappropriately cluttering objects, in the belief that because they are valuable they must be beautiful, regardless of suitability,” while having too “many love affairs” is in equally bad taste (1).

Of course, my mother made most choices about the décor of our home for us, and no one in our home ever spoke about having too many love affairs; but we were given to understand with certainty the difference between the appropriate and the inappropriate in both what we owned and what we did.

When I was in college, I went to class barefoot. The first time I was in graduate school, I drove home from my graveyard-shift job at L.A. County Hospital in my decrepit MGB at 8 AM stoned on dope. Later when I was again in graduate school in Iowa, I had way too many love affairs. That I freely write about these indiscretions is indication that I did not learn the lessons of Emily Post thoroughly enough.

But those indiscretions are nothing compared with the “senseless and [inappropriate]. . . objects [cluttering my home] in the belief that because they are valuable they must be beautiful, regardless of suitability.” I have in my living room a pipe organ (hanging on it a painting by a friend). I have a wooden chair that belonged to my great-grandfather, a chair not elegant when it was new and accruing no elegance since. I have another chair that belonged to my father which I can describe in the same way. My grandmother’s treadle sewing machine is visible from my front door. I have three paintings that are valuable, but not fashionable. I have five paintings by the Louisiana primitive artist Wardie Willis (1924-2011) that are not valuable or fashionable, but which everyone who sees them loves. None of my furnishings are “of a piece” or in particularly “good taste.”

Great Grandfather’s Chair

The mid-rise apartment building where I live was one of the places to live in the gay hood 50 years ago. Now it’s the faded dowager, its inheritance of fashion barely a memory in the minds of the aging gay population, and its renters mostly married medical students from UTSouthwestern Medical School. The rent is commensurate with its fashion.

I have a theory—it’s not my theory—that the reason men like me are supposed to have a great deal more “style” and “taste” than I do stems from our “pagan” way of life. I mean “pagan” in its oldest sense from the Greek—one who lives outside the city, who does not participate in the regular life of the city. This living outside allows us (most of us, in general) to concentrate on and care about aspects of society that those who are off fighting wars have little time for or interest in. We pagans (most of us, at any rate) have found our fulfillment in beautiful things rather than practical things. Yes, yes, I know—that’s stereotyping and probably homophobic. However, it’s the standard view of gay men in our society, the picture the hugely popular and successful “Modern Family” presents. This applies even to married gay men with children and lots of disposable income.

My gay friends can tell you who won the academy award for best actress for the past five years and, more importantly, what each of them wore on the red carpet. (At least that’s my perception of my friends.) I cannot.

My mother once (1958) had opportunity to design a house—not by herself, but she had veto power over the design. She insisted the “parsonage” had to have a living room and a pastor’s study that were separate from the rest of the house. She managed to oversee the design for a completely functional, structurally simple, comfortable home. The decoration was, I think, 100% hers.

The practice of interior decoration connotes ornamental rather than structural alteration, a reworking of surfaces, textures, fabrics, and finishes, rather than . . . reshaping of space. Where the word “design” suggests both conceptual and practical expertise (“to plan and execute [a structure, work of art, etc.]”), the term “decorate” conveys an almost literally superficial endeavor (“to furnish or deck with ornamental accessories”)(2).

Our home was nicely decorated. My mother had—when given a free and an adequate budget—good taste. That is not surprising to me because “. . . the figure of the interior decorator, whether amateur or professional, male or female, has typically been aligned with the work and world of women” (3). Or gay men (Oops! Stereotyping again). Watch Nate Berkus transform an apartment. Or the “Extreme Makeover” guys do a house.

This is the third or fourth time I have written on this subject, and I don’t seem to be getting any farther with my thoughts. Here’s why. I’m trying to do some real thinking about how we humans learn—discover—inherit—fall into what we love and don’t love.  One of the reasons I can’t seem to get my ideas moving is that my thinking tied itself in knots when I tried to add questioning how we develop our distastes. Why do we not like something? Simply because Emily Post says we shouldn’t?

Robert DiGregorio, "Cascade."

Robert DiGregorio, “Cascade.”

My hang-up here is that I began to wonder if the judgment of taste for most of us becomes a moral judgment as much as an aesthetic one and to fear that our understanding of taste is “. . . evident in people’s reactions to someone else’s appearance, odors, and table manners as repugnant or loathsome—reactions which, in turn, have justified social stratification and segregation” (4).

I wish I had not stumbled onto Owen Jones’s article because I fear that, “the subject of distaste thus . . . encompasses aesthetics and moral judgments, and sometimes, rejection of our fellow human beings as well” (5). We pagans are so sensitive about being judged and rejected it seems we ought not to judge and reject anyone simply as a matter of taste.
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(1) Curtin, Mary Elizabeth. “Ghastly Good Taste: The Interior Decorator And The Ethics Of Design In Evelyn Waugh And Elizabeth Bowen.” Home Cultures 7.1 (2010): 5-23. Quoting:  Post, Emily. Etiquette. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922.
(2) Meyer, Richard. “Big, Middle-Class Modernism.” October 131 (2010): 69-115.
(3) ibid.
(4) Owen Jones, Michael. “What’s Disgusting, Why, And What Does It Matter?” Journal of Folklore Research 37.1 (2000): 53-71.
(5) ibid.

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  1. […] Wardie Willis (October 11, 1924 – February 23, 2011) was 87 when she died. She was a “folk art” painter (I guess that’s what you’d call her) in Louisiana. She has not reached any level of fame as an artist. I can’t get the Louisiana Art and Artists’ Guild to answer my email about her although I know she was a member and had her work shown in a New Orleans gallery at least once. I own five of her paintings. […]

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