A first-time guest at the very small house where we then
lived in Queens, New York, demonstrated more candor than tact when he remarked
that our living room looked "like an old-fashioned pawn shop." Once
past the shock of total unsolicited disclosure, I looked around and thought,
"Well, yes, it does."
And in fact
there were, between walls fairly well covered by books, prints, family
photographs and sand paintings, several small tables holding Greek pottery,
baskets from the American Southwest, handicraft items from the Dominican
Republic, Italy and Spain, and a wrought iron stand my husband had made to
support our houseplants. Grateful that our guest had no inkling of the
additional memorabilia on the walls and shelves in the three bedrooms
upstairs—our sons had brought back from our travels lots of bullfighting
implements and flags, and I had framed and hung my needlework—I did my best to
smile, served lunch, and steered the conversation elsewhere, but his comment
stayed with me into the present, into our new, larger house.
for spare, minimalist home decoration has, if anything, gained ground over the
years, and yet my surroundings continue to fill up inexorably. From time to
time I try to diminish the clutter, but whatever I remove from sight
immediately argues, almost out loud, for its return to the family, as if all of
it—the visibly aging faces of lifelong friends, the items inherited from
relatives now becoming fewer and fewer, the books whose very spines summon up
ideas, conversations and remembered experiences, the handmade art work by
grandchildren—had a sacred right to its place in our time and our
this is not only a personal but an aesthetic issue, I raise it in this blog for
and by artists, in order to ask whether there is, in fact, such a thing as
"clutter," or if one person's clutter is simply another's emotional
nest. And if a work—a painting, photo, or poem—may, like my Queens house,
resemble a pawn shop, is that because the viewer's eye rejects it as inherently
unattractive, or because that eye has not been given the clues that would turn
the work into a meaningful whole, and perhaps even attractive when understood?
Do we really "know what we like," or do we, instead, "like what
we know," rejecting whatever seems extraneous because it has not been
identified and assigned such-and-such a role in its context?
of tools is a case in point: at first sight in a store, hardware seems simply
confusing. But my husband's tool board is—to me, anyway—appealing, because by
now I know how most of those gizmos are used, and can not only picture the
process and its results, but also visualize the specific user at work. The
whole arrangement is, for me, invested with layers of associations that give it
value, and yes, beauty.
know once responded to an illustration of Tutenkhamen's gold-and-black funeral
portrait by saying "That is really ugly!" She was amazed when told
that it's considered a work of art, and very beautiful. Would it have helped
her to know what the portrait represented, who he was, when and where he lived,
and how he had died, or is all of that irrelevant? I've heard similar reactions
to collages, constructions, abstractions and the often inscrutable
installations, including some that moved me profoundly.
extent does our appreciation of the visual depend on our ability to see behind
the strictly visual? Should it ever? Should it always? When is a museum a pawn
shop? When is a pawn shop potentially a museum? When is clutter art?
Rhina P. Espaillat
Poet, NAA Member