Saturday, June 14, 2008

Frackelton's Dessert Plates

The spring semester has come and gone, and although I mentioned them in my last entry, somehow I never got around to actually blogging about Susan Frackelton's Dessert Plates. This set of small (about 6" diameter) porcelain plates hand-painted by Susan Frackelton c. 1890 was the subject of my seminar paper for a methods & theories of material culture class. For those who don't know, "material culture" is a catch-all term for physical objects that aren't really considered art but that academics still like to study, for example, dessert plates.

My department (and art historians generally) maintains an annoying division between material culture and visual culture, as though visual culture doesn't take material form and material culture has no visual component. Everything I want to study (e.g. fashion, furniture) could be considered both material and visual culture, because they are often material objects that people use but are also culturally constructed and circulated through predominantly visual media (like magazines).

But that's a tangent for another time! Once again I seem to be trying to get out of writing about Frackelton's Dessert Plates, much as I was all last semester. For whatever reason I just couldn't get excited about these objects or the paper I wrote on them.

Sure they're prime examples of the nineteenth-century china-painting craze, which makes them exemplary of popular yet marginalized "women's" arts. Sure, they incorporate Japanese and other self-consciously artistic motifs, making them part and parcel of my developing ideas on Japonisme and the Aesthetic Movement. They are even rather pretty, and remind me of a prized set of china currently owned by my mother that at least two out of her three daughters have their eye on. But a twenty-page paper? Really?

Somehow, I managed it, and the professor duly praised it, but I can't help feeling like I was just going through the motions. I figure it was good practice for my future career as a museum curator, when presumably I will have to write many a catalog entry for objects that I find neither beautiful nor interesting. But don't let me influence your own opinion of these pieces of material/visual culture. Just ask yourselves, if you had twenty pages to fill, what would you say?

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