by Michael Owen Jones
The Smiths, middle aged and middle class, live near UCLA. Approaching their home you notice the lush cover of hybrid bluegrass and rye a couple of inches high outlined by a bed of African violets, lobelia, pansies, and petunias. On the day of trash collection, the Smiths carefully set their matching covered plastic containers in a straight line next to the driveway. Inside their board and batten house (painted every five years), they have left exposed the living room- dining area's high ceiling, beams, and wall of tongue and groove wood paneling. They painted other walls white to show off scenic photos and also Jan's painted seascape at sunset in reds, purples, and blues. Area rugs of striped patterns in muted colors of rust, orange, beige, and blues soften the hardwood floors.
Jan and Norm make sensory decisions daily, such as selecting their wearing apparel. Norm usually dons a grey herringbone sport coat, a blue shirt (today will it be button down or straight collar, and with or without a tie?), dark grey slacks, and black shoes. Jan chooses between skirt and slacks, blouse and sweater (or both), usually in browns, rust, and other earth tones. He avoids after shave lotion and she perfume, and both shower with an unscented glycerine bar, not wanting, they say, to mix a lot of smells. They usually make the bed on arising and wash dishes after eating, they admit, for untidiness upsets them. When they contemplate their meals they must make decisions based on a desire for (and assessment of) certain visual, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory sensations along with the effects of emotional states, associations, and interactions with others.
A typical dinner for guests at the Smiths' home consists of a salad with romaine lettuce and artichoke hearts, simply dressed; poached salmon with rice and lightly steamed asparagus or perhaps French green beans; fresh sourdough bread or rolls; and half a papaya with blueberries in the center or sometimes a torte or other dessert from a local bakery. For beer drinkers, Norm keeps a supply of frosted glass mugs in the freezer. He also serves a chablis or sauvignon blanc; California chardonneys tend to be too fruity, he says. Norm and Jan drink tea after dinner, but offer freshly brewed coffee to others. In winter Norm builds a cozy fire to add to the ambience. He takes pride in doing it from scratch using wadded up newspaper and kindling, maintaining a certain level of ash in the bed, and varying mesquite, eucalyptus, and other logs according to their burning properties.
Norm mows the lawn himself, taking pleasure in its "proper" height, evenness, and consistency; he abhors gardeners who cut the grass off at its roots leaving bare dirt that invites an invasion of weeds. Jan delights in digging in the flower bed, smelling the freshly turned earth, running it through her fingers, pulling off wilted petals, and shaping the flowers as her own special creations.
The Smiths produce art, that is, they make something considered "special" (usually because of the skill required and the technical excellence evident) that generates an appreciative, contemplative response in the percipient. The maker and others respond to the creations aesthetically by perceiving them, being affected by them, making judgments concerning them, and recognizing them as transforming the ordinary into something extraordinary. In the care with which she chooses clothing to wear--the combination of colors and fabrics, design, and fit--Jan creates a work of art, that of her costumed self. Norm is a master fire builder, one from whom others have taken lessons, myself included. The couple's front and back yards, their arrangement of furniture, the meals they serve: these too are aesthetic forms viewed by the Smiths and others as something special, as embellishments on everyday life.
In their choices the Smiths evince a particular style. Order, symmetry, simplicity, uniformity--no clutter in the house, no spiciness in the food, no flashiness in dress or appearance--these qualities constitute the distinctive and characteristic mode of presentation, construction, or execution in what the Smiths make and do. The Smiths exhibit taste, that is, preferences and standards of excellence some of which are idiosyncratic, others shared between them because of mutual attraction, accommodation or negotiation, and yet others general in American society (e.g., the preference for browns and blues). Jan and Norm also manifest creativity according to all four of its meanings, whether bringing something into existence that wasn't there before, consciously rendering a particular performance special (e.g., a meal for guests, the day's clothing ensemble, the fire in the fireplace), making changes in an existing form in order to improve upon it (frosting the beer mugs), or creating something entirely new (like Jan's seascape). The Smiths behave in ways that clearly are aesthetic, and they have aesthetic experiences and responses. A positive aesthetic response involves feelings of tension and then catharsis, an absorption with the object, a feeling that time is suspended (e.g., Jan working in her garden). It produces pleasure, satisfaction, and even a sense of oneness or unity with the object and other people. In a negative aesthetic response tension goes unrelieved, a person desires other stimuli to distract attention, and time seems drawn out. It results in a sense of doubt, loathing, or even disgust (as when Norm views the destruction of his lawn by a gardener). Typically an individual seeks experiences known or expected to produce positive reactions, and will cultivate them, while avoiding those that will precipitate a negative response.
Much of the Smiths' behavior is symbolic. Their clothing ensembles, the design and care of their home and yards, the meals they serve to others represent wider patterns of meaning, not just practical expediency. They embody values, create self-image, convey an identity, and communicate attitudes, assessments, and opinions. The Smiths' behaviors resemble other people's partly because of modeling but also owing to the fact that, when experiencing events together, individuals generate behaviors that reflect their shared experiences.
The Smiths did not study at a culinary institute, major in landscaping, take courses in building fires, or learn how to dress in the classroom. Rather, they modeled their behavior after that of other people with whom they interacted, that is, learned from precedents; they also displayed their behavior at firsthand in interactional networks. Much of their behavior is folklore. The term designates expressive behaviors that we learn, teach, use, or display in face-to-face interactions. In everyday life we convey much of what we know, think, believe, and feel in readily distinguishable, often symbolic ways (e.g., narrating, using proverbs, dispensing conventional wisdom, taking part in festive events, engaging in rituals, preparing and serving food, etc.). For the most part we learn these behaviors informally and directly from each other. With repetition, many expressive behaviors become traditional, exhibiting continuities and consistencies through time and space. Most folk art belongs to ordinary day-to-day experiences: the way people decorate their homes and work space, dress or adorn themselves, create altars and ornaments or other objects for holidays, prepare and serve food, assemble photographs in albums, and craft such things as quilts, furniture, pottery, rugs, clothing, toys, and gifts for friends. The Smiths are not folk art specialists. They do create folk art, however, as expressions of taste, symbols of themselves, and the desire for pleasant aesthetic experiences that transform the ordinary.
For more information on folklore in daily life, see Folkloristics: An Introduction, available in our bookstore.