The 'Life' (and Death?) of Objects: Reuse and the Biographical Metaphor

A couple of months ago I participated in a thought-provoking conference at Brown University that reconsidered 'reuse' in a broad cultural context. Revisiting my presentation for writing now, I find myself again grappling with one of its central metaphors: the 'life,' and afterlife, of architecture, objects, and design.

For a Gilded Age scholar, the discussion of reuse is unavoidable: Gilded Age architects drew regularly, often directly, on historical styles and treatises; dealers amassed volumes of historical and other objects from declining European estates (already full of 'reused' things) for redistribution in the US; and patrons adopted and adapted freely the elements of high cultures past that most suited their contemporary ambitions as a new social elite. As part of this discussion, objects are often considered in terms of 'lives' and 'afterlives,' denoting, generally speaking, their roles in the contexts for which they were originally created and the roles that they assume in other contexts later.

But as I struggle to unravel the 'life' of a tub that was based on ancient Roman designs adopted by the French in the eighteenth century and rediscovered in turn-of-the-century America by way of Victorian England, quarried and carved from 'antique' stone ca. 1880, installed in a Renaissance-style mansion on modern Fifth Avenue and dispersed with the rest of its contents in the 1920s (you get the idea), I can't help but wonder: Is the biographical metaphor the most efficient, or the most appropriate? Why do we use it in the first place? And what are its benefits and drawbacks?

The life of objects: the human aspect and the historian aspect

The most obvious explanation for the biographical metaphor is, simply: we're humans. We're born, we live, we die, we ostensibly live again in alternative form or meaning, and this is our readiest framework for the understanding (and creation) of other things. And it is useful in many ways.

For historians, and particularly art historians, the biographical metaphor serves as an organizational device that helps to define and contextualize periods of significance and change. This, in turn, helps us to understand the meaning and value of objects for individuals, groups, and cultures over time. We recognize, for example, that objects are experienced differently in different settings, and that objects, designs, spolia, etc., take on new meaning (or, in common phrase, are 'given new life,' in an architect-as-demigod sort of way) when removed from their original context.

It also calls attention to the agency of objects and their impact on social interaction and history. By interpreting objects according to human qualities, we position them as active players in the continuous definition of sociocultural structure and symbology. For me, this is the nuts and bolts of my Goffmanian approach to Gilded Age collecting and design: social identity is created through symbolic interaction in carefully staged settings, in which objects act as props for the performance of specific and socially exclusive roles and rituals. Their histories and provenance are part of their value and usefulness as such. (See also: Mimi Hellman's 1999 "Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France," in which objects are interpreted as actors rather than props.)

For all its advantages, however, the biographical approach to objects and architecture also has significant shortcomings, some of which can be fatal (no pun intended, but there we are) to well-rounded scholarship.

The death of objects: the limitations of biography 

The first flaw in the biographical metaphor is the first flaw of all interpretive categorical devices: it inherently prioritizes certain periods and elements over others, creating false boundaries and giving naturalized authority to manmade schemata. Is Boucher's The Toilette of Venus any more or less significant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art now than it was in Madame de Pompadour's bathing pavilion in 1751, or in Alva Vanderbilt's boudoir in 1880? Which is its life and which is its afterlife?

The second is that it can give rather too much agency, imbibing inanimate objects and structures with a sort of Hegelian spirit or Vasarian genius that distracts, again, from the fact that they are crafted and given meaning by humans. Do things have lives if we don't delineate them? Does the stonework from the A. T. Stewart mansion now incorporated into Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church 'live' in the same way if no one knows, or cares, that it's there?

And this begs the final question of: When do objects die?

I for the most part have been considering physical objects, but what about the memory of objects, or, to use an example from my current work, descriptions of objects for which there is no physical evidence? How do we interpret these as elements of an object's or building's story? And what about cast, copied, or misattributed objects? If Salvator Mundi turns out not to be a Leonardo, what happens to the biography we're writing for it now?

The practical has taken a bit of an abstract turn here....