The Common Good
May-June 2002

Martha Stewartship

by Julie Polter | May-June 2002

How to tell the difference between the good and a Good Thing OR What I learned from a domestic dominatrix.

I do not hate Martha Stewart. But I understand why some do.

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She projects a preternatural smugness that can draw out the most bitter and insecure depths of one's inner adolescent. Martha has the Machiavellian surety of a well-preserved prom queen—a prom queen with a multimedia empire and a fantastic investment portfolio that's chock full of good and very, very tasteful funds. It's all there in her voice, which a friend of mine likens to that of a woman from the suburbs of Stepford.

In TV and radio appearances, Martha can be funny and almost self-mocking about her reputation as a domestic dominatrix—that only makes it worse for many with a cynical or paranoid bent. It would be the perfect cover, that smile and low chuckle, while she steals your very soul, imprisoning it with all the others in her collection of antique porcelain soup tureens.

Martha peddles housewifery on steroids—Yankee ingenuity fiercely aimed at centerpieces and doily collections. It's a purred command to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and give those boots a gleaming, mirror-like polish along the way." It's life trapped in a country manse with a matriarch who's perpetually in manic mode. It's a myth of attainable perfection; a perfectly color-coordinated world built on works righteousness.

But sometimes I am entertained when flipping through Martha Stewart Living, enjoying the lovely photographs of carefully accessorized salads and elaborate crafts. I read the articles that tell much more than I knew I wanted to know about, say, bats (the kind that fly), potatoes, or antique kitchen towels. Sometimes I don't want to think. I want to read step-by-step instructions for making Christmas ornaments out of sheet metal or whipping up ice cream bombes (not to be confused with "bombs"—fortunately we've not yet had the corporate merger that will produce Martha Stewart Munitions).

Not everything in Martha's world is intricate, precious, or silly—the woman often offers helpful advice. When, as a first-time homeowner, I was anxious about the care and feeding of a house, I looked to her Web site for the step-by-step basics of homeowner's insurance, ceiling fans, and painting technique. My choice of NASCAR-yellow living room walls definitely doesn't fit in with Martha's WASP-in-the-country mute-tones, but I at least gave a glance to her brochure of tips on whole-house color coordination.

While capitalistic domination isn't my personal choice of a worthy goal, I can respect the skill and savvy that it takes to be an omnimedia titan. Self-assurance, business and marketing acumen, and successful repackaging of domesticity as a commodity aren't inherently evil. Men self-assuredly sold and marketed domestic life for decades; it does not seem fair to fault Martha for her success, in and of itself. Yet some of the negative press she receives no doubt arises in part from our culture's persistent discomfort about strong women in highly visible and independent leadership roles.

NO, I DON'T HATE Martha. But I do think she's dangerous.

In our so-called classless society, there is a secret, raging hunger for schooling in the proper way to live: making prudent purchases, creating a comfortable and attractive home space, and, once in a while, cutting vegetables into fancy shapes. This is Martha's vast realm. Sometimes I just want somebody to tell me how to arrange art on the wall. I was raised with black velvet paintings arrayed on paneling, which was simple but uninstructive: Pine trees, mountains, and Elvis' head should all point up.

Even with spiritual beliefs that tell me to hold lightly to the things of this world, I do want to be a good steward and caretaker of those objects in my control. I find creative and even spiritual enjoyment in furnishing and decorating my living space or making a meal that's both nourishing and festive. I'm interested in design and textiles and chairs with a great shape. Martha's tagline is "it's a good thing," and while she and I might not always have the same taste, there are definitely things that I count as good by my criteria (pleasing, well-designed, melding form and function, amusing, comforting, useful).

The trick here is that even good things, when taken to extreme, lose some of their goodness. Martha Stewart both feeds and feeds off of Western culture's hunger for stuff; her relentless marketing of life and style becomes excess—"good taste" and "good things" in decadent abundance. Of course it is easy to simply complain about consumerism. I am mindful of Daniel Harris' assertion, in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic, that many critiques of consumerism are "covert attacks on the bad taste of the lower classes…a way of bolstering the author's confidence in his own refinement." This is not my intent (and my parents' black velvet paintings were perfectly lovely). Nor do I intend to moralistically disapprove of material comforts. As Harris notes, even the critic who rightfully disapproves of conspicuous consumption has to acknowledge that his or her livelihood depends to some extent on said consumption. Most writers, after all, want people to buy our rants—figuratively and literally.

So I confess: I am a sinner and a consumer. I am class-confused, uncertain of how to retain loyalty to, and deep respect for, my working-class-to-their-very-tips roots while being thoroughly educated and taste-opinionated. I sometimes look at expensive chairs with lust in my heart. I can simultaneously crave cheap pork by-products and fine European cheeses. I like many things—a lot of stuff—most, if not all of it, completely unnecessary to life. And sometimes, down in my very soul, I long for Martha to tell me what's a Good Thing, so that I may be obedient and buy it, and know a peace that defies (and obscures) understanding.

So why do I advise extreme caution when entering the Martha Zone and warn friends and enemies from lingering too long in the world of Stewartship? Because Martha traffics in manufactured nostalgia rather than true memory, replacing life with lifestyle. This is what is most sinister to me about Martha Stewart. (Well, this and her company's name, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, with its connotations that Big Sister is everywhere, not just being watched, but watching, striving to be that in which we live and breath and have our glue gun.)

I do not necessarily question the sincerity of Martha's personal memories, recorded in each issue of Living in her "Remembering" column (although I have my doubts that all of the women in her family tied their babushkas "stylishly"). Rather what's troubling is the way she uses complicated crafts and detailed studies of archaic household items ("collectibles") in an attempt to determinedly and completely transform memory into a product. Daniel Harris writes that one technique of consumerism is to "re-enact the past as a form of recreation," detached from both the drudgery of pre-mechanized housework and the sacrifices it entailed. Collecting lets us seek roots that we can buy instead of dig for; objects become personal museum items, most often disconnected from the names and faces of those who actually used them.

Without memory and relationship, "quaint" objects and nostalgic crafts become mere props, aids to what Harris calls "calculated self-avoidance." Martha even provides the script and stage direction, a tale of a golden past that rarely was, a world where people worked hard, always knew abundance, and—whether they were noble laborer or lord of the manor—enjoyed said abundance with patrician elegance. One can picture Martha inserting herself into the gloomy Van Gogh painting "The Potato Eaters," glowing among the huddled peasants, brightening things up with her frozen, whitened smile, a citrus vinaigrette, and a floral centerpiece just perfect for the hovel.

THE APPEAL OF Martha's world is understandable. It is a fantasy of both wealth and relationship. The members of the middle classes for whom this vision is constructed are highly mobile, rarely staying in one place long enough to "age" a home with use and remembrance. They do work hard—but rarely at jobs that directly produce domestic pleasures like food, furniture, or handicrafts. We are in an age of Attention Deficit Disorder and fatigue-induced amnesia, and Martha's happy to supply the memories we can't seem to lay claim to with our own neurons.

But memory—the good and the ugly, the ecstatic and the searing—is holy. It is how we come to know who and whose we are—where we connect within the web of family, community, and creation. When hobbies and home decorating become supplanted by obsessive-compulsive rituals of nostalgia and shopping for the Past, real memory and current experience get shoved right off the lovingly antiqued table.

An ancient Roman poet coined the term "bread and circuses" to describe entertainment meant to distract from the more serious or concrete situations at hand. Bread and circuses—or to place it in Martha-context, say, miniature truffle puff pastries served from a spun-sugar cornucopia—satiate and divert a person into complacency. Which has little to do with true nourishment of body or soul. Never mind that truffle filling will stain the fine linens—you'll be running, not walking, for your Martha Stewart Stain Kit.

At the end of the day, learning to discern between the good and a Good Thing© is a soul-survival skill. Martha Stewart has unapologetically sold her name as a brand, with herself as a walking, talking logo. In television appearances she uses the plural pronouns to refer to Martha Stewart—"we," "us," and "our"—not because she is Legion (tempting as some would find it to pronounce her so), but because Martha Stewart is a corporate entity. This is a logical conclusion of capitalism at work.

But a central tenet of capitalism is "buyer beware." When Martha decrees that something is a "Good Thing," the pronouncement is a mix of command and come hither—the self-evident "truth" blended with seduction. The skilled salesperson always knows how to give desire a half-twist into perceived need. And the seduction often succeeds because of its surety: In a world of confusion, Martha makes at least a few things seem crystal clear, utterly free of annoying water spots.

After all, we're all supposed to want "the good," but that's simpler said than done—easier than knowing what good is, despite the fact that everyone from your kindergarten teacher to our national leader is quick to declare what is good, bad, and evil. Ethicists, philosophers, and theologians have been wrestling with a way to define "good" since the time of Aristotle and before. It is rarely, if ever, simply what you, me, or Martha likes or approves of. Even the sincere assertion of the faithful that "God is good" serves more as a compass than a roadmap. We discover most about good by seeking it, by grabbing our compass and setting out.

This doesn't preclude indulging a personal passion for putting faux finishes on furniture. But the mind needs to be kept sharp on the difference between what is faux, what is finish, and what is solid underneath. In the life that results from such engagement, the place settings may not always match. The people who end up at the table may not always be attractive or amusing. The memories may bring grief as well as reverie. The meal might be gourmet, plain, or even nonexistent. But the sum total will be true and real: A good thing.

A good thing that Martha isn't selling.

Julie Polter is associate editor of Sojourners.

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