by Anna Kryczka, University of California, Irvine, Visual Studies
Throughout Catherine Liu’s seminar, I found myself consistently interested in tracing a publications history of the 1980s. So much of what has come to be the canon of critical or postmodern theory was either translated or published during this decade. From Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus in 1987 to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life in 1984 to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto of 1985 and many more. These texts and numerous others attempt to assess that state of theory, culture, and resistance in the decades since 1968. Rather than recapitulate the reception of these texts, I will examine yet another touchstone publication of the 1980s, one that speaks to the diverse themes and tendencies delineated in those academic publications: Martha Stewart’s debut book, Entertaining of 1982.
Entertaining offers a luxurious vision of late capitalist, do-it-yourself, domestic display. This oversized and lavishly illustrated book contains anecdotes, recipes, and instructions for events such as a “Midnight Omelet Party for Thirty” or a “Russian Buffet for Twenty–four.” These opulent propositions for domestic entertainment and leisure activities fill this three hundred page aspirational and pseudo-instructional tome. The interplay of text and image, anecdote and recipe enact a form of imaginary class consolidation and aggregate an appropriate visual vocabulary around an ideal form of elite domestic display. Through a scale of overabundance and the re-enchantment of material culture, Stewart conquers the domestic with an elite bricolage, thick with neoliberal “values,” such as self-sufficiency, ceaseless work, and self-expressivity.
In the introduction to Entertaining she details the transformation of her self-sufficient home into her nascent corporate headquarters. She writes: “My own kitchen has grown wild with detail. I think it is very beautiful because it is expressive. The other rooms in the farmhouse are ordered and formal, with few truly comfortable places to sit down—for, in fact, we don’t sit down very much.” Stewart’s embrace of gratuitous elite display is matched by her inflated and demonstrative work ethic. Further, her assertion that her kitchen is “expressive” relates to discourses of personalization and “Martha Stewart” individualism and neo-Emersonian perfectionism reiterated throughout the book.
While Stewart does not explicitly condemn or even hail progressive modernist design or food cultures, her willful anachronism and promotion of individualism, cultivation, and self-sufficiency can be seen in some ways as a rejection of the rhetoric of access to modernity and efficiency through mass consumption. The notion that all Americans can buy good taste or that good taste can be mass produced is the tacit target of Stewart’s rusticated and antiquated mode of domestic display. By circumventing this rhetoric of industrially or mass produced taste, expertise, access, and leveling, Stewart espouses the primacy of self-sufficiency, distinction, and cultivation over the promotion of good living through good citizenship, conformity, and consumption.
Throughout Entertaining, Stewart also works hard to differentiate her own recommendations for throwing the perfect social engagement from the long history of etiquette and the tight, top-down regulation of special events. Her brand of elite bricolage smoothly sutures together a highly selective family history, a résumé-like account of her various high end catering feats, all on a luxuriant scale, with recourse to homespun expertise, appeals to modesty, and a highly attuned form of spatial production. These aspects are stitched together and evened out by the overall thematic of style and through her consistent presence throughout the images that illustrate the book. Indeed, Stewart’s home, house wares, food arrangements or body populate every page of the book. Further, the spatial proximity of the nonspecific “Oriental” cocktail party, a splash of Victorian whimsy, the “Russian” Banquet, the ahistorical “Country” style produces, through pastiche, a non-hierarchical form of stylistic pluralism. Stewart obliterates difference across culture and history for the sake of class distinction and transgressive deviation from fussy traditions. Further, Stewart’s dismissal of enervating or stifling traditions associated with etiquette manuals works to position her intervention into the advice world as well-versed in past thought, permissive, and anti-authoritarian.
Stewart’s form of opulent, home entertaining espouses a kind of self-made expertise derived from endless labor that banishes drudgery because of its “higher calling” to Emersonian self-sufficiency. Stewart tells her own story of self-overcoming from her humble family background to her entrepreneurial development, as a marker of her own embodiment of self-reliance. Through the compression of time and space accomplished through the elision of difference between labor and leisure public and private, Stewart’s home is offered as a microcosm of the greater neoliberal imaginary. The renovated farmhouse, transformed from abandoned agricultural relic into self-styled hybrid working and living space, manifests Stewart’s self-transformation. Stewart, too, utilizes this language of growth and personalization and uses the event and the home as metonymic stand-ins or signifiers for the self. The everyday activities of cooking and household management find their extreme and fantastic form in Stewart’s banquets and dinners. These instances of domestic hyperbole are packaged as expressive emblems of the self, while also serving as markers of class distinction and, therefore, mastery of emergent neoliberal subject positions. Stewart’s book, published in 1982, was well positioned as a manual for a newly minted financial elite eager for the appearance of cultural fluency.
Indeed, Stewart’s homestead and vision of entertaining seems to cobble together a diversity of pasts—agricultural, geographic, economic, literary, personal, and historical—made manifest through and for decoration and display. Stewart’s practice is both spatial and fiscal; she fills her home space with this ahistorical, elite bricolage through a foreclosure of separable spheres of public and private and the elision of labor and leisure for the purposes of developing her domestic empire. Stewart’s fabricated rituals and “tactical” labors manifest through the colonization of domestic space and time with form of labor that is at once ordinary, performative, and entrepreneurial. Stewart works to codify an elite eclecticism, stemming from her proposition of “Martha Stewart individualism” as a new or invented domestic tradition. Stewart turns away from novel or technocratic solutions with regard to domestic labor and promotes performative individualism, care, and craft as the route to better living.
In closing, Martha Stewart’s wholesale revolution of the domestic advice industry traces back to this early 80s moment, when she so skillfully harnessed and met the cultural capital needs of a newly configured financial elite. Stewart was well prepared for the eventual fall of the hyperactive market activities that produced this intended elite audience. In 1987, the same year the massive stock market crash shocked the finance world with the largest single day drop, Stewart cut a deal with Kmart to carry a line of affordable house wares. Since then, her entrepreneurial DIY ethos has become fairly ubiquitous, from Stewart’s own multi-media, multi-platform, and multi-product domestic empire to online marketplaces such as Etsy. The politics of entrepreneurial domestic labor and craft production would make for a fascinating conference in itself. Further, Stewart’s home-based enterprise anticipates the ubiquity of the home-office or the “work from home” freelance labor model. Her spatial and entrepreneurial practices inflect contemporary understandings of work and leisure—in and out of the domestic context. Stewart’s eventual imprisonment for insider trading has not tempered the popularity of her myriad domestic products and musings. Her role as a corporate scapegoat, her time in prison, and her post-incarceration resurgence together form a fascinating cycle of entrepreneurial bust, reform, and renewal.