Everyday Essay

Use By Alice Walker
With her story, “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker is saying that art
should be a living, breathing part of the culture it arose from, rather than
something from which to be observed from a distance. To make this point, she
uses the quilts in her story to symbolize art; and what happens to these quilts
represents her theory of art. The quilts themselves, as art, are inseparable
from the culture they arose from.. The history of these quilts is a history of
the family. The narrator says, “In both of them were scraps of dresses
Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa
Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece . . . that was from
Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.” So these
quilts, which have become an heirloom, not only represent the family, but are an
integral part of the family. Walker is saying that true art not only represents
its culture, but is an inseparable part of that culture. The manner in which the
quilts are treated shows Walker’s view of how art should be treated. Dee covets
the quilts for their financial and aesthetic value. “But they’re
priceless!” she exclaims, when she learns that her mother has already
promised them to Maggie. Dee argues that Maggie is “backward enough to put
them to everyday use.” Indeed, this is how Maggie views the quilts. She
values them for what they mean to her as an individual. This becomes clear when
she says, “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts,” implying
that her connection with the quilts is personal and emotional rather than
financial and aesthetic. She also knows that the quilts are an active process,
kept alive through continuous renewal. As the narrator points out, “Maggie
knows how to quilt.” The two sisters’ values concerning the quilt represent
the two main approaches to art appreciation in our society. Art can be valued
for financial and aesthetic reasons, or it can be valued for personal and
emotional reasons. When the narrator snatches the quilts from Dee and gives them
to Maggie, Walker is saying that the second set of values is the correct one.

Art, in order to be kept alive, must be put to “Everyday Use” —
literally in the case of the quilts, figuratively in the case of conventional
art. Alice Walker is using the quilts, and the fate of those quilts, to make the
point that art can only have meaning if it remains connected to the culture it
sprang from. Her story itself is a good example: Walker didn’t write it to be
observed under a glass case, judged aesthetically, and sold to the highest
bidder; she meant it to be questioned, to be explored, to be debated — in
short, to be put to “Everyday Use.”

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