Quilts and Art in "Everyday Use"
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 a frozen timepiece 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 them 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."