Truth and Beauty

One of the hallmarks of early Greek culture which differentiated it from either Egyptian or Babylonian cultures was the spirit of argument in the discovery of truth. Theory was always attacked if a better idea or substantive truth was found to replace an existing concept. Spontaneous generation, for example, was a theory posited for plants or animals whose creation remained a mystery and a source of constant investigation. (Young eels known as elvers were found in the mud but it was not known how they came into being and were believed to have generated spontaneously. The mystery continued until the 1920’s when eels were found to spawn near Bermuda.) Seeking truth became a process for the Greeks.

The Furniture History Society sponsored a study day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday which was fascinating in many ways. The foremost is that the study of furniture is far from dormant. The second is that almost all the papers touched on the concept of taste, albeit peripherally. Taste is clearly the most fascinating subject of all, particularly when one speaker, Haneen Rabie, gave a talk entitled “The Second Empire in Paris”. Her slides showed extraordinary groupings of dazzling looking items all clumped together. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that the Second Empire lacked a clear direction as regards taste. Instead, the world of art and design was opening and people were throwing it all together in interiors that seemed to lack either rhyme or reason.

Unlike scientific inquiry, the inquiry into the reasons for style and, ergo, taste, do not allow for straightforward understanding. The response to the talk and slides on the Second Empire were many, some defensive and some offensive as regards to the speaker’s representation of the era. Without doubt, however, fashion and taste follow money and my own take on the dilution of taste, and by dilution I mean a lack of direction, is that economic expansion necessarily undermines dominant tastes rendering them passé practically by definition. New money either wants to identify with old money or reject it’s norms, the latter being far more prevalent in the modern era.

What does this have to do with the Greeks and their spirit of inquiry? Any person of taste has to understand the manifestations of style. They can’t just understand Chippendale or Hepplewhite, they need to understand Italian and French, and of all eras, not just the 18thcentury. Not only that, they have to comprehend when style works and when it doesn’t. Arguably, the Second Empire lacked direction and there was no taste, but I sincerely doubt that is the case. What happened is that the people with new money were not clear on how to use their money well. Instead, they chose to show their sophistication by piling Japanese onto French onto American, new and old, and the result was, more often than not, chaotic.

American interiors in the latter half of the 19th century seemed wide open to this chaos and yet, for anyone who has visited San Simeon, Biltmore or any of the Newport mansions, the socially elite were quite clear in their likes and dislikes. San Simeon is quite marvelous, in my opinion, and the slides we saw of Biltmore showed interesting, not chaotic, interiors. The Newport mansions are generally well put together, even if they did eschew the antique for items made in the style of the antique. The places where taste truly was pushed, often to the detriment of any style incorporated therein, were public interiors such as hotel lobbies. True taste is a matter of constant analysis, something that the Greeks would well understand. I am not sure that is true for the contemporary era. I hope I am wrong.

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