The high humidity that summer in New York brings has consequences for our bodies that seem entirely unrelated to barometric pressure. I notice one of them throughout the summer as my ear canals swell just enough to make the wearing of my hearing aids uncomfortable. Clearly we are talking about a tiny amount of space, but I can assure you that the agony of a slightly smaller ear canal is very real. For some, it is the feet and legs that swell, also an uncomfortable by-product of high pressure systems.
High humidity causes problems for wood as well. Cut timber, no matter how well dried, never stops absorbing moisture. This tends not to be a major problem if humidity is controlled, but if there are radical extremes of moisture, there will be swelling and shrinking, a problem that can be deleterious to all furniture, not just antiques. The average apartment in New York City will range from 3% humidity in the heating season to 80% in the summer.
Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum have atmospheric controls to keep humidity, year round, at around 55%. Indeed, if you don’t have climate control, the MMA is a great place to visit in mid-winter to make your entire body feel less tight, because, just as humidity swells the body, high heat shrinks the body causing tightness or stiffness of the joints and muscles. Couple that with the cold, and winter earns its place as being more miserable than humidity in summers.
Clearly, too much of one thing is never particularly good. Extremes of heat or cold are bad, but when we become extreme in our behavior, it can be quite dangerous. Militant extremists have no qualms about their lack of balance and always see war as justified. Indeed, balance, as the Chinese recognized long ago and which they appear to have turned their back on, is in understanding countervailing realities and working within the context of that dichotomy. It seems a hard thing to do these days.
Simplicity is what every designer is urged to remember when creating objects for regular use. It is not a bad mantra for all of the decorative arts and also applies to writing. Clarity, we are told, can get lost in complexity. I don’t think this is wrong, but simplicity, as pleasing as it can be, denies the role of style to some extent. We neither can, nor necessarily want, to write like Ernest Hemingway or create Shaker style furniture. Both are beautiful in their own right, but they should not be used as a good reason for not writing like, for example, Franz Kafka, or creating furniture in a rococo, classical or baroque style.
Our minds, however, often create an either/or dichotomy as it is far easier to digest. It takes work to understand Kafka and it requires attention to detail to understand style. It is far more difficult to understand great rococo than it is to understand Shaker furniture. This is not placing the two styles in contention, it is understanding that one is more complex in its nature. You either like the complexity or you don’t, but to dismiss it is a form of ignorance. That ignorance is easily cured, but the reality is that people take offense at things they are ignorant about rather than take the time to understand them.
This is true of our nation at this moment. There is a groundswell of support for non-toleration of what is called, “the other”, or people with whom we don’t identify. Essentially a dismissive attitude grounded in ignorance, it denies the value of any other system but our own. Looking at human history, most great empires that have not valued the other have essentially self-destructed, primarily for their inability to adapt to societal change. You can see a parallel in genetics as interbreeding causes species to lose the breadth of antibodies that are able to fight ever changing pathogens. Simply: diversity is good.
The truth is that it is hard to understand the other. It takes both tolerance and the intellectual capacity to realize that there is more than one way of doing something. The rococo style can be frivolous, to be sure, but there is a beauty to it that Shaker furniture can’t have. The opposite is true as well and for the connoisseur grasping those realities is part and parcel of connoisseurship. Understanding the many ways of being in this world, and recognizing that there is something to learn from all of them, is important to the survival of our society. Greatness isn’t pure, it’s a composite of many things.
What is it about art that gets people so excited? This is the kind of question that is very hard to answer as only personal experience is valid as a response. Rather than try to talk for the masses, I would much prefer to say what gets me excited about art. I will admit that it doesn’t happen often enough for me, but it most certainly happens. It also happens with antique furniture, but in a very different way. Both, however, ring the aesthetic bell when they are right.
I have to admit to having taken a number of art courses. I am not an artist. I could draw in a barely passable fashion, but there was no inspiration to my work. I did, however, love to look at art. Janson’s, “History of Art: The Western Tradition”, was my bible and I learned every painting in the book. That paintings could be so many things—craft, allegory, decorative, colorful, eerie, suspenseful, sad and joyful, and much, much more, was fuel to my understanding.
Of course, the range of feelings that you can get from a painting is singular in one way, but widespread in others. How do you define that the image that resounds so purposefully, a feeling that no one else can know? The truth is that all of us get these moments in our own way. What is so extremely interesting is that paintings can be part of fads and fashion. How can any style of art go out of fashion? As unbelievable as this might be, it happens.
I can remember more than a few moments where I have been deeply affected by a painting. An exhibition of Edmund Burra’s work at the Tate, Rembrandts in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Poussin in Edinburgh or the incredible exhibition of Pissarro and Cezanne at MOMA. There are many more of those moments, but in each case, I felt that the paintings were more than their substance or their subject, that somehow the artist transcended everything to show me something quite singular.
These are, of course, name painters, acclaimed by many and obvious choices. However, I name these paintings and these moments not to the exclusion of other artists, but simply because no one knows the other art I might refer to. There are a slew of artworks that I feel very strongly about, people that few have heard of, and the feeling of excitement is no less valid for their relative obscurity. This is, in my opinion, the very greatest thing about art.
I am not a connoisseur of contemporary art and such moments are rarer for me in that medium. I somehow feel that contemporary art has debased itself, relying on message over craft. This criticism is too broad to have meaning save for myself, but I have heard it often enough that I wonder just where, as a broad movement, art will step next? That doesn’t matter either as most artists aren’t concerned with anything but their own work Thank God for that!
I am a committed capitalist and have long realized that market analysis is a function of not only understanding how markets work in the short run, but also over time. Whether it is day by day, month by month, year by year or even decade by decade, the investor has to understand that his investment will necessarily fluctuate down and yet, hopefully, also go up. It seems pretty simple, but in this era of huge wealth, it also seems quite complex, particularly in certain markets.
The contemporary art market is an unusual market for the foremost reason that many of the artists being traded for high prices are still alive and producing. How do you know an artist has reached his peak? How do you know that the artist won’t trash or disavow his earlier work? What happens if the primary collector of that artist leaves the market? The list of questions is longer than you might think, the most pressing being what happens if the entire field, contemporary, starts to go south?
Another side of the question is how does major investment in art affect it as a whole? It certainly enhances interest in art which is a wonderful thing. The question I have, however, is why do we like art? What does it do for us? The investment angle yields a tepid answer—because it might be a good investment. What is lacking is the appreciation of the art itself. After all, some of the big money contemporary art might be judged in time as being second rate and not worth anything.
Investment, therefore, almost inevitably affects a market in ways that change that market. The tulip craze in Holland in the early 17th century is a good case in point where the price of a single tulip, at its peak, was worth an entire estate, and at its nadir, an onion bulb. Markets, in other words, often lose sight of the existential value of what is being purchased and in doing so actually destroy all sense of appreciation for what is being traded. Monetizing something can have negative effects after all.
Is this the weak point of capitalism? Can excess be reined in? I am not so certain that it can. Human nature will capitalize on the moment. In the crash of 2008, it must be remembered that the big banks were trading junk securities but those instruments were filled out by local bankers eager to cash in on the rush to lend money to people who had no chance of repaying it. The conundrum of capitalism seems to be in knowing when enough is enough. That is a tough lesson to learn.
There are natural progressions that seem completely unnatural when examined. The path through puberty is the most obvious one as children shed their childlike ways to become something inexplicable until, of course, they achieve adulthood. The natural progression of fashion is no different, but it is not as clearly defined as puberty. Styles will spark, flare and either catch for a while or just fade away, but they almost never completely die. And the “new” can look entirely incompatible with the old and yet, you know as well as you know about puberty, that the new is never unrelated to the old.
The NY Times Style Magazine has a photograph of a poured concrete house, a former underwear factory near Potsdam in Germany, that looks vaguely unfinished. Actually, it isn’t so vague, it is purposely rough with two irregularly shaped windows that are not squared. The style touches on brutalist, naïve, functional and, in a way, even rustic. There is a distinct lack of decoration save for a downspout that juts out from the roof on one corner and looks somewhat like the spout of an oil can. Set amidst trees in a country like setting, the house resonates in a number of ways.
What sparked this particular repurposing? Look at all the glass towers being built in this world and you might have one idea. But think also of the desire for authenticity that seems so hard to attain in our slick modern world. But most of all, think of how much money was saved in the re-use of this place. It is by no means “undesigned” and it beats the costs of razing and building. And, if you know the area where the house is located near Potsdam, you will also know that there are numerous poured concrete camps, places for holidays in the days of the GDR. In other words, there is a tradition for the style in that area.
This is not to say that the house is representative of any style shift. The poured concrete buildings of the 1950’s are not particularly revered although they are admired, not unlike Sir John Soane’s austere classicism. This villa may simply be an enigmatic outlier to early 21st century architecture and promptly forgotten. The point is that there are very good reasons why it exists and why it is on the cover of the magazine. It says something about who we are at the moment, even if you don’t get the message. Liking it is one thing, understanding it is something altogether different.
DNA sequencing has totally changed the understanding that we have of our genetic makeup and is consequently changing our understanding of early human migration. In an article in the NY Times Science section, human DNA has been found in Neanderthals from Siberia that is 100,000 years old. This upsets the accepted theory that humans of European and Asian ancestry left Africa 50-60,000 years ago. It was a good theory.
Theory is a marvelous invention. It clearly separates humans from other animal forms allowing us to make hypotheses that can lead us to discovery. But theory also has a way of embedding itself into our consciousness in a way that can be obstructive. The DNA discovery has altered a view that anthropologists have long accepted. In my field of English furniture history there are many gray areas where theory has been accepted as fact, something I have written about in the past.
In a recent post, I wrote about Mary Beard’s, “SPQR, A History of Rome” and how she intertwined myth and history as representing factual history. Of course, Romulus and Remus were not nurtured by a wolf, if they even existed, but their story was essential to later Romans. It is a little like believing the myth about George Washington and the cherry tree. It isn’t true, but it serves as a kind of aggrandizement of one’s origins and every family, town and country has them.
The problem is when myth, history and theory are lumped into bad behavior. The takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a case in point. The logic of the occupiers was that they, not the Government, should the arbiters of how the land is used. In the eyes of many, the Government is constantly conspiring to undermine our freedoms. Such hogwash! Unfortunately, the result was destruction of property and historical artifacts, a guaranteed byproduct of lawlessness. It is also a story that does not have an end, and so more history and myth will be written. Alas!
Ross Douthat’s editorial in the NY Times on Sunday called the current climate of our country as one of decadence. Is he really talking about decadence or is he talking about decay? Decadence, as I see it, is a satiation of sensation and would be epitomized by an era such as the Belle Epoque of the 1890’s. The one area of our country that might be considered decadent at the moment is Silicon Valley where money has truly lost its value simply because there is so much of it there. But for the rest of the country, decadence is not really in evidence.
Decadence in the decorative arts usually means the larding of form with exuberant, and not necessarily cohesive, decoration. Gilded putti come to mind immediately. But it must be remembered that the rococo style in the first quarter of the 18th century was thought to be decadent, but it turned out to be quite extraordinarily abstract and could be considered the forebear of all abstract art for its freedom of form and style. Of course, as the style echoed through the centuries, there are interpretations that range from ugly to kitsch to amazingly beautiful. Decadence in the decorative arts has its uses.
I would argue that there is decay in America at this particular time. The decay lies in the balkanization of individual interests. There does not seem to be a common goal. Health care, the bête noire of any number of Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, is still roiling our politics. The right does not want a “socialist” solution and the left sees it as the only answer. Obamacare lies uncomfortably in the middle, better than nothing but flawed. This issue is one of many that are substantive and the American ability to compromise and come up with a way that satisfies both sides seems remote.
So where does the decay come from? After all, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were famous for their entente and were able to do things together without partisan rancor. The only answer I can think of is money. If this is where Mr. Douthat sees decadence, I would agree with him. There is too much money in political life. From lobbyists to Political Action Committees, our Congress dances to the tunes of various minorities whose whims may or may not conform to the best interests of our nation. To that end, I would agree that we are indeed in an era of decadence.
The path to connoisseurship is not straightforward. There are stages of development and recognition that require appreciation and critique. The world of 18th century English furniture is rife with furniture that is quite spectacular and there are also pieces that are, for want of a better word, lacking. That lack can be proportion, condition, timber quality, or color, but they all matter tremendously.
Most of the criteria for assessing how good a piece of furniture is are determinate. Timber quality is straightforward as is condition, but color assessment requires more savvy. Proportion alone remains an individual preference which can be argued, but never actually agreed upon. There is a majority view, but the majority doesn’t make one assessment better than another.
This is, of course, what makes a horse race. Disagreement is, in fact, quite fun when determining greatness simply because it requires exacting critique and appreciation. Some people will never see proportional oddity because it actually pleases their eye instead of detracting from it. You cannot argue that they are wrong, just that you disagree.
The idea that myth is as much a part of history as fact is new to me, but it is the essential element of Mary Beard’s history, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”. Beard examines the numerous myths of early Rome in the seventh century BCE beginning with Romulus/Remus which was followed by the era of kings also laced with myth, which eventually led to the Roman Republic. Beard, although short on actual data of who did what or when uses the existing archaeological and literary data to weave her story. It is an excellent one, although I found myself floundering when I had to adapt mythic characters as partly real and yet entirely valid and then to understand their interplay with actual events. It makes discriminating between fact and fiction very difficult, which might just be her intention.
As an English furniture dealer, I am no stranger to myth being treated as reality. Aside from the common shibboleths that include misnomers like “red walnut” or the reactionary stance to shellac, a material widely used despite years of denial by the antiques trade, there are other myths as well. Some of these myths are confusing such as, for example, that walnut carves less well than mahogany, but better than pine. Neither is true although finely carved mahogany is usually the most desirable. But not always and this is why many of the myths confound. The most common use of myth is for unsubstantiated provenance. Scurrilous dealers will allude to royal ownership to titillate buyers, but beware, the fiction needs paperwork to substantiate it.
As it happens there was an editorial by Nancy Langston called, “In Oregon, Myth Mixes with Anger” in the NY Times on Wednesday concerning the use of myth by the outlaws who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The editorial lays out the history of the land and it is clear that the men who have occupied the refuge are not aware of the history of the refuge and prefer their mythical version. Who can blame them? Myth is a powerful tool that is capable of eclipsing rational thought. Indeed, the presidential candidates from both parties are relying heavily on myth even if they have to make it up as they go along. That is, of course, the problem as the non-truth of myth can backfire and reveal itself as deceit or, more commonly, lies.