As a twelve year old, I used to go to the bank and buy rolls of pennies, nickels and dimes and then proceed to go through each coin to see whether I could fill out my coin collection series. Inevitably, there were always gaps. (I did love those Roosevelt dimes, however.) Furthermore, I was ignorant of condition and cared more for filling out the series than anything else. I was a one dimensional collector.

A week and a half ago, I had the privilege of seeing one of the finest collections of English furniture in America. The collection was multi-dimensional with all of the bases covered from provenance, color, condition, craftsmanship and timber as well as being suitable and functional to the house. It was a sublime experience, one that I could repeat as many times as possible.

Interestingly, when I go over the booths of dealers I have seen in antique shows, I remember very little. However, when I see great furniture in situ as I did this last week, I remember it as well as I remember my own inventory. I think it has as much to do with seeing it being used as anything else. It is the way I envision all the furniture I sell–as useful and beautiful. That is what it is all about.

The adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, is only partly true. Knowing beauty is not unlike having a good palate. But not everyone assessing beauty has that palate. Imagine, for example, asking a ten year old what he thinks of a gourmet meal. His palate just hasn’t had enough experience. Unfortunately, when it comes to beauty, it is not just ten year olds that think they have a broad palate. Almost everyone thinks they do.

But experience is only part of the equation. There is also objectivity, an ability to dismiss the filter or bias, that is part of our nature. The filter compromises objectivity in ways that are unnoticed and thereby are invisible to us. I am reminded of two Canadians I met years ago at the Amstel Brewery, one from the Rockies and the other from the flatlands. The fellow from the Rockies loved the Alps and the flatlander loved the flatlands of Europe. Is that so surprising?

Finally, there is inherent prejudice for the new, the creative and the well made, none of which categorically assures beauty. Think of the articles that came out of Faberge’s workshop in the early part of the 20th century. They were new, creative and superbly made, but not everything the workshop produced was beautiful. They may not have been ugly, but beauty is beyond craft and creativity.

Fashions and trends also usurp our understanding of what is beautiful. Doubtless, the preference for owning something that everyone else has, only one that is just a bit nicer, is part of our competitive spirit. But that spirit also disables our ability to see clearly. It is clear that, in the end, the eye of the beholder has plenty of inhibitors. If only we knew what they were, we might be better able to not only enjoy beauty but also to recognize it.

Natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon are indisputably beautiful, or so most people would agree. Man made wonders don’t share equal adulation, however. Why is it so difficult to get people to agree? Is it a question of taste, or is it something cultural, or is it genetic predisposition or even a combination of lots and lots of things? This is the filter that I refer to that holds preferences and prejudices that lie, often, beyond our own reason.

The difficulty with this filter, or bias, is that it gives us no advantage. Having looked at 18th century furniture for a very long time, I feel that I have shed my filter, but I don’t really believe that is possible. I know the subject backwards and forwards, but I still have a bias–it is inescapable. I well remember the controversy over Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Frankly, it looks beautiful, but there will never be universal approval. This is who we are as a people, borne with filters that control us somehow.

Is there an equal amount of dissension on assessing the beauty of the Parthenon? Given that it is twenty-five hundred years old, have our filters cleared enough to allow an unvarnished judgment on that building? This is a topic of endless qualification which can be refined ad nauseam. What is most important, however, is not to understand why the filter is there, but to understand that it is there and that it is the root of all prejudice…, and not just in aesthetics.

I remember going to the Tate Gallery in 1972 and seeing Mark Rothko’s impressive canvases painted in a solid red that were arrayed (three of them, I think) at the front of the museum. I don’t remember what I thought about them at the time other than that they were huge and that Rothko had great nerve to paint canvases in a solid color and expect them to be accepted as art.

There is a very thin line between the intellectual idea behind a piece of art and the art itself. There was an excellent exhibition on John Singer Sargent at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, NY this summer which largely consisted of Sargent portraits. Some were mediocre and a few were spectacular. The spectacular ones stood out because you could feel the interaction of the painter and his subjects.

The intellectualization of concepts which become art, be they Duchamp’s urinal or Hirst’s embalmed shark, seem to dominate the contemporary art scene. This is all very well if you are on the inside of the concept, but when you are on the outside, the vigor of the thought loses traction and the filter of preference starts to appear as a filter of preference borne of an age.

I am certainly not saying that contemporary art is a con. But is it beautiful? Some of it is without a doubt, but a lot of it is not. That interaction that Sargent achieved in his more spectacular canvases is what is exciting for me, it is what forces me to acknowledge the beauty of his skill, and I believe it begins with what is resting on the canvas not on the idea that resides in an artist’s mind.

I am beginning to view beauty in much the same way that the Inuits see snow, as something that can be described in many different words. Creativity, in the service of beauty, is equally slippery to define. The only word that doesn’t seem to be difficult to define is ugly and that is a straightforward conversation stopper. Who needs it?

The problem in seeing beauty, and by seeing it we define it, is that we all have this filter that prevents us from seeing beauty clearly. The nature of that filter is both conscious and subconscious having prejudice and preference defined by events we may or may not remember. Whenever I hear someone say they don’t like a color or don’t like a material or a shape, that filter is asserting itself.

Seeing beauty then is not so easy to do. If there are subtleties, what exactly are they? Are super tall buildings beautiful for their height or is it their engineering that is beautiful? Think about a great game of tennis, or a meal in a candlelit restaurant–are they beautiful or something else?

Take this to another level and think of man made things such as the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower or of any of the great pyramids or temples–are they beautiful or are they something else altogether? Is their beauty a function of history or aesthetics or possibly both? It is very difficult to free yourself from what man is or has done to see things absolutely clearly.

One of the most exciting buildings I know is the Sydney Opera House. I don’t know how well it functions, but its beauty relates to how I see the building, as a repository of sound. My filter favors the design as beautiful because it evokes far more than a building for the arts. I am being appealed to on multiple levels and they trip my brain into pleasure that beauty evokes in me.

I would like to see myself as someone who recognizes beauty. I know that I am good at doing that for 18th century English furniture, but that is because I have worked hard to erase the filter of preference and prejudice and see an object for what it is. It is my work. Would that I could do it for everything else that I see. That is also my life’s work.