I read an article in the May 18th, “New Yorker”, about Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist specializing in internet start-ups. He believes that the future is being decided by the internet, changing the way we do just about everything. I agree with him that the internet will have a strong influence on how the future looks and yet I feel a little dispirited by what I think that future might hold.

American civilization, at least from the industrial age forward, has been most creative in figuring out how to quantify seemingly unquantifiable things. That was Henry Ford’s genius, just as it was Ray Kroc’s and countless other entrepreneurs. These men figured out how to do things en masse for the masses. The internet is another step in that direction and because there is so much that is quantifiable, surprisingly so when you consider start-ups like Airbnb or Uber, it is genius to envision it.

But, how do you quantify those things in life that give it meaning? Stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and it takes your breath away. Watch your team upset the favorite to win a championship and it will be a memory forever. Describe the colors of the sunset that happened when you had your first kiss. These are the depth and dimension of life and I see us veering away from their appreciation because our smart phones and computers are offering us alternatives—alternatives that are without depth or dimension.

I love the internet, make no mistake. It has saved me numerous trips around the US looking at antiques in small auctions simply because I know my subject and can tell if something needs to be seen in person. The point is that my knowledge is what I am working with and the internet is an amazing facilitator. But the internet cannot tell me if the color is right. The internet doesn’t really betray proportion well. Those things that make you want to buy are ultimately things that you have to see.

It is said that the hardest thing to capture with robots are the mindless things we are able to do with our hands, such as putting them into pockets and picking out one particular object. I would venture that this mirrors the concept of experience that any aesthete has amassed in their life time. There is a knowledge that transcends collation and which isn’t quantifiable. Maybe I should add a minor caveat which is to say, not yet, at least.

It is hard not to think about the passage of time when you are having dinner with someone you have known longer than anyone else, other than family. My dinner was with Craig McAllister, a friend of sixty years, who has a memory like a steel trap. My own family accuses me of having such a memory, but next to Craig, I am like the Richard Nixon tapes—essentially gapped.

The passage of time and the change that comes with it is incrementally quite slow, but in aggregate quite dramatic. I see it in my own life as I remember our black and white TV and compare it with the computer screen I am looking at right now. The steps that led to that change seem rapid in retrospect, but in truth, they were slow and inexorable.

This is true in just about any field, but the time period of 1740-70 in England, style-wise was fairly intense. The English baroque style, freshly minted in 1740, rapidly alters as a succession of style fads including chinoiserie, gothick and rococo overlay it, succumbing altogether to the neo-classic style propagated by William Chambers, Robert Adam and James “Athenian” Stuart. It was a dizzying pace which hardly seems incremental at all. Did people of that age notice these changes?

The pace of change seems unrelated to the passage of time—when you are living it, you just don’t seem to take note of it. However, when we reference the change in our own lives, which is possible when you are over a certain age, you can see just how inexorable it is. When Craig reminds me of a name or an event from 1955 it is almost as if it happened to someone else. It clarifies to some small extent, at least for me, just why history has so many interpretations.

The discussion was largely focused on antiquities, but it applies to English antique furniture. There are certain pieces that just jump out at you for being 18th century. Everything about them, the wood, the craftsmanship, their color and condition just reek of an 18th century workshop. I would say, however, that pieces that touch all those bases are rare. Most pieces of English furniture require a reasoned assessment to determine their age. Interestingly, a group of documented furniture coming out of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, despite great provenance, leaves room for concern because the secondary woods on much of the seat furniture look amazingly fresh.

It only gets more difficult as you look at older items in the heritage of world art. Again, some things just jump out at you as being genuine, but others, for whatever reason, just come off as later or possibly fake. Interestingly, as far as I am concerned, there are certain antiquities that I feel more attuned to as, for example, Cycladic sculpture. I know next to nothing about it, but the pieces seem to have a purity that cannot be replicated. And yet, I would dismiss my “œfeeling” and always rely on someone who knew the culture, the time period and the range of known, genuine artworks. 

My response to the question is that knowing a culture leads to a different kind of understanding of its artistic output. I can believe that a deeper understanding is more valid than the visceral pull that many old things have. I also don’t believe that visceral pull is spiritual in any form. However, I do believe that people who care for artworks leave an indelible mark on things. This all reminds me of a conversation I had with an English furniture dealer about thirty years ago. After a long discussion about a piece in this man’s inventory, I asked him what, in his opinion, makes a piece old. He replied, It is if I say it is.”