An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 218

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 30, 2023 - Issue 218

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The world of art and antiques can feel extremely out of date when you consider how people are flocking to "experience or immersive art". For people of my era, experience art was more often than not dropping acid, going for long walks and hallucinating. While there were plenty of people of my era doing things like this, there were also artists focusing on specific aspects of our world in an attempt to better understand how those aspects, light for example, or space, can be shaped or seen differently. For example, James Turrell, who is part of the Light and Space Movement,, has worked to encourage us to "see" those things we are missing that are an everyday part of the world. Other artists like Es Devlin use light, music, language and sculpture to get us seeing things in a new way. The art experiences that are being advertised such as the Immersive Van Gogh uses computer imaging to try and put us into the artist's paintings. I haven't been so I am not certain how well it works, but it is, without a doubt, a new way of getting to know an artist.

My daughter Alice, a woman of great curiosity and intelligence, seeks out these experiences and on a recent trip to New York City, she shepherded me to "SUMMIT One Vanderbilt", located in the skyscraper that is adjacent to Grand Central Station on 42nd St. and Vanderbilt Ave. Like other experiential art I have been privy to, you are asked to put coverings on your shoes because the space is completely mirrored and then are whisked up 91 floors where you come out into Turrell-like-lit corridor that leads you to the totally mirrored room with floor to ceiling glass windows that allow you to see a wide panorama of New York City. There is no doubt that it is a cool experience and you can wend your way around the floor (so you get a 360 degree view of the city) as you are entertained with a room full of balloons, or perhaps a chance to step out onto a glass projection that allows you to look down 91 floors--definitely not for the squeamish. It is a fun experience and very well done and I would recommend it to anyone who really wants to see the layout of Manhattan.

Several days after this experience, my daughter and I were privileged, courtesy of a friend who gives the Metropolitan Museum a sizable gift every year, to have a private tour of "The Tudors, Art and Majesty in Renaissance England", an exhibition that I had already visited twice. Indeed, if any century in England's history could be said to be formative to the English character, the 16th century qualifies. The most outstanding character that we are all acutely aware of is Henry VIII, but it was his father, Henry VII who actually united England by winning the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field, uniting the Lancastrian and Yorkist Tudor branches and ending the War of the Roses. Furthermore, he helped enable the wool trade, England's most valuable export, to thrive. Henry VIII was the beneficiary of this foresight and in his youth he was clearly a larger than life character. It was his refusal to submit to the Pope's sovereignty, however, which most clearly defines the English resistance to foreign intervention of any kind that lingers through history, most recently in the vote for Brexit. And finally, of course, there was Elizabeth I whose reign involved just a little bit of smoke and mirrors in her remaining unmarried and unallied to either Catholicism of Protestantism. Seeing this in art and artifacts is/was quite extraordinary. Elizabeth's portraits were simply amazing.

The question that lingers from these two "art" experiences is how substantive they are. The immersive art experience is certainly interesting and probably easier to be entertained by. You can't not be awed by seeing the canvas of Manhattan, parts of NJ, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn down below you. I don't wish to be philosophical about the experience, although you could wax poetic with abstruse metaphors about Manhattan's place in the world. But for me, the obvious question is, how does the Tudor exhibit compete with such immediacy? This is where one gets into trouble--they really aren't comparable so contrasting them gets you into a bit of hot water which inevitably leads to an elitist conclusion ashe Summit experience asks nothing of you. The Tudor exhibit, unless you just like looking at pretty things, asks you to read the cards, i.e. to learn. This is the rub for any museum--why do we want to know about the 16th century in England? Is seeing New York from one thousand feet up in the air more relevant? Well..., yes, it is and..., no, it isn't. It should not, however, be an either or  kind of choice--both experiences have validity.