An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 255

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 9, 2023 - Issue 255

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

As soon as I had written about the vast space that Burning Man offers for the display of art, the New York Times published an article about artists wanting to, the best word for it might be to amplify, large spaces with their art. Large scale outdoor museums have been happening for a while and I know about some of these spaces--the ones close to New York City such as Dia and Storm King, but also James Turrell's work in the Arizona Desert--there are many others--Inhotim in Brazil, the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Scotland (it's open one day per year) the Mona Museum in Tasmania and this is not to mention the many experiential art possibilities such as tree house camping or traveling in the canopies of trees in to see life forms that never make it to the ground. The NY Times article, if I read it correctly, is essentially celebrating the societal consciousness raising that many of these artworks and experiences aim at.

Consciousness raising through art is complicated. In one way, it can speak directly to the subject that is in need of examination--think of Goya's work (1746-1828) or, for that matter, the tabloid artists such as James Gillray (1756-1815) or William Hogarth (1697-1764)--there are many more. In today's world, however, think about the now infamous exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum that involved urine and the Pope, which Rudolph Giuliani wanted taken down. Whether the Pope is the correct person to attack in such a circumstance is arguable, but certainly the Catholic Church has dirty linen that needs to be examined, some of which is under scrutiny, but was that the best method--some will say yes and others, no. If you are up for this kind of art--it isn't my preferred method of making a point, but I'm not an artist--then it is meaningful to you. To each his or her own.

This is why I truly love the decorative arts. The goal of the maker is almost singular--function and beauty. The designers and the makers of objects are working within themselves to come  up with something that is aiming at your sense of aesthetics as well as being utile. That is a daunting task when you think that the "your" of my last sentence is, essentially, everyone and anyone. Is it possible to make the perfect chair, for example, that everyone will want to own? One thing I know is that people who make furniture will never stop trying to make that chair. There are no politics here, no consciousness raising--it's all about hitting the right note which is harder than hitting either a fastball or a curveball or even making a hole in one--my sports analogies ultimately fail me.

I bought a chair a year ago that I was extremely excited about--I have owned four or five sensational chairs (pairs, singles and sets) over the years. Some just have been incredible for their elegance, some for their condition which includes color, some because they encourage me to believe that they are close to the perfect chair for their utility and aesthetics. The one I bought last year is an armchair made of walnut with superb color and just the right amount of carving--ball and claw feet, shells on the knees and lovely scroll grips on the arms that are the right size. There is only one repair, a corner block, to the piece--it is a really perfect antique (herewith) in many ways. When I think of consciousness raising art, as opposed to being able to create such a chair, there is no competition in my mind. But as I said, I am not an artist and I don't have the gnawing feeling that if I do the right artwork, I can affect someone enough so that they can change an aspect of their lives--that's even harder than hitting a fastball. And, yes, I do believe that there are many people who need consciousness raising about how we see our world. I still can't get over reading the quote from a Vietnamese hunter who said with pride that he was hoping to kill the last pangolin in Vietnam. It makes you wonder. And weep.