An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 283

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 22, 2024 - Issue 283
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The creative process leads to what we call art. That much I know, but the causal relationship between the artist or artisan and their art is something else altogether. How does the art become what it is? Does it need to age before we (the general public) recognize it as art? Or, is it as Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo? "What is alive in art, and eternally alive, is in the first place the painter and in the second place the picture." Many artists, Leonardo da Vinci, for example, find it hard to know when they have finished a work of art--why? I ask this question because I recently learned that physicists often write an equation that can relate to everything about, for example, an observed phenomenon (or even an unobserved phenomenon) to try and define it without knowing much, if anything, about it. It is a process of observation and creation--not at all different from what an artist does. Einstein's Theory of Relativity, for example, took forty-one years before it was observed to be true--and even then there were glitches which ultimately led to the creation of quantum physics. Einstein was recognized as a genius, no doubt, but he knew that there was substantially more to find out relating to his theory. Was his equation a work of art?

This rhetorical question leads to the realm of philosophy, an area of study that I am even less secure in than physics. Having spent the morning at the Bard Graduate Center learning about the work of Sonia Delaunay, I realize that the act of creativity will always be a shrouded conceit that has no equation to illuminate it, save for in the broadest manner. But what I do understand is that boundless curiosity is a necessity for any creator. I think of how Thomas Chippendale came up with endlessly charming feet to his chairs and other legged pieces--it is one of (many) things that sets him apart, just as John Linnell's hand grips on armchairs, a ball held by carved leaves, sets him apart. Most really good 18th century furniture makers did try and add something to their work that made it different--does anyone other than me see this as art? Compare those masterful touches with how furniture is designed today where there is, for the most part, an absence of such conceits. The divide between the 18th and late 20th/21st century design shows a different level of curiosity altogether. Am I missing the artistry in the furniture of today or hasn't it revealed itself as yet?

Of course, creativity is not limited to art, or physics or furniture making, it is instead one way to make life more understandable, interesting and even convenient--look, for example at the work of the Shakers, the simplicity and functionality of their furniture and tools is clearly artistic. Where does this thought process that is so clear and precise come from--is it perhaps a kind of optimism or merely visual pragmatism? I don't think know, but I do think that there is a desire to alter reality in some form or another, or perhaps to reveal reality in a different fashion, or even to conjure up a reality that no one knew was there which may be one reason why it is so hard to determine what, in fact, is art. Something I learned about at a Burning Man Phage lecture years ago was that there are numerous dimensions, not just three or four or five but many more--we just need to explore them. (Please don't ask me how.) Absorbing or understanding what has been created sometimes is easy and sometimes it isn't, just as not all art seems to work, at least in the moment. What was once immutable and what is now being seen as mutable, time, might be the hidden ingredient. I don't actually know.