Ross Douthat’s editorial in the NY Times on Sunday called the current climate of our country as one of decadence. Is he really talking about decadence or is he talking about decay? Decadence, as I see it, is a satiation of sensation and would be epitomized by an era such as the Belle Epoque of the 1890’s. The one area of our country that might be considered decadent at the moment is Silicon Valley where money has truly lost its value simply because there is so much of it there. But for the rest of the country, decadence is not really in evidence.

Decadence in the decorative arts usually means the larding of form with exuberant, and not necessarily cohesive, decoration. Gilded putti come to mind immediately. But it must be remembered that the rococo style in the first quarter of the 18th century was thought to be decadent, but it turned out to be quite extraordinarily abstract and could be considered the forebear of all abstract art for its freedom of form and style. Of course, as the style echoed through the centuries, there are interpretations that range from ugly to kitsch to amazingly beautiful. Decadence in the decorative arts has its uses.

I would argue that there is decay in America at this particular time. The decay lies in the balkanization of individual interests. There does not seem to be a common goal. Health care, the bête noire of any number of Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt, is still roiling our politics. The right does not want a “socialist” solution and the left sees it as the only answer. Obamacare lies uncomfortably in the middle, better than nothing but flawed. This issue is one of many that are substantive and the American ability to compromise and come up with a way that satisfies both sides seems remote.

So where does the decay come from? After all, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were famous for their entente and were able to do things together without partisan rancor. The only answer I can think of is money. If this is where Mr. Douthat sees decadence, I would agree with him. There is too much money in political life. From lobbyists to Political Action Committees, our Congress dances to the tunes of various minorities whose whims may or may not conform to the best interests of our nation. To that end, I would agree that we are indeed in an era of decadence.


The path to connoisseurship is not straightforward. There are stages of development and recognition that require appreciation and critique. The world of 18th century English furniture is rife with furniture that is quite spectacular and there are also pieces that are, for want of a better word, lacking. That lack can be proportion, condition, timber quality, or color, but they all matter tremendously.

Most of the criteria for assessing how good a piece of furniture is are determinate. Timber quality is straightforward as is condition, but color assessment requires more savvy. Proportion alone remains an individual preference which can be argued, but never actually agreed upon. There is a majority view, but the majority doesn’t make one assessment better than another.

This is, of course, what makes a horse race. Disagreement is, in fact, quite fun when determining greatness simply because it requires exacting critique and appreciation. Some people will never see proportional oddity because it actually pleases their eye instead of detracting from it. You cannot argue that they are wrong, just that you disagree.


The idea that myth is as much a part of history as fact is new to me, but it is the essential element of Mary Beard’s history, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”. Beard examines the numerous myths of early Rome in the seventh century BCE beginning with Romulus/Remus which was followed by the era of kings also laced with myth, which eventually led to the Roman Republic. Beard, although short on actual data of who did what or when uses the existing archaeological and literary data to weave her story. It is an excellent one, although I found myself floundering when I had to adapt mythic characters as partly real and yet entirely valid and then to understand their interplay with actual events. It makes discriminating between fact and fiction very difficult, which might just be her intention.

As an English furniture dealer, I am no stranger to myth being treated as reality. Aside from the common shibboleths that include misnomers like “red walnut” or the reactionary stance to shellac, a material widely used despite years of denial by the antiques trade, there are other myths as well. Some of these myths are confusing such as, for example, that walnut carves less well than mahogany, but better than pine. Neither is true although finely carved mahogany is usually the most desirable. But not always and this is why many of the myths confound. The most common use of myth is for unsubstantiated provenance. Scurrilous dealers will allude to royal ownership to titillate buyers, but beware, the fiction needs paperwork to substantiate it.

As it happens there was an editorial by Nancy Langston called, “In Oregon, Myth Mixes with Anger” in the NY Times on Wednesday concerning the use of myth by the outlaws who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The editorial lays out the history of the land and it is clear that the men who have occupied the refuge are not aware of the history of the refuge and prefer their mythical version. Who can blame them? Myth is a powerful tool that is capable of eclipsing rational thought. Indeed, the presidential candidates from both parties are relying heavily on myth even if they have to make it up as they go along. That is, of course, the problem as the non-truth of myth can backfire and reveal itself as deceit or, more commonly, lies.

 

 


Markets are driven by the concept of investment, meaning that, eventually, someone will want to capitalize in some form or another on what they have purchased. Because markets rise and fall, that concept is both true and false and/or one has to believe that the term investment does not necessarily mean that the buyer will gain on the sale, the buyer can also lose. What is most interesting about the concept of investment, however, is why we think we know well enough to purchase something with the thought that we might gain from it in the future.

English antique furniture was such a hot market in the 1980’s and 90’s that people would ask me if they could make money on their purchases. Hence a great many antique dealers, a few high end dealers, but mostly the middle market, would readily say they would. I had a hard time with that idea because it discounted all the knowledge that surrounds the buying and selling of antiques. Not only does it include knowing what to buy, but where you need to look to buy, how much you should pay, the costs of restoration and shipping and a host of other things. Selling has similar exigencies that need navigating. Like all markets, it is more complicated than it looks to be on the surface.

The allure of English antiques is not as great as it once was, at least on the surface. Closer examination, however, reveals that really good items are selling well. A sale of English furniture from the Metropolitan Museum did very well at Christies this fall, hinting that the market hasn’t really fallen so much as contracted. But because, the market no longer supports thirty or so top end as well as a raft of middle level shops around the world, the market appears to be in free fall. Again, this is a nuanced situation, one that isn’t exactly clear.

Buying and selling today, therefore, is a delicate balance. The concept of surefire investment is more remote than ever, but that does not mean that the value of English furniture is down. Buying and selling are an exercise in patience, at least at the high end of the market. Dealers still in the game, unless they don’t really need to sell, will make good deals, but not always, because some pieces of furniture are just too good to compromise on. So the market, therefore, is not ripe for investment because no one sees a future in it. In my mind that is the wrong end of the stick. Living with it in the present is quite wonderful.

 


Manmade objects are all freighted with history. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of an object is why something was made, because it is a snap shot, in some form or another, of the social history of the moment. For example, the mirror in the photo is a smallish rococo mirror that I have hanging in my apartment. I have seen three other similar examples of this design, none of these were an exact duplicate, but which were so close that it was clear that they were all made, if not by the same wood carver, in the same shop.

Whenever you get multiples of something there is a faint possibility that the shop was making the item on speculation. This becomes more and more plausible through the 18th century simply because there was burgeoning wealth. As more homes needed furnishing, fewer people were getting bespoke furniture and items made on speculation became more and more likely. Indeed, I owned a set of chairs made circa 1790 that were identical to my sister-in-law’s, save for the fact that mine had finer details in the finishing with little flourishes of individuality here and there.

I would date my rococo mirror circa 1755 because that is the tail end of the rococo period (for furniture, at least) in England and the frame is clearly rococo. Dating furniture has always been approximate based on the evidence of style and certain other telltale signs, such as the back, unfinished part of the frame. But knowing how competitive the furniture industry was by 1770, and also knowing that new styles may supplant old styles in some, but not all, markets leads me to believe that some maker was hawking rococo frames well after the rococo style was, at least from a furniture historian’s point of view, over.

There is another reason why this frame was probably made later than 1755 which is its size. This is not a grand frame suggesting that it was made for a smaller scale architectural situation. Although small frames were made for grand houses, they were not as common as you might think. Mirror plate was expensive and it was much more likely that a client would want large scale frames since the cost of making the frame was not excessive, but the cost of the plate was. And because the function of mirror plate was more for reflection than about looking at yourself, a smaller frame makes little sense.

Could I be incorrect about this frame? Absolutely, but it is unlikely and a supplementary reason is because I have another small frame, this one made with carton pierre, a material similar to papier mache. The design is attributed to Linnell, a major furniture maker of the 18th century. That his firm would mould a mirror frame speaks to his seeking out labor saving techniques to supply a new market that was less likely to buy bespoke furniture. In other words, competition, as I said before, was fierce and that even the top firms were interested in supplying the newest markets.

Clearly, not much has changed since 1770, at least from the point of view of market demand and supply.  But what we can learn from these two mirrors is that neither style nor craftsmanship moves in a straight line. The romance of the 18th century craftsman as being dedicated to his craft belies the need to make a living. As for the vicissitudes of style, it has always been subject to the vagaries of fashion and the whims of clients. This ambivalence is to be expected of our species, but it undermines our belief in an orderly progression. What else is new?


History is replete with people who have not compromised. And it seems to be happening again with the far right in this country. Non-compromisers of the last eighty years point to Neville Chamberlain’s compromise on Czechoslovakia as to why you do not compromise. But England was not prepared for war and to have drawn a line in the sand at that point could have been disastrous. He was well and truly caught short—a different lesson altogether—leaving him straddling two very bad options. Chamberlain, however, sealed his fate when he stated, on return to England, that there would be “peace for our time”, a prophecy that lasted less than a year. Chamberlain’s compromise will be forever pilloried.

If we look further back in English history, George III was not prone to compromise on taxes levied on his American colonists. You might have thought that the English would look upon the American colonies as an extension of England for a variety of reasons, from a common language to fighting the French and, most of all, the commercial ties. Extracting taxes from the colonists that the English in England did not have to pay was discriminatory and the basis for enough unhappiness that the American colonists were able to separate themselves, both psychologically and physically, from their English roots and choose independence.

Compromise, as seen by the far right, violates principle. But is principle so inviolable? For example, it is a sin to kill, but is it a sin to kill in war? Transfer that thinking to George III’s principle of not allowing the colonists a break on taxes. For want of compromise, he lost part of his empire—the principle seems foolish in retrospect. And this is what probably was running through Chamberlain’s mind—that the principle of going to war when you aren’t ready is a form of suicide. Casting his compromise as capitulation may be giving him short shrift, after all.

I am certain that we live in parlous times. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is large. Government is not serving the people’s interests. Strictly speaking, the anti-tax issue has favored the wealthy because revenue shortfalls require cuts or new, less visible, taxes. But the anti-tax effort has validity because of government inefficiency and byzantine tax laws—US tax law is insanely complex. Yet I see no heroism in refusing to compromise with mainstream thought as regards revenue and government programs. The hard work is cutting down the size of government in a sensible fashion. Blowing things up may be fun, but it is also very dangerous.


There is a wonderful article by Alison Gopnik in the October issue of The Atlantic about depression, the Buddha and the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, whose work, “The Treatise of Human Nature” (1739) is a seminal work in the Western canon. Essentially, Hume dismissed all previous Western philosophical enquiry that placed man at the center of all things and suggested that there is no “I” at all since it is virtually impossible to abnegate the self without having either sensation or perception. This was radical in many ways and paved the way to a completely different understanding of the human condition.

The thing I have noticed about the current political season is how hard each candidate tries to stand out from the rest by intoning their accomplishments (real, semi-real or completely false). The pronoun, “I”, of course, leads the way in these statements as you might expect. However, one candidate hardly ever uses the pronoun and I am wondering if that is significant, whether the system demands self-aggrandizement or not? Does a candidate who loudly proclaims himself truly understand that the office is not about him or her, but about serving? The self, in Presidential mode, should not really exist.

Gopnik’s question concerning Hume’s book was how he made this philosophical breakthrough. The idea of it is Buddhist, but how could he have known anything about Buddhism? This is the meat of the article and it is Gopnik’s restorative from depression as she searches libraries, finds translators and, researches her way back from the brink of a mid-life crisis. Gopnik’s single minded pursuit of this discovery reads like a detective novel and is just as exciting. The link to the article is below.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/how-david-hume-helped-me-solve-my-midlife-crisis/403195/


The overwhelming success of certain web applications has encouraged more than a few tech minded people to search for the latest life enhancing idea. Venture capitalists see this area as one of huge growth and are throwing big money at some of these ideas. Of course, a great many of them, such as Airbnb and Uber, have quickly spawned imitators with, I presume, market share fracturing with each successive imitator. The value of name recognition in this context is huge, but it will be quality of service which really determines the success of any venture. Hence, the need for the venture capitalists whose money can create the infrastructure that will enable development and provide that service.

Life for a great many Londoners in the 18th century had nothing to do with ease of any sort. Perhaps the greatest advancement, as far as many people were concerned, was the home still, a contraption that could prove extremely dangerous because of the need for open flame. Not only was it dangerous to produce, but so many people were drinking that there was a “gin epidemic” and a hefty tax was passed in 1736 to deter consumption. Of course there were riots and the duty was reduced and eventually abolished. It should be understood that it was far safer to drink spirits in London than it was to drink water, but notwithstanding this fact, the liquor taxes were resumed, in perpetuity, in 1751.

No matter what the vehicle one uses to make life more agreeable, almost all of them will have negative aspects. Apps on a smartphone don’t do anything per se until you use them and find them workable. I have had bad Uber rides, for example, and as far as I am concerned, it is a service that is flawed and yet, in a rainstorm in any obscure spot in New York City, it is also a godsend. (A number of Uber competitors have sprung up in NYC, so market competition is in full swing which should make them all more service oriented.) Is this quibbling on my part? A little bit, but enough quibbles can doom a product—human responses can trend precipitously in any direction. Look at Donald Trump’s ascension in the polls. Almost makes me wish for a hangover.


Initially, when I first started reading about Donald Trump’s run for the Presidency, I thought that he might be a Shakespearean character, perhaps a Falstaff, a buffoon like character who speaks some truth but mostly balderdash. However, I recognize him now as a man who operates in the gray areas. He is non-specific for a purpose, because it allows him to make light of those things he knows little about and it also allows him to be heavy when he chooses. It is an amoral position because it allows him to sit on both sides of the fence. He has no position other than what is good for him.

I have immense respect for decorators and designers who are capable of translating their clients’ wishes into a home or apartment that they can enjoy. It is an arduous task as it requires a sense of psychology, a solid work ethic and a great deal of knowledge. The penultimate day of stress has to be the day of installation where, once the walls are painted and floor is ready, the interior is to be laid out. This is the day where a decorator learns a number of lessons, the foremost being whether they are going to enjoy this line of work, or not.

Inevitably, the gray areas, those not fully discussed come back to haunt the decorator just as they will haunt the American electorate if Donald Trump somehow succeeds in enrapturing the Republican faithful. My hope is that his stance will force one of his sixteen rivals to repudiate the party line which is largely so negative. The only person remotely doing so at this point is John Kasich. Why the Republicans don’t see this is beyond my comprehension. I guess it might be time to deal with the facts of Bernie Sanders’ message. No gray area there.


The Republican primaries are a long ways away and a good reminder of this is that Donald Trump is leading in some polls. Trump has a special place in the primaries and it is, as far as I can tell, as a gadfly, a provocateur, someone whose raison d’etre is to provoke others. Of course, he is trying to enhance the visibility of his brand, that is his name, and win or lose in the primaries, it is still a winning position for him. It may be costing him business in some ways now, but in the long run, he knows that his name recognition is worth a fortune.

As in Greek tragedies, although more nuanced, Shakespeare always has a provocateur in his dramas, someone who could stir the protagonists into action. Whether they were mendacious or truth tellers, drunks or jesters, what they said often dictated a response of some form or another. In “Othello”, Iago’s innuendos and whispers are too much for the somewhat simple minded Othello. Falstaff, on the other hand, comes across as a buffoon, drunk and whoremaster whose words often appear foolish, but which often are truthful and on point.

Trump’s bloviations are largely aimed at the far right of the Republican Party. The Republicans, who empowered the far right in the election of Ronald Reagan, are reaping the results of that strategy today. George Bush was elected on it, but few Republicans seem capable of finding the same timbre that their predecessors took. It is a delicate balance, one that requires not a little mendacity, much like all political posturing, but in this case, the litmus test is social issues, and that will always be a sore spot as the evangelicals of the far right push for a no-compromise agenda.

The question remains as to just where Donald Trump fits into this puzzle. Is he helping or hindering the Republicans? I would say that he is helping. He is giving cover to many candidates at this point and he is also making it clear that the far right issues, such as immigration, need careful consideration, not a sound bite. The candidates that have the most chance of victory should be using their cover and looking for the correct timbre that can embody their message and appeal to the big tent of Republicans. Donald Trump should be making that clear to everyone. What’s a buffoon for, after all?