I offered my opinion in The Collector’s World (2021) that the two reasons people collect is it brings them happiness or fulfilment, perhaps both. Over time I have adopted either a corrected or more nuanced view: some are driven by what may simply be termed “aesthetic appreciation,” a romance with the objects themselves. Admittedly, we usually dismiss statements such as, “I love that chair” as social frothing, politeness or exaggeration, but the fact remains: the visual historical and tactile characteristics of fine antiques capture something in our character that is powerfully compelling.
I see it in myself. The composition and how the colors pop in a wonderful Hudson Valley painting. The perfect form, fans, and surface of a dropfront desk. An exquisite American silver teapot that I could stare at for hours. In all these cases, the craftsman has created a work that surpasses the sum of its parts, something beautiful in every way.
The word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthanomai, which means to perceive. It involves the valuing of something beautiful — typically art, music, antiques, literature, or dance — but it could even be inspired by the beauty of a perfectly turned double play in baseball, Michael Jordan soaring through the air in basketball, a classic car so Art Deco one forgets it is a machine, or a pair of high heel shoes. Aesthetics implies and endorses a concern for beauty. The painting creates a mood or overall feeling most of its genre do not. The artist has created a harmony of color and shapes, or the opposite, a tension in his painting that the viewer can feel. The consequence is that my breath is taken away, I am fascinated, in awe, experience a sense of transcendence, wonder, and admiration.
That means (and you may have already reached this conclusion) that some people are not struck by the beauty in the same piece of artwork or antique I find so compelling. The cliché does not lie: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You and I get to decide what we find beautiful. While some works are nearly universal in creating a sense of awe in the viewer or listener (The Mona Lisa for example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony), we know that the appreciation of American antiques and many other genres is learned, not inherent or inevitable. Classic music that makes hearts beat faster and the listener believe in the genius of man and angels above may have originally been panned as strident, too avante garde, or at odds with prevailing cultural definitions of beauty, and thus in its own day denied admiration. (Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is an exception, receiving five standing ovations at its inaugural performance at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor that the composer did not hear, having composed the piece, and conducted the orchestra while deaf.)
How does aesthetic appreciation develop? To say that we are brainwashed is too blunt, incomplete, and simplistic, yet it contains within it a kernel of truth. Teachers, whoever we allow to be our mentors, teach us to actively observe, feel, and experience the world around us – art, nature, sports, and yes, antiques. One well-known dealer said those of his ilk were teachers who “cultivate that delight and wonderment, not instill it. I think it starts with a general sense of curiosity, but it works best if there is some interest inside a person. I suppose occasionally there is a conversion of a true non-believer; however, that must be rare.” How the curiosity is born remains somewhat a mystery, and probably differs aficionado to aficionado.
My wife took ballet lessons for decades and told me that a ballerina should look like she is lifting off the floor as she lands. She has applied that criterion to 18th century candlestands ever since we began collecting. Ones that “squat,” to use her term, she finds unattractive while those that soar, she likes. If she were your teacher when you learned about such pieces, she would have instructed you in what it is you should look for, and thus, planted within you a sense of beauty for the form and a language to describe it.
For we are taught a vocabulary of aesthetics. We learn “artspeak,” “antiquespeak,” “musicspeak,” or “carspeak.” Think of antique American furniture. One speaks of the form, dimensions, patina, and craftsmanship, to name merely a few of its attributes. If the following antiquespeak sets your heart aflutter and you can picture the chair in question, you are a true Americana lover. I quote from Peter Eaton’s Maine Antique Digest advertisement in the December 15, 2021, issue (with his permission).
An exceptional Chippendale chair having a scrolled crest rail with rolled ends and centered by a carved scallop shell, and a pierced and interwoven splat. The through-tenoned shaped seat rail has a molded edge, the knee returns have carved volutes at the ends, and the knees are shell-carved. The beautifully proportioned cabriole legs end in boldly-carved ball and claw feet. The rear legs are fully chamfered below the seat rail. The original seat frame is yellow pine. Cherry throughout in a rich old surface. There is an old crack at the juncture of the seat rail and the right rear (facing) leg. In the same collection for the last forty years. Probably Philadelphia area, but possibly central CT because of the use of cherry as a primary wood. Seat 18”, 41 ½” ht.
On a completely different level, if you are a classic car collector this description may well raise your heart rate.
1969 GTO, red with black interior. The ’69 marks the cleanest expression of this A-body generation (hidden headlights and Endura nose, no front vent windows). 32,000 original miles. Two owner vehicle, number matching, frame-off rotisserie restoration. Award winning. Ram Air IV rated at 370 hp at 5,500 rpm and 445 lb⋅ft at 3,900 rpm of torque featuring special header-like high-flow exhaust manifolds, high-flow cylinder heads, a specific high-rise aluminum intake manifold, hydraulic lifters, larger Rochester Quadrajet 4-barrel carburetor, high-lift/long-duration camshaft. Muncie 4-speed transmission. Bucket seats, center console, AM-FM stereo radio with 8-trach tape player, power antenna, rally gauge cluster, custom steering wheel, red-line tires and hood tachometer.
Aesthetic appreciation can have an intellectual as well as an emotional component. There exist less-than-stellar pieces of furniture made by famous Philadelphia craftsmen. To some collectors it is the maker, not necessarily the form, that drives their lust and esteem for the object. Many would say, “nonsense.” At the same time matched sets of Philadelphia formal chairs for placement around a dining room table fetch more than a pretty penny and are loved and coveted by a certain cadre of collectors. I, however, do not find them beautiful even when I can elucidate their merits, for they do not tug at my heart. Even with the right teacher I do not believe I would change my mind. (Truth in disclosure: I would rather own the car than such chairs.)
The aesthetic appreciation difference between lovers of these chairs and me is not due to my preferences having been frozen in time. I have started collecting new genres – at least for me — in the last decade and find them beautiful to behold. The song, Love Makes the World Go Round from the musical Carnival for our purposes might as well have been titled, Aesthetic Appreciation Makes the World Go Round. That is why subsets of collectors swoon over and love so many different classes of objects and discover new genres to swoon over as well.
Generalizing from my wife’s ballet metaphor and feelings about candlestands, those from whom we learn aesthetic appreciation do more than teach us to notice the world and our feelings or lend us a vocabulary to describe the beautiful. They also model for us the aesthetic in their responses. A dealer may have many pieces in her shop and booth, most of which she will gladly extol. But if you ask her what is truly special, she knows immediately the few antiques she wants to show you. Her demeanor may change, be more subdued in the presence of something that awes, or she may become effusively excited. “Look at this,” she will say as she shows you the sheer perfection in the simplicity of a Shaker box or the harmony of the stones, setting and gestalt in a piece of Edwardian jewelry.
Eventually, as all collectors do, we become enchanted by special pieces in the genres we collect, and almost without knowing it, find that our aesthetic appreciation becomes unconscious and instinctive. We know a beautiful object when we see it, only putting in words afterwards why it is so. This is what the book Blink is about. In looking back, I can pinpoint the moment when this became true of me. Bernice Miller, a dealer who mentored my wife and me, had in her collection a New England a tall case clock we had only seen in photographs. We walked right by it when we were in her home. “This could not be the same clock we had seen photographs of,” we said to ourselves, for it was too beautiful. If you had told me only a few years prior that I would find a grandfather clock beautiful I would have laughed at the suggestion. I laugh no more and have not since that aesthetic experience decades ago.
If we interpret and learn to define beauty in the world, does it exist “out there” independent of our perceptions? The answer may be “yes” although I am not on firm ground when I say this. I am told that all cultures find flowers beautiful, for example. Looking at them gives almost everyone pleasure – their shape, colors fragrance, and sense of fragility. Theories exist for their perceived beauty. The same may hold in the world of architecture and building. Some buildings utilizing the “golden ratio” appear more balanced and we find them more beautiful than others with different elements. Architects of all types take advantage of the golden ratio. Rather than a lengthy explanation I will let you find one, if you are so motivated, that makes sense to you. In brief, we may be hardwired to find certain objects more beautiful than others.
Some philosophers consider beauty the ultimate value. We pursue beauty for its own sake, needing to be in its presence. Beauty is good. While I do not drink coffee, I have heard those who do describe a perfect cup of java as beautiful – the aroma, the taste, the pleasure. There are times when I feel the same way about a cup of tea. Time stops and I am transported somewhere else. My entire existence becomes the cup of Darjeeling I nestle in my hands.
What I am describing is the feeling of being fully absorbed when in the presence of beauty, like others’ descriptions of flow. A good book with a wonderful use of language takes us elsewhere. I have been at crowded, noisy antique shows and stopped dead in my tracks by a beautiful object. People disappear, what they are saying disappears, I am alone in the presence of something with a feeling akin to the hushed reverence of being in a house of worship. Collectors live for the moments they are fully absorbed in the presence of beauty.
Of course, complex reasons exist for beautiful objects being defined as such. But as I noted, our initial reaction to something beautiful is one of simplicity. The object simply is beautiful. We can deconstruct our Blink moment later, putting into words, “antiquespeak,” as to why the piece of furniture or painting belongs in a museum or commands the price it does. But prior to the deconstruction we simply know it knocks us for a loop.
I touched lightly on an important point when I said that some music may be too avante garde when it is first played and that only over the years does it come to be revered. Culture determines to a large extent what we find beautiful. For example, the definition of female beauty or male masculinity changes with the times. In the Victorian era a woman’s naked ankle was considered beautiful and erotic. No more. Even within the same cultural moment, I may love Beethoven while you find Jimmy Hendrix awe inspiring. Many Americans find the game of soccer boring while many in Europe, South America and elsewhere find in the game a sense of beauty that rivals that of ballet (and you may or may not find ballet an aesthetic experience).
The community of American antiques valued polished furniture for decades, only more recently valuing original painted surfaces. (The Magazine Antiques sends me to The [London] Times and an article that millennials are into brown antique furniture.) This same community at first admired weathervanes in near perfect condition only to redefine them as works of sculpture. In that redefinition bullet holes in the vanes became ancillary to shape, surface, and what the vane inspires in those looking at them.
Oftentimes those diagnosed with cancer because acutely aware of the here and now, espousing the idea that we should stop and smell the roses, that beauty is all around us if we will only slow down enough to perceive and appreciate it. The idea of Zen, that everyday tasks such as washing floors or cooking a meal, can be beautiful in their acts and simplicity bring aesthetic appreciation to the most mundane activities and moments in our lives. I find a perfectly shoveled sidewalk and driveway after a snowfall beautiful to behold as I lean on my shovel and look at the juxtaposition of the bare cement with the fresh snow covering the lawn. Crazy perhaps, but that is how I feel. Others feel the same way washing dishes by hand or pulling weeds in their garden.
I conclude that those who collect do so for one of, or a combination of three experiences – happiness, fulfillment, and aesthetic appreciation. Whatever collecting brings you, I hope you treasure the moments.