The Courtier In The Federalist: How To Enjoy Art In An Age Of Selfies

Since I’m now *officially* The Federalist’s art critic – or that’s what my byline over there says, anyway – here’s a link to my latest for said publication, about how the phenomenon of selfie-taking has been affecting the art world. Special thanks to my editor, Joy Pullman, who is always extremely generous with me when it comes to the rather excessive length of my articles. If you’d like to comment on the piece, please consider doing so over on The Federalist website rather than here (although your comments are always welcome here, as well.)

Federalist

 

Advertisements

Brown Furniture And The Dictatorship Of “Midcentury Modern”

This piece in Apollo Magazine, about the beautiful but forgotten furniture of our ancestors, caught my eye yesterday. It picks up on some trends that I’ve observed first-hand over the years in art, architecture, and design. So let’s go back a bit, if the reader will indulge me.

Last summer in Madrid, I spent a morning visiting a number of dealers in the city’s main antiques district, on the hunt for a special wedding present. I noticed that the stock on display in the majority of shops had shifted away from what you would normally expect to find. Instead of things like giltwood tables, crystal chandeliers, and Baroque statuary, pieces that could have decorated the lair of a villain in a Bond film were placed center stage. I asked several of the dealers about this, and they noted that mass-produced, industrial designs from the middle of the 20th century are what buyers want now; there was little interest in collecting more traditional art or furnishings.

These dealers were describing the choking embrace of what in this country we call “Midcentury Modern”, a term regularly abused to within an inch of its life on popular television shows such as HGTV’s “House Hunters”. With respect to architecture, it’s applied to everything from a Richard Neutra Palm Springs bungalow to an anonymous suburban ranch house built in the 1960’s. A similar over-generalization occurs when it comes to furniture and decorative objects, so that a chair designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll or a handmade Isamo Noguchi coffee table falls under the same category as a 1960’s plywood dinette set from Montgomery Ward or a Sputnik-shaped pot metal chandelier by some unknown manufacturer.

In the current frenzy for Midcentury Modern, one significant area of collecting that has been lost in the shuffle is what at Sotheby’s I was taught to call “brown furniture”. Loosely speaking, this term refers to traditional wooden furniture, which was created by generations of cabinetmakers and furniture carvers between the late 17th and early 20th centuries. These solidly made tables, chairs, and cabinets, typically constructed from woods like mahogany, walnut, or oak, were inlaid, stained, and polished to look their best, and to last for generations. They were considered essential for the furnishing of a respectable home, whether you were a prosperous Philadelphia merchant or a humble New England seamstress.

Over the last two decades these pieces have fallen out of favor, and their prices have fallen along with them. They are viewed as too stuffy, too traditional, and too out of keeping with contemporary lifestyles. While at the upper end of the market, a rare Chippendale cabinet created by a famous cabinetmaker for the Earl of Someplace is always going to command a significant price, at the more affordable end of the market, there are real bargains to be had – especially when compared to what you can buy new.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to buy a nice desk for your home office, in order to replace the old kitchen table that you’ve been using. Back in December, you could have bought a hand-carved, 18th century polished mahogany desk, made in England during the reign of George III, for $1,000 at Wechsler’s Auction House here in DC. Or, you could have gone to the mall or shopped online, and easily spent twice that amount for a similar-sized desk made with little or no craftsmanship at all, constructed from cheap materials in some Communist hellhole like Red China or Vietnam, and designed to both go out of fashion and fall apart within the next 5 years.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate good Modern or Contemporary design. In fact I not only appreciate, have studied, and understand it, I can also identify what are good examples of it. There should be room in your life for both a well-made William & Mary chest of drawers, and a sleek Mies van der Rohe leather chair.

Yet that being said, there’s something rather sad about the fact that those handmade pieces of old, well-constructed furniture, which your grandparents would have cherished, are now looked on as inferior to pieces that were specifically designed to be disposable. The rejection of what was previously the product of careful craftsmanship, in favor of what was created to be fast and cheap, along with the adoption of the corresponding view that the latter is somehow more desirable than the former, is truly bizarre. Indeed, perhaps this state of affairs serves as an all-too-apt metaphor for the state of our society as a whole.

Still: for those wise enough to perceive it, the situation presents a terrific opportunity for those who still appreciate the beauty of brown.

Furniture designs by Thomas Chippendale

On The Beauty Of Useless Things

Last evening I caught up with an old friend, who has been busy having a bit of a clear-out. Old books long since read and never reopened, knick-knacks which seem to come from nowhere, and even a diploma frame emblazoned with the school logo were being tossed out. The experience was described as freeing, and of course that’s to be taken both literally and figuratively: as living space becomes less cluttered, the mind feels less cluttered also.

It’s a feeling I know well, having to go through the de-hoarding process regularly. Despite public perceptions of what living in Georgetown must be like, one thing that all village residents know well is that homes built a century (or quite a bit more) ago, while very quaint, often present significant storage problems for their residents. Closet space is at such a premium that, at least twice a year, I end up hauling great sacks full of worn, but still wearable clothes out of the house to give to the poor.

Yet the guilt we may sometimes feel for having useless “stuff” must be tempered by an acknowledgement that utility is not a virtue, in and of itself. Employing a spirit of utility in the imitation of Christ’s poverty is virtuous, whether you are a Capuchin friar who has renounced all earthly possessions, or a successful entrepreneur giving away your substantial resources in order to aid those in need. The application of utility as the sine qua non of human existence however, can just as easily lead to evil (see, inter alia, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Margaret Sanger.)

In Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan”, textbook college leftist Tom Townsend criticizes the Christmas parties he’s been attending, which he finds wasteful when there are people less fortunate than himself in the world. Nick Smith points out that there’s something rather arrogant about not enjoying yourself at a party that you’ve been invited to, because you’d rather stay at home and think about others whom *you* consider to be less fortunate. It’s a scene that, in a way reminds me of one of those moments in the Bible when consumption and utilitarianism come head to head, in an unexpected way.

In each of the four Gospels, we read the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them clean with her hair. In their respective versions of the event, Saints Matthew, Mark, and John also recall the words of Judas during this scene. He criticizes the “waste” of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. Judas is trying to make himself appear more virtuous, but he’s also embracing a utilitarian attitude toward what is taking place in front of him.

Christ not only rebukes Simon the Pharisee, in whose home this scene is taking place, since he failed to even offer the basic material comforts which were due to a guest, but He also rebukes Judas’ utilitarianism. As to the former, a host who fails to provide for the needs of his guest is not acting with the generosity with which God acts toward us. As to the latter, Jesus notes that we will always be able to help the poor, but that this woman was doing something very special to honor Him: an act which He predicted would be remembered throughout the world. And of course, He was right.

During His time on earth, Christ may not have owned anything, but He certainly enjoyed things that were lacking in utility. He liked to sing with His friends, sail on the Sea of Galilee, and even barbecue. Perhaps you are being called to give up all that you own, in imitation of Christ, and that is a special calling indeed. For most of us however, I think we’re called to remember that moderation is what we’re after, not a wholesale rejection of Creation – for Creation was, after all, a gift that was made for and given to us.

Christ In The House Of Simon The Pharisee by Jean Beraud (1891)