Antiques Roadshow

Several years ago I posted a piece about the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” where folks bring in their treasures to find out what they are worth. I want to expand the point I was making at that time. As you assuredly know, folks dust off the antique vase that has been sitting in the attic for years collecting dust and stand in line for hours to ask an “expert” how much it’s worth. The underlying assumption here is that value is a  function of cost. We want to quantify everything and cannot accept any sort of value in our world aside from cash value.

Except, perhaps, utilitarian value: what can it do? We do readily recognize this sort of value: the vase can hold flowers. But there are other kinds of value as well, such as  sentimental value, the value of colors on a canvass, and, what interests me most, moral and aesthetic value. Why have these sorts of value gone by the board? I wonder.

In fact, I have wondered about this for years and some time ago I even wrote a book about it titled Rediscovering Values in which I defined values (aesthetic and moral values) in the following manner:

“Values are regional properties of objects or events that ‘require’ a positive response on the part of anyone who considers the object or event with discernment.”

Now this sounds a bit technical, but it is easily unpacked.  My main point is that values are putatively “there” in the world. The “requiredness” of which I speak is a notion developed by the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and it refers the quality of the smile of the baby, or the regional properties evident in the act of a starving child who takes the bread he is offered and hands it to his younger sister. I don’t speak of the feelings these things evoke in us, I speak about the act itself or the smile itself which provoke those feelings. In addition, requiredness may simply refer to the strong sense of necessity that attaches itself to the conclusion of a valid syllogism or the final line in a mathematical equation. When we see that A is greater than B and B is greater than C we are “required” to acknowledge that A must be greater than C. Our world is full of properties in the region of objects and events that make them more interesting and important to us, that “require” positive or even, at times, negative responses. These qualities are all around us if we only open our eyes and ears.

Thus I also talk about the “discernment” of the one who responds to those values and this is equally important. Discernment is a function of experience, sensitivity, and imagination. Those who have lived in the art world for much of their lives, like our friend “Zeebra” for example, tend to be much more discerning judges of works of art than the rest of us. Those who have suffered through many trials in the world, or experienced them vicariously in well-written novels, are in a better place to respond to the regional properties we call “moral values.” It is possible, of course, that there are people who are born with an innate ability to respond to certain values — a heightened development at birth of the right side of the brain, perhaps. But experience, sensitivity, and imagination play a very big role. And experience and imagination are not, by and large, valued by our culture (sorry!). We prefer to reduce all value to quantities we can measure and add or subtract with our electronic devices that tell us all we think we need to know about our world.

But, if I am right, we miss a great deal in this sort of reductionism. We miss the many features of the world that the artist sees, the many sounds the musician hears, the subtle movements the dancer sees, and even the beauty of a well-hit tennis shot or a fade-away jump shot. These things take training (experience), and sensitivity. And they take imagination and at times effort. One needs to look around and one needs to open oneself to the “regional properties” of objects or events that surround us and attend to them long enough to allow those properties to make an impression.

Instead of taking the vase out of the attic and dusting it off and then taking it to an expert to find out how much it is worth, we would be better off dusting it off and placing it near us, perhaps with freshly cut flowers, so we can appreciate its many beautiful properties and those of the flowers, both visual and olfactory. It may not be “worth” much in dollars and cents, but it may be worth a great deal as an object that can make our world richer and fuller.


15 thoughts on “Antiques Roadshow

  1. Oh yes, please put a nosegay in the heirloom teacup instead of tucking it out of sight of thieves or out of danger from – earthquakes!

    Before the earthquake, a frog lived in one small earthen artifact, and a coordinating piece held change, seeds, nails – random items from my pockets. Alas, they danced their way off the table and shattered to the floor.

    Wrapped in a towel and then in bubble wrap, is an heirloom Art Deco piece that the owners of the house forgot to pack and send to the USA. They stressed it was a valuable piece, and I am guarding it with delicate care until it can rejoin the others in its collection.

    I am temped every so often to unpack it and give it life via fresh flowers!

  2. Hugh, I enjoy it when you make us think beyond your words. I was thinking of the value of your home, when you are looking to sell it versus when you get an offer from someone when it is not on the market because you live in a desirable neighborhood.

    Even if the offer is the same dollar amount, the value is different. When you are selling, you are ready to monetize your value. Yet, if aren’t selling, the offer is insufficient as my home is worth more than the house it is. Good post, again. Keith

  3. Many years ago my father in law was a missionary in the Congo. He was given a walking stick by a particular powerful chief as a passport through the region. Using it he could go anywhere and speak to anyone just by showing the stick. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful stick, and had an obvious repair by the original owner but it was the provenance that made it valuable. The stick was stolen in a burglary, this wipes both provenance and value, thus proving once again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • There are indeed many wonderful things out there in our world that we are becoming increasingly blind and deaf to — not you, obviously, but many, many others. They have their attention immersed in their toys!!

  4. Much I could say … much to think about. I’ll settle for a couple of brief thoughts. Things I value most are the things that there can be no price tag for, such as people, nature, a conversation with a bumblebee on my morning walk, etc. Everything in my home has value … to me … though likely would not have to others. I value that which serves a purpose, but also that which makes me smile, such as a picture or a song. I have always thought it ridiculous to have something beautiful, and feel the need to keep it in a bank vault to ‘protect’ it. What’s the point? And lastly, I love dandelions. Everybody except Miss Goose and I think they are weeds. My yard is filled with them and I love them … they are beautiful, they make me smile when I open the blinds each morning, and thus they are valuable. To me. End point … value is relative … one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. 🙂 That’s twice this morning you’ve made me think … 🙂

    • We could go on and on about the notion that “value is relative.” Oh, that’s right! I have gone on and on.! I have written approximately 38.7% of my posts in an attempt to dislodge that thought from your mind and the minds of others.! Oh well, back to the drawing board!

      • 38.7% … You COUNTED? Ahhhh … now I feel badly. But Hugh … I do get your point and I wasn’t disagreeing with it. But think about it this way … you know how you get a splinter of wood in your thumb? And if you get the tweezers or a needle, you can dislodge it fairly easily UNLESS it stays there for a while. Eventually, the skin grows over it and then it requires a paring knife to get it out. My mind is very old and has crusted over some of my ideas. 🙂

      • Mine too!! The key difference here is that what people say or think is not the same as what is or is not the case. Some people still think the earth is flat or (imagine!) that DT is a great president. That doesn’t make it so. Accordingly, different thoughts about what is or is not valuable do not determine whether or not something is indeed valuable. Socrates put it well (in another context entirely): are things good because the gods think they are good or do the gods think things are good because they are so in fact??
        Let’s hear it for the crusted minds!! Yea!!! 😜

      • jilldennison’s splinter of wood analogy is good, but in my case when I leave a splinter unattended it gets surrounded by pus and the body rejects it.

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