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.

What’s It Worth?

I used to watch “Antiques Roadshow,” one of the very few shows on public television that people actually watch in great numbers. But its popularity as well as the nature of the show itself are worth consideration. The former depends on the latter. But what is the show about? What does it mean? What are the subtle, hidden suggestions the show passes along to us? These are questions worth considering.

People bring family heirlooms and treasures to a city where cameras are set up and experts evaluate the worth of these treasures in dollars and cents. In a word, the “value” of things is translated before our eyes from delight, sentiment, and aesthetic appreciation to filthy lucre. It is a sign of what has been called the “commodification” of culture. In such a culture everything is turned into a commodity — including human labor — and a price is put on it which determines its value. Without the dollar sign attached to it, it has no value. We are so used to the process we no longer think about what has been lost in the translation. What things are really worth has given way to what price they can bring. “I love that painting, but is it worth anything?” This is absurd.  If you love the painting it has real value. You don’t need to attach a dollar sign to it.

The same sort of thing happens in “sport” which is the reduction of athleticism from something beautiful and valuable in itself for participants and spectators alike into a money-making proposition where television and promoters call the shots and the athletes are valued for what kind of market they create with their skills. The better ones make more money, and vice versa. Just think about what the commercialization of the Olympics has done. It has turned a series of athletic events that should amaze and astound us for the remarkable skill shown by the participants into a competitive spectacle where every medal earned is rewarded with dollars and carefully counted; winning has become not the main thing but the only thing that counts. It really isn’t: I don’t care if Vince Lombardy did say it. It is the event or the performance itself that should be valued, not wins and losses.

When I played and coached competitive tennis I loved to win. Don’t get me wrong. But I never fell into the trap of thinking that winning is what it’s all about. I played because I loved to play: to hit the good shot or to “be in the moment” when you know every shot will go where you want it to and nothing else matters. When I coached I always stressed performance. Let winning take care of itself; just give it your best effort. And I certainly would never have thought to put a price on winning or losing.

In a commodified culture something important is lost when these sorts of reductions take place. In reducing the value of heirlooms and family treasures to dollars and cents we lose the aesthetic and sentimental value of the objects themselves which has nothing whatever to do with money. In reducing athletics to sports we lose the thrill of watching another human being perform extraordinary feats of strength, skill, and movement as we worry about whether they will win or lose. Our three-dimensional world is hammered into a sheet.

We seem to have lost sight of why things are truly important to us in our urge to measure everything in terms of money. But how do we measure in this way the value of a child’s smile, a sunset, the trust the blind man has in his dog, or the love of another human? We can’t — certainly not in terms of dollars and cents. The important things don’t have a dollar value, they are valuable in themselves.