Zeitgeist – The Soul of Fine Art and Antiques

Zeitgeist - The Soul of Fine Art and Antiques

When I was a child, my parents took me on a weekend trip to New York City.  It was September, 1985 and I can distinctly remember singing along to Madonna on the radio as we drove across the George Washington Bridge into the city.  I can recall the vibrancy and neon lights of Chinatown after dark.  I can conjure up images of the grandeur of Manhattan as viewed from the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

I was only a child of 9 years old at the time and was completely unable to adequately articulate my sense of wonder at the things I saw.  But I knew a cultural apogee when I saw one.  New York City in the mid 1980s was the epicenter of a golden age that was no less impressive than that enjoyed by ancient Athens in the 5th century BC or renaissance Venice in the 15th century AD.

What I really experienced was the zeitgeist of the city as it washed over and engulfed me.  The term "zeitgeist" was borrowed from the German language and refers to the spirit, energy or cultural milieu of an age.  While every time and place has its own zeitgeist, movies, television and books tend to mythologize the most brilliant and romantic of these eras, leaving them indelibly branded on the popular imagination.

This concept of zeitgeist is incredibly important to both the fine art collector and the antique investor.  When you purchase a late 19th century French Pointillist painting, what you are really buying, in part, is the zeitgeist of the era in which the work of art was created.  And this is equally true whether you collect 17th century Indian Mughal silver rupees, Mid-Century vintage fountain pens or Gilded Age Edwardian jewelry.

Zeitgeist sits alongside portability, quality, durability and scarcity as one of the 5 critical factors that determine an antique's investment potential.  Although it is insufficient to catapult an antique to investment grade status on its own, in many ways zeitgeist is the most important of the 5 elements.  All else being equal, a work of art that hews closely to the popular aesthetic trends of an age will inevitably be more desirable and valuable than a similar work that inelegantly fuses two or more artistic movements together in an awkward transitional style.

In other words, art connoisseurs expect their 1920s Art Deco masterpiece to use streamlined linear elements and geometric motifs.  And antique collectors want their late 18th century Georgian objet d'art to reflect staid Neo-Classicist rigidity and formality.  Those works that most purely represent the stylistic era in which they were created are generally the most desirable.

Artists and craftsmen are always influenced by the cultural trends in which they live and work, even if they don't consciously realize it.  These cultural influences inevitably find their way into artistic endeavors, subtly influencing an artist's personal style in a myriad of ways.  As a result, even though an artist may not intentionally be trying to create art that reflects the current zeitgeist of an era, the prevailing cultural cross-currents will nearly always be visible in his works under close examination.

Zeitgeist also has a distinctly historical aspect as well.  Sometimes an era is dominated by monumental geo-political events that overshadow everything else.  World War II is a perfect example of this occurrence, where the entire world was pre-occupied with or embroiled in a truly global conflict.  The most desirable antiques from this era, like World War II military insignia, will directly reference this world-shaping conflict.

For those interested in further exploring this topic, I highly recommend watching the superb BBC documentary titled "Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities".  Narrated by the engaging art historian James Fox, this three part mini-series examines the cultural milieu of 1908 Vienna, 1928 Paris and 1951 New York City.  Specifically, it looks at how the rich cultural backdrop of these near-mythological 20th century golden ages allowed avant-garde art to flourish.  Unfortunately, while this series used to be available to stream through Netflix (at least in the U.S.), it isn't as of the winter of 2017.

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