Rinker on Collectibles: Mechanical Art Balances Mass-Production and Aesthetics

This 1930 Ruxton front-drive sedan resides in the Nethercutt Museum. Despite its technological excellence and ingenuity, the car was introduced during a rough part of history and the company struggled to find its financial footing. The final Ruxton automobiles were built in 1931. Does its aesthetics make it a piece of art or simply a nice-looking car?

I recently was provided with copies of e-mail exchanges between advanced toy train collectors that dealt with topics ranging from the long-term prospects of sustaining and eventually growing value for high-end toy trains to the assertion that the collecting market is cyclical, that is to say, what is out today will inevitably return to favor in the future.

In one e-mail, the writer suggested that there is aesthetic value in some toy trains that ensures their future collectability. “If you ever come to Los Angeles and visit the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar, Calif., you will see an incredible collection of fine automobiles and automated musical instruments that J. P. Nethercutt referred to as ‘Mechanical Art’ and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to showcase that vision! Here is the actual definition of art from Wikipedia:

‘The quality production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.’”

The e-mail writer was enamored by the “more than ordinary significance” portion of the definition and ready to apply it out of context to his favorite pieces in his collection.

I did a Google search of “Mechanical Art,” hoping to find a definition. Although unsuccessful, I did find that there is a mechanical art museum located in Strafford-Upon-Avon in England. The museum touts itself as “a wonderful and exciting collection of machines, incorporating gears, chains, pulleys and whirligig paraphernalia. The exhibits fall into three areas:

• Kinetic Art = art in motion;
• Automata = interesting mechanical contraptions;
• Steampunk = modern gizmos with a Victorian twist.

Mechanical Art is a cousin of repurposed art. While there is a family resemblance, mechanical art uses newly fashioned material far more often than recycling discarded items from the past.

Mechanical art is not to be confused with the seven medieval mechanical arts—ars theatrica, agriculture, blacksmithing, hunting, medicine, navigation and war—the alternatives to the seven liberal arts. In the 19th century, the mechanical arts referred to different types of engineering. The public perception was that the mechanical arts were useful, practical, applied- and craft-oriented. Aesthetics, as represented by the fine and decorative arts along with certain academic disciplines, were the provenance of the upper class and intelligentsia. This “Sorry, Charlie” mindset—“StarKist was not looking for tuna with good taste but rather for tuna that tasted good” —still prevails in the 21st century.

As a historian of technology and science, I find beauty, power and aesthetic quality in machines and other mass-produced objects. Great design is not confined to one-of-a-kind works of art. However, my vision is not shared universally, a key characteristic of aesthetics.

Can mass-produced objects be aesthetic objects is the critical question at hand. Based solely on line, form and design, the answer seems an obvious yes, but it is not. The mass-produced object is merely a copy of the initial object created by the artist/designer. The “art piece” is the conceptual piece or model that provided the guidelines for the mold maker to create the templates for the mass-produced piece.

This teapot and matching pieces that Paul Schreckengost designed for Gem Clay Forming Company in 1938 is a universally acclaimed aesthetic masterpiece.

If one accepts this argument, then only one-of-a-kind items qualify as aesthetic objects. Common sense rails against this argument. Consider the teapot and matching pieces that Paul Schreckengost designed for Gem Clay Forming Company in 1938. The teapot is a universally acclaimed aesthetic masterpiece. Los Angeles Modern Auctions offered an example for sale in its June 3, 2007, “20th Century Design and Fine Art.”

The adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” does not apply when discussing aesthetics. While a modicum of debate is allowed in determining whether an object is aesthetic, the key is universal agreement. In lay terms, the object evokes emotions of wow, fantastic, wonderful, beautiful and sexy.

When an object is aesthetic, those who view it know. They may not know why they know. They just do. Aesthetic appreciation is a human gene. Like any gene, it is more fully developed in some than in others, but it exists within everyone.

Academe frowns on Wikipedia. My students are forbidden to use it as a scholarly reference in their writing. Yet, Wikipedia often contains far better descriptions of words and concepts than found in the many online dictionaries. For “athletics,” Wikipedia notes: “Aesthetics… is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori (sic.)-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste….”

The antiques and collectibles trade treats objects as bland, lifeless entities. While objects are emotionless, this does not necessarily have to be. Aesthetic objects elicit feelings of emotion, passion, joy and excitement in the minds of those who view them. They elicit an uncontrollable urge to touch and hold, as though this very act is part of the overall viewing experience.

Recognizing the aesthetic quality of an object, especially one that is mass-produced, is a learned skill. It is judgment of the mind, not the heart.

In the late 1980s, I was attending a D.S. Clarke antiques show in Miami. As I stood before the booth of a doll dealer, my eye immediately focused on one doll that seemed to stand out from all the rest. The dealer’s display did nothing to call attention to that doll; it was one among many. I stood by the side of the booth and watched the eyes of other show attendees as they walked past. In almost every instance, their eyes found and momentarily focused on that one doll. The doll was mass-produced. An identical doll by the same maker might not elicit the same aesthetic ambiance. Again, the key is the universal recognition by the passersby, most of whom had no interest in dolls but instinctively recognized a thing of beauty when they saw it.

I had and continue to have similar experiences. I position myself near a specialist dealer’s booth and watch the eyes of those walking past. While I would like to report that the phenomenon of a common focus on one object in the booth happens every time, it does not. The probability appears to be 1 in 25.

Aesthetic can be manipulated, thanks to lighting and other presentation techniques. This is “Rinker on Collectibles” column #1392. Column #107, writing more than 23-and-half years ago, was entitled “The Collectible As an Objet d’Art.” In it, I railed against those picture price guides that through skilled photography and captioning took an ordinary object with no aesthetic value and turned it into a glamorous, highly desirable collectible. I wrote at the time: “Judging radios (almost any collectible can be inserted) in this context is like judging a person solely by their physical appearance.”

Does this Lionel Standard Gauge Brown 411 E State set fall into the “who gives a darn” category, or does have any aesthetic merit?

An object has to stand and fall on its own merit when determining if it meets aesthetic standards. A collector’s love for an object clouds his/her judgment. Admitting that subjectivity plays a far more important role than objectivity in judging the merits and value of antiques or collectibles, aesthetic judgment must be as free from subjectivity as possible.

All of which brings me back to the high end of the toy train market. The traditionalist high-end toy train collectors see a direct connection between scarcity and condition and aesthetics. This connection does not exist. Aesthetic value is separate and independent.

Universal recognition of aesthetic value passes from one generation to the next ad infinitum. It is not subject to changing tastes and whims, albeit some argue that it is. Aesthetic value must stand the test of time. If it does make the leap from the first to the second generation, it is necessary to question the initial attribution. This is why the Mona Lisa will remain forever in the minds in the of those who view it in person as opposed to the Lionel Standard Gauge Brown 411 E State set, which will fall into the “who gives a darn” category in another 25 years. Besides, the set is entirely devoid of any aesthetic merit.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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