The Possessed

The Cultures of Collecting

edited by John Elsner, edited by Roger Cardinal
Harvard University Press, 312 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Psychological Perspectives

by Werner Muensterberger
Princeton University Press, 295 pp., $24.95

The definition of collecting adopted by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal could hardly be broader. In their introduction they refer not just to Noah, with his comprehensive assembly of animals, but also to tax collectors, ticket collectors, and refuse collectors; to the medieval church, which supposedly collected souls, and even to the Nazis, though whether these were collecting unsullied Aryans to create a master race, or Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the insane for slaughter is left ambiguous. From their allusions to tax, garbage, and the Final Solution it is clear enough that they take a rather jaundiced view of collecting in general, and even when they turn to the more conventional sphere of art collecting their distaste is unconcealed.

Their intention, they tell us, is to challenge the self-assurance typified by “the great canonical collections, with their temple-like architecture, their monumental catalogues and their donors’ names chiselled in stone,” a phenomenon which they characterize as “absurdly and dementedly eternalist,” and they pose the question of whether “collecting, as a cultural and behavioural phenomenon, can be adequately understood if one looks only at the official norms—the public art collections, the museums, the sacred stations of the Grand Tour.” Rather than attempting “to invoke canons and confirm taste,” they seek “to lay bare a phenomenon at once psychological and social.”

Disparaging references of this kind to a canon of artistic excellence, partly inspired by the challenges to the literary canon so successfully promoted in academic departments of literature, are now commonplace in art-historical scholarship. But in the field of art they carry a subversive implication that is largely misleading, simply because in practice any notion of such a canon has long been abandoned, except perhaps in the more traditional undergraduate survey courses. Indeed, the most striking feature both of art history and of the art market, particularly in the past half century but to some extent going back about two hundred years, is its extreme catholicity. Scholars, curators, and dealers all have a vested interest in promoting neglected artists or previously disregarded forms of art, and today it is hard to think of a single class of man-made object from the past that is not collected and eventually displayed in public institutions.

Although in this respect their polemical tone rings a little false, Elsner and Cardinal are right to deplore the bland and eulogistic tone of much that has been written about art collecting. Most of the more objectionable examples of the genre have been produced by dealers anxious to attract more money to the market, or by museum curators eager to flatter potential donors. Both groups tend to promote collecting as an enlightened and discriminating activity, with a long aristocratic pedigree going back to the Medici and other ruling families of the later Renaissance. This seductive image is slightly misleading, because it is clear from a large and informative body of scholarship that the formation of the princely collections at the heart of most of the great European museums does not…

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