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How Did Art Collecting Begin?

About people wearing clothes for warmth, only a certain kind of American sociologist would ask: “Why on earth do they do that?” But it is not silly to ask the same question about the practice of stretching the lobes of pierced ears to make pendulous loops, and then using the loops to carry enormous ear plugs like the gold ones that were a caste mark of the Incas. And the human cultures that have had “Orejones”—“eared ones” as Pizarro’s band called the Incas—have been rather more numerous in history than the cultures having art collectors.

To see that this is true, it must first be understood that true art collecting differs fundamentally from normal patronage of the arts and immemorial treasure gathering. These activities began, approximately, when art began on earth; and their results can be confusing, too, for they are often easy to mistake for art collections. For example, commissioning leading artists to provide works dedicated to the gods in temples was one of the commonest forms of public patronage in Greece in the great centuries. Thus the more famous temples eventually came to look very like modern art museums—but solely as a consequence of haphazard accumulation by patronage of the arts.

True art collecting is different because it always has two ingredients. One ingredient is the aesthetic sense, which is of course shared by patrons like Cosimo di Medici and the more inspired treasure gatherers like Abbot Suger. This sense was earliest manifested in men’s tendency to add beauty to things they made. In fact the Paleoanthropologists now hold that the aesthetic sense is a hominid trait, dating long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. All late Acheulian hand axes, from about 200 millennia ago, look very rough to us; but the Paleoanthropologists consider much trouble was taken to make some hand axes elegant as well as useful by late Acheulian standards.

As to art collecting’s second ingredient, it is the tendency to collect, first indicated by cave assemblages of odd shells, quartz crystals, and the like. These cave assemblages are identical with the assemblages that magpies make, but perhaps the men of the Paleolithic caves thought the shells and crystals were pretty as well as rare. It is clear, however, that the tendency to collect is quite separate from the aesthetic sense. Holy relics were the great collectors’ prizes of the Middle Ages. Besides stamps, early barbed wire, vintage Coca-Cola bottles, and God knows how many other things are ardently collected in America today. The mark of all collectors is that they want their prizes—whether relics of the Passion of Our Lord, Renaissance paintings, or specimens of the first barbed wire ever made—to be genuine, or “right,” as they say on the art market. Here is the only rational solution of the aesthetically insoluble problem of art historical authenticity. A costly faked work of a great master is not shown to be one whit less beautiful when the fakery is detected by subtle scientific tests of the paint. But the detected fake is hurried into the museum’s reserves or the art collector’s cupboards because it is now “not right,” whereas it was exhibited with pride and envied by all when first acquired.

This is not the end of the story either. True art collecting not only has two very disparate ingredients. In addition, art collecting has never appeared, anywhere or at any time, except as the primary phenomenon in a larger system comprising a series of other phenomena: art history, an art market, and up to four or five more such as art museums and art faking. Look, then, for the two ingredients and also for the accompanying system. You will soon find true art collecting is a peculiar byproduct of a tiny minority of all the art traditions the world has known. These five rare art traditions, as they may be called, are as follows:

In the West: the classical art tradition that was born in Greece; and after an intervening gap of about eight centuries, our own Western art tradition that originated in the Renaissance.

In the Far East: the second phase of the Chinese art tradition that began in the late third century BC; and the Japanese tradition after it had been transformed by Chinese influence.

And finally, as a somewhat anomalous case, the later Islamic art tradition.

Note that before very recent times, all these art traditions had their own strongly independent identities, and above all, some were totally unrelated to others. Yet all five traditions on the list nonetheless produced the same complex results—art collecting, art history, and some or all of the other linked phenomena—whereas no such results can be found in the overwhelming majority of art traditions. One naturally asks, therefore, “Why on earth these five and not all the many others?”

This is the question I now propose to try to answer, but before going to the main question, let me also set the stage a bit more fully. Rather more than 25,000 years—or about nine tenths of art’s known history on earth—had already elapsed before the seventh century BC, when a glorious and mysterious creative mutation occurred in Greece. In this long period, literally thousands of art traditions, major and minor, had undoubtedly come and gone with the rise and fall of the uncounted Paleolithic, Neolithic, and, last of all, complex metal-using cultures.

About many of these cultures and their art traditions we now know little or nothing. But the short list of major art traditions we know a fair amount about before 700 BC is already pretty long. It begins with the great, long-lasting art of the Paleolithic caves, and it comprises a whole series of art traditions generated by what we now call higher civilizations. Ancient Sumer and several of its successor cultures in Mesopotamia and Iran, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine; Egypt, of course; the Indus Valley culture of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in pre-Aryan India; Minoan Crete and its conqueror-inheritor, Mycenaean Greece; the China of the first phase, which began around 1600 BC; the Olmec culture in Central America, which developed around 1200 BC and was the forerunner of so many other wonderful pre-Columbian cultures: these are the short list of early higher cultures that had their own art traditions. And among all these major art traditions of the first nine tenths of art’s story, not one produced any sign of true art collecting or art history, so far as we know today.

Out of the Greek mutation in the seventh century BC came the great art of ancient Greece, as well as the entire classical art tradition. It has been wisely called the “Greek miracle,”1 and it was not miraculous solely because of Greek art’s originality and grandeur. Generations of great art historians and theorists, both in classical times and our own time, have studied and written about the “Greek miracle” in all its many aspects. To date, however, no special stress has been placed on the sheer novelty of certain behavioral traits that first appeared on earth in the great centuries of Greek art. More important, the meaning of these traits, in combination, has not been explored. Unless I am mistaken, in fact, it has never been suggested that the four novel behavioral traits of Greek art combine to explain the other Greek “firsts” that chiefly concern us: namely, the first appearances on earth of true art collecting, art history, and the other linked phenomena. All these phenomena are clearly recorded in the Greek world, and they had never been seen before.

I must add that I have no explanation for any of Greek art’s four behavioral novelties. It is bewildering, in itself, that a precedent-breaking creative mutation took place in the seventh century BC in the quarrelsome little states in Greece. Moreover, there was nothing unprecedented in any of the accepted indicators now used to pinpoint the mutation. Among these indicators, a key place is usually accorded to the earliest Greek monumental stone sculpture, which probably dates from about 650 BC. Yet the first Greek sculptors in stone were Johnnies-come-lately. Huge boulders roughly shaped into semihuman form have been found, somewhat unexpectedly, at a site in Yugoslavia that dates from about 8,000 years ago; and these are the earliest known monumental stone sculpture.

The Greeks got their inspiration, too, from the stone sculpture of Egypt. Perhaps the finest and most complete very early Greek kouros statue, the marble youth in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, still rather faithfully follows a system of human proportions imported from Egypt. The stance and much of the treatment of the hair come from the same source. In large measure, this was a borrowed image. There were also other borrowings, from the Phoenicians, from metal-rich Urartu in the Caucasus, and elsewhere. But what the Greeks then did with what they borrowed was wholly new under the sun; for the Greek artists of the great centuries were the first in the world history of art to innovate both rapidly and unceasingly.

This compulsive innovation was in truth the first of the Greek art tradition’s novel behavioral traits. Nowadays, of course, its novelty is far from easy to grasp. In the twentieth century, each new creative generation’s inescapable need to innovate is taken as an immutable fact of the life of art. All our beginning artists fear above all the verdict on their work, “It’s been done before.” But this was not the way of it in most art traditions of the past. What had been done before was instead quite happily done again and again. Here, consider E. H. Gombrich on this important problem:

Our modern notion that an artist must be “original” was by no means shared by most peoples of the past. An Egyptian…or a Byzantine master would have been greatly puzzled by such a demand. Nor would a medieval artist of Western Europe have understood why he should invent new ways of planning a church, or designing a chalice or of representing the sacred story where the old ones served their purpose so well…. There [still] remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.2

Please note, however, that the absence of a compulsion to innovate continuously by no means implies changelessness in art. In the first place, all art traditions have gone through occasional spurts of bold innovation, either when a tradition was developing its own vocabulary of forms or themes, or a new style was evolving—as happened with Abbot Suger’s work at St. Denis, from which Gothic architecture was born. The step pyramid at Saqqara, the first in Egypt, resulted from another such inspired spurt around 2700 BC. In all art traditions too, styles and forms inevitably altered—for change is an unchanging constant in human history. Yet whenever doing what was done before was acceptable, gradual change was the norm; and in some traditions, artists were even trained and required to follow rules which severely retarded change. In the eighth century, the Second Council of Nicaea laid down the rule, “The making of icons is not the invention of painters…. Whatever is ancient is worthy of respect, saith St. Basil….” And the Council’s rule continued, in effect, that the conception of images belonged to the Church Fathers, only painting—execution—to the painters.

  1. 1

    E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, third edition (Phaidon, 1968), p. 120.

  2. 2

    E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, eleventh edition (Phaidon, 1966; reprinted 1968), p. 114.

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