The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared
by Joseph Alsop
Princeton University Press/Bollingen and Harper and Row, 691 pp., $59.95
For this learned but lively tome, based on his Mellon Lectures of 1978, Mr. Joseph Alsop has devised a title page which is anything but self-explanatory. “The Rare Art Traditions” are so named by him because they are the exception rather than the rule in man’s attitude to the visual arts. “The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared” refers to the author’s conviction that this exceptional attitude, which regards artistic creation as an activity divorced from practical use, was first exemplified by art collectors who thus blazed the trail for our modern conception of art for art’s sake. It is this conception that the author finds represented in only five distinct cultural traditions, that is, in the ancient world, in China with an offshoot in Japan, in the civilization of Islam, and, of course, in Western societies since the dawn of the Italian Renaissance.
How many of his readers will find this fact as startling as he asserts it to be may be hard to tell. After all, the divorce between the crafts and the arts has been the subject of frequent debate in the past. It was demanded by many artists of the Renaissance who aspired to the status of a “liberal” profession; it was deplored by the Victorian reformers of design and industry, and still haunts the conscience of artists and anti-artists today. Even so Mr. Alsop is surely right in his assumption that the majority of museum visitors today do not realize (because they are but rarely told) how radically a painting by Vermeer, Matisse, or Jackson Pollock differs in intention and purpose from the tribal masks, the prehistoric figurines, even the temple sculpture or altar paintings housed in the same building.
It was indeed a momentous development by which the visual arts were thus lifted above the activities of artisans, however skilled. In making his claim that this emancipation from utilitarian bondage must be credited—ever time—to the art collectors, Mr. Alsop is rightly anxious not to allow the art collector to be confused with the equally important patron of the arts. The patron, whether he commissioned the building of a temple or a church, the decoration of a castle, or the illumination of a manuscript was, no doubt, interested in the excellence of the product he hoped to sponsor and to acquire; and thus patrons of art from King Solomon to Pericles, from Abbot Suger to Pope Julius II were never slow to recognize the outstanding masters of their time and to secure their services, often in the face of fierce competition. But what they wanted may still be described (in Mr. Alsop’s terms) as “art for use,” while the art collector who treasures a sample of calligraphy, a fine marble head, or a watercolor is no longer concerned with the original purpose for which these objects were made; he simply values them as “art.”
If this changed perspective is the most important one …