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The Art of Collecting Art

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 of the “linked phenomena” mentioned in the subtitle, it is not the only one. In fact the author discerns a “behavioral pattern” exemplified in his five “rare art traditions” that includes a whole system of connected features which he announces and briefly describes near the beginning of his investigation. The most prominent are:

  1. Art collecting: This is the basic by-product of art simply because the rest of the system has never developed without art collecting. It seems certain, indeed, that the other parts of the system cannot develop in art collecting’s absence.

  2. Art history: As will be shown later, art history goes hand in hand with art collecting at all times.

  3. The art market: Third place goes to the art market, because you cannot have a true art market without art collecting, and art collecting automatically begets an art market to supply the collectors.

To this triad the author adds five secondary “by-products of art” which are not, however, invariably observed in all the rare art traditions. They are:

  1. Art museums: Historically, this phenomenon is the most uncommon of the lot, but it takes fourth place today because we now so conspicuously live in the Museum Age.

  2. Art faking: Wherever there is a booming art market serving competitive art collectors, faking is an automatic development.

  3. Revaluation: The author here speaks of “a kind of stock market of taste, on which works of art of all sorts go up and down in estimation all over the world.”

  4. Antiques: This use by both the rich and the middle classes of borrowed decorative plumage plucked from the past to ornament the present differs from ordinary art collecting because it always starts much later and also introduces the new theme of old-for-old’s sake.

  5. Super-prices: The payment of super-prices for works of art always announces the last and most luxuriant phase of development of the byproducts of art.

It is the author’s aim in this study, the fruit of many years of research and the support of an able team, to prove not only the reccurrence of these linked features in various parts of the globe, but also their conspicuous absence from other great artistic traditions like those of the ancient Orient, of Mexico, of India, and even of the European Middle Ages.

Any historian knows to his cost that writing the history of any aspect of culture is likely to confront him with a perplexing dilemma. Should he proceed chronologically or systematically? To begin with the beginning and to end with the end will make a good story, easy to follow and easy to remember; but having embarked on this course he is likely to discover that he must first explain why he starts at a particular point, and what his subject is really going to be. Would it not be better to start at the end of the story which is more likely to be familiar to his reader, and to work his way backward? Alas, it turns out that this procedure would be even more confusing. And thus the writer soon finds himself confronted by the need to discard the narrative mode for a systematic exposition, hoping that the historical sequence will somehow emerge all the same.

Mr. Alsop’s book shows traces of this dilemma, which he has tried to solve by making his first chapters systematic, the rest chronological. But like the rest of us he must have found that this tidy solution cannot be maintained and that he has to shuttle backward and forward between the two approaches, stopping whenever possible to recapitulate or anticipate. As a result, it is more enjoyable to browse in this book than to consecutively read its 475 heavily footnoted pages, and no attempt to summarize its varied, meandering course is likely to do it justice.

It was no doubt in order to find an arresting opening that Mr. Alsop decided to preface his story of art collecting with an account of the dramatic fluctuation of taste the Western world has witnessed during the last two centuries. The chapter centers on the notorious fate of the Apollo Belvedere, once celebrated as a supreme masterpiece and now generally dismissed as a copy or even a pastiche. It is perhaps a pity that this particular story has meanwhile been told in greater detail in the masterly book Taste and the Antique by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny,1 but what Mr. Alsop wishes to emphasize is not so much the breakdown of the academic canon but the unparalleled expansion of the notion of art with the result, in the author’s words, that “all art gradually became equal—although some people’s art has never ceased to be more equal than other people’s.”

The author speaks in this context of a radical change in the “way of seeing.” Perhaps it would be safer to say that art lovers began to “look for” different qualities. Though Mr. Alsop does not quote him, he follows Ruskin in looking for the “mark of the human hand” precisely because this has become increasingly rare in the objects which surround us. Hence he proposes as his definition that “art is whatever the human hand makes with art, and making with art is making to please the eye.” It may well be that both the great merits and the undeniable limitations of his book spring from his faith in the value and the power of such rigid definitions.

The scholastic origins of this faith could not be better illustrated than by his opening of the second chapter with a quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas defining beauty as what “pleases the eye.” One wonders how much is gained by this formula, which would deny beauty to music; but even in its application to the visual arts the postulation of “pleasure” is notoriously risky since it would exclude everything that shocks and moves us. Moreover the author’s discussion in this chapter of “Art for Use” also refers to relics and reliquaries, which inevitably remind us of the emotion of awe and reverence that can be associated with art in the setting of ritual.

Turning to art collecting, the author explains again that he has never found a “definition of art collecting both precise enough and general enough to be universally useful.” Accordingly he sets out to formulate a definition of “collecting” which starts: “To collect is to gather objects belonging to a particular category.” He amasses interesting and amusing examples of the “collecting impulse,” referring us to the Bower Bird and to collectors of beer bottles and vintage cars; but he is compelled by the straitjacket of his definition not to consider other manifestations of this impulse, such as the craze of “train spotting” which makes English schoolboys gather near railway stations with a notebook, to write down registration numbers of passing railway engines. There is a sporting element of competition here and, of course, the need to find an interest in life, both of which also influence art collecting. Moreover, the activity serves no conceivable purpose; it is purely an “aim in itself.”

It is this exclusion of usefulness which the author regards as the first litmus test for the content of a true art collection. Another is the emergence of connoisseurship which the true collector must either possess or hire. As if to counteract the rigidity of his definitions Mr. Alsop shows himself the perfect raconteur in illustrating his points, but his more theoretical concern is to show in the next chapter that art collecting and art history are “Siamese twins” which cannot exist without each other. “Anyone can perceive that the historical response to art is the egg that art history comes from; and that a little thought will show you that the historical response is also the egg that art collecting comes from.” Tracing the emergence of the canon of excellence in the writings of Vasari, Alsop vividly describes the intrusion of art history into the museum during the eighteenth century, when specimens of early art were at last collected and publicly shown as instructive reminders of the “rise of the arts.” He insists quite rightly on the importance of the “historical response” in our appreciation and valuation of the art of the past, and he concludes his section of systematic ground-clearing with reflections on the art market which contain a good many amusing tidbits.

  1. 1

    Yale University Press, 1981.

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