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.

Thus it is only in the seventh chapter, on page 170, that the author feels ready to discuss each of his rare art traditions in their turn while always keeping us aware of the parallels he wants to establish. There are more than forty pages on what he calls “The Greek Miracle” (an expression, by the way, which he attributes to me but which was coined by W. Deonna). Little as we know about the beginnings of Greek art collecting, the author contributes a vivid reconstruction of the activities of Attalus of Pergamon and his successors, who in the third and second centuries BC tried to enrich their small state with many masterpieces from the great centuries of Greek art. This account is based, as Alsop says himself, on “no more than guesses,” but is supported by his general ideas of the likely sequence of such developments.

While much of the material here, especially about Roman art collecting, is not unfamiliar, his next chapter on the Far East will certainly be of value to nonspecialists. We shall have to await the verdict of experts, however, about Mr.Alsop’s bold suggestion that it was the famous founder of the Chinese empire, Ch’in Shi Huang Ti, in the late third century BC who gave Chinese art that new direction which ultimately led to “the repetition of the pattern” of linked phenomena which interests him. What prompts the author to think so are the sensational finds of the emperor’s tomb with its guard of lifelike terracotta warriors which are only now slowly emerging from the earth. If this kind of naturalism was indeed willed by the emperor and engendered a new style, it may be added that the Western and Eastern patterns may not have been quite independent after all; if, that is, the achievements of Hellenistic realism which influenced the sculptors of Afghanistan and northern India could also have become known in China.

We are on more solid ground, however, in considering the rise of calligraphy as the leading Chinese art, which is here related in its decisive stages. What is equally characteristic of the Chinese art scene is the emergence of the “scholar painters,” amateurs in the strict sense of the term, whose work was rightly cherished by collectors and recorded by the chroniclers of Chinese art—not to forget the imitators and forgers whose existence created the need of connoisseurs. In contrast to this generous treatment of China, which he knows at first hand, the author spends little more than two pages on Japan and three on the later Islamic pattern. Here again he draws attention to the role of calligraphy, mentioning a minor prince of the Safavid dynasty of Persia, Ibrahim Mirza (killed in 1576), who owned no fewer than three thousand volumes of fine calligraphy and miniature painting.

Alsop does not even find a real parallel to such art collecting in the centuries of the Middle Ages to which the ninth chapter is devoted. To illustrate the break with antiquity he quotes to good effect the plea of Cassiodorus in the sixth century to repair and protect the remnants of ancient sculpture in Rome. Despite a few stray references in later texts to an interest in ancient statues, he rightly insists that while we know of plenty of patrons and great masters, neither art collecting nor art history in our sense can be documented from that period. Even the relative frequency of artists’ signatures does not convince him of the contrary: he would rather connect it with the traditions of the pre-Christian north, but “an enormous amount of further scholarly work needs to be done before this problem of signing in the Dark and Middle Ages can be rationally discussed.”

Before introducing us to what is obviously his favorite and most thoroughly investigated topic, the rise of art collecting in the Italian Renaissance, the author pauses for an “interchapter” devoted to one of his characteristic moods of reflection. For many years, he tells us, he has asked himself the question, “Why was there a Renaissance?” While disclaiming any proof, he reminds us of that peculiarity of the Renaissance which has often been described, not least, among art historians, by Erwin Panofsky, as the emergence of a sense of history—the same sense the author also considers as underlying his other four “rare art traditions.” Without such a historical sense, he rightly argues, there can be no historical response to art as is presupposed in the pattern of art collecting and the memory of old masters.

Some of the material assembled about the beginnings of art collecting in the fourteenth century is familiar to specialists, for instance the documents concerning Oliviero Forzetta of Treviso who collected both ancient texts and ancient coins and fragments, but Alsop’s interpretation of the evidence is fresh and bold, as is his extended discussion of the letters of Giovanni Dondi dall’ Orologio and of the activities of the Florentine humanist Niccolò Niccoli. As a fellow student of this key figure in the early history of the Renaissance I can only congratulate Mr. Alsop for the thoroughness with which he has searched the sources in order to present him as the archetypal Renaissance collector, but I do not find all his arguments equally convincing. He makes much of the story that Niccolò paid five florins for a calcedonio, an engraved gem, for which he received 200 florins in later years, suggesting that this increase in price betokened an entirely new pattern of collecting; but we are also told that Niccolò had noticed a boy wearing that calcedonio around his neck and paid the sum to his father, who may have been quite unaware of its real value. Even less can I agree that “there is no evidence that Salutati [the Florentine chancellor] himself took an active interest in the visual arts,” for in a paper which Mr. Alsop cites I have quoted Salutati’s efforts to prove by stylistic arguments that certain buildings in Florence were of Roman origin. In thus separating the search for the relics of ancient art from an interest in classical architecture the author narrows the focus unduly.

There follow some sixty pages on the collecting of the Medici, and let it be said at once that they are by no means a rehash of earlier treatments (including my own) of this intriguing subject. Particularly original is the author’s use of the full text of the inventory of the contents of the Medici palace after the owner’s expulsion, of which Eugène Müntz had only published extracts and which Aby Warburg had copied but never got round to publishing. In contrast to Eugène Müntz, Mr. Alsop is convinced that the valuations entered in this inventory opposite the various works of art deserve serious attention, because they may well reflect the sums found in the ledgers of the Medici bank of money paid for particular items. The author defends Lorenzo de’ Medici against such skeptics as myself who doubted the extent of his commitment to art, but, of course, he too reminds his readers of the vast discrepancy between the cost of a contemporary painting and that of a classical engraved gem. This gap, which he calls the “big surprise,” was only closed in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It is treated more perfunctorily, though the analysis of Fra Sabba da Castiglione’s Ricordi of 1549 is a model of its kind. Isabella d’Este comes in for some justified scolding for her greed and her treatment of some artists, but she is rightly seen as a “transitional figure” whose desire to get works from famous contemporary masters foreshadows a shift in art collecting. With the establishment of a canon of great masters, to which Vasari contributed so much through the way he told the story of the rise of the arts to perfection, we have reached the decisive moment when a decree of 1601 by Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici listed eighteen famous painters of the past, whose works were not to be sold abroad. The concern for the “national heritage” had made itself felt for the first time.

The study culminates and ends in a chapter on the seventeenth century devoted mainly to the fabulous art collection gathered together in defiance of these sentiments by Charles I and dispersed by the Commonwealth. A moving “Envoi” recalls the scene reported by an eavesdropper of old Cardinal Mazarin, feeling the end approaching, saying farewell to his beloved possessions such as a Correggio, a Titian, and an Annibale Carracci. The author is entitled to end his narrative at this point, for he has anticipated much of the sequel in his opening systematic chapters, where the rise of the art museum and the development of the modern art market are described with many telling episodes.

Even so, it may be argued that in thus ending with Cardinal Mazarin he has missed the final and possibly the most decisive phase in the development he had set out to describe. I mean the assimilation of the visual arts to their “sister arts,” architecture, poetry, music, and the dance. It is here, I believe, that the initial turn the author took in defining art as something made by human hands proves inhibiting. It is curious to reflect that he would have been unlikely to propose this definition had he written in any language other than English. The German term die Kunst, for instance, has never been restricted to the visual arts alone, and even English usage still reflects the latitude of the Latin term where ars (like the Greek techne) meant skill. The adage Ars longa, vita brevis refers to the “art” of medicine; Ovid wrote of the art of love, and Whistler two thousand years later of the “gentle art of making enemies.”

If this were merely a matter of semantics it would be of marginal relevance to the author’s conclusions; but it is never easy in cultural history to separate the meaning of words from what the author calls “behavior patterns” which cluster around a term. Hence his procedure of first identifying a rigid configuration of such traits which he finds exemplified in his five “rare art traditions,” and then seeking for their cause, was almost bound to lead him into perplexities. Since he rightly rejects historical determinism, he must fall back on metaphors such as “mutation” to describe the emergence of his novel traits. It is here that the history of words and concepts might have taken him further, for the continuous adaptability of their meaning hints at the corresponding flexibility of the pattern.

Thus if the author had not started with a narrow definition of “art” he would also have found a number of clues which connect the history of art as skill more closely with that historical sense he sees as the key to his problem. For in periods when technology and knowledge make visible strides, the passage of time cannot easily be overlooked. In the beginning of Plato’s Greater Hippias Socrates makes ironic fun of a famous sophist who boasts that his earnings as a counsel and performer testify to his mastery of oratory. “You must be much better than the sages of yore who never earned such fees,” Socrates says, “just as our sculptors say that if Daedalus [the mythical artist] were born today and were to create such works as those from which he got his reputation, he would be laughed at.” The famous virtuoso gladly agrees that this is indeed the right comparison, but adds that, of course, he never fails in public to praise the ancient masters.

The tensions and complexities that accompany an awareness of historical change could not be better characterized. We need not, perhaps, be all that surprised that the sculptors of Plato’s time noticed the distance which separated their skillful products from the venerated cult images of the mythical past. They had the best opportunities possible of comparing the works of every generation and school. We need only look into the descriptions in the guidebook by Pausanias from the second century AD of the statues surrounding the stadium of Olympia to see that such a comparison must have become all but inevitable, with hundreds of images of Zeus dedicated by various cities at various times and any number of monuments to victorious athletes crowding the precinct. If the athletes competed, why not the sculptors? Jakob Burckhardt, in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte, has a telling chapter on what he calls the “agonal” spirit of Greek culture, the spirit of competition which expressed itself in so many ways.

Mr. Alsop speaks in this context of “compulsory innovation,” but it was not innovation as such that counted in art but systematic progress toward the goal of mimesis, the convincing imitation of nature. It was in this respect that “art” became approximated to science: both were capable of demonstrable solutions to problems. In putting forward a new hypothesis, Plato’s pupil Aristotle regularly passes in review the opinions of his predecessors on whom he hopes to improve. It is Aristotle also who, in his Poetics, offers the locus classicus of the history of any art—his famous account of the development of Greek tragedy from primitive “dithyrambs,” to Aeschylus who first raised the number of actors from one to two, and on to Sophocles “who introduced three actors and scene painting.” “After going through many changes tragedy stopped,” so Aristotle tells us, “when it had reached its natural form,” though he had conceded in an early passage that it may be another matter “whether the genre was by now fully developed in all its species or not.”

The parallel with the presumed content of the first histories of Greek art discussed by Mr. Alsop needs no emphasis. Nor need it be said at length that the idea of a “canon” of perfection which dominated the history of Greek sculpture and painting had its counterpart in the history of literature. The Alexandrian critics selected the model plays of the major tragedians and these continued to be performed and recited throughout subsequent centuries, much as Shakespeare and Racine are performed on the modern stage. That there were “remembered masters” in literature long before there were any in the visual arts need hardly be stressed if we remember the role of Homer and of Hesiod in the ancient world. What may be worth recalling, however, is that poets may have expected to be remembered masters before artists did. Horace was confident that his work would outlast the pyramids and Li Tai Pe claimed that in an impermanent world only his verse would remain forever. They would not have been so confident if the great works of literature had not been treasured in their environment as Alexander treasured his copy of Homer.

We must not ask whether Alexander read Homer for his poetic mastery or for his reports of the mythical age when gods were still on familiar terms with heroes. Nor should we seek to answer the chicken-and-egg question of whether it was the sense of history that led to the formation of a canon of past achievements or whether this canon contributed to the sense of history. In any case the preservation of such canons will depend on the mechanism of tradition. Buildings easily turn into monuments of the past, but their location in history often becomes hazy and the canon of architecture was slower in developing than that of the visual arts. The retrospective canonization of musical composers as manifested in our concert life is even more recent and would deserve a study of its own.

But as far as the shift in the status of the visual arts is concerned, which is the true subject of Mr. Alsop’s book, it is the approximation of painting and sculpture to poetry that would deserve most attention. It may well be that this approximation has been confined to the five cultural traditions he has isolated, but the way in which the visual arts found their position between technology and poetry still remains to be investigated. I am not so much thinking of the tired formula Ut pictura poesis, but of the ease with which teachers of rhetoric in the ancient world took their comparison of stylistic features from art and architecture.

Unless I am much mistaken, the association of poetry with calligraphy and painting is even more intimate in the Far East. In the Renaissance we have the testimony of the “paragone,” the comparison of the arts which fascinated Leonardo da Vinci, but the role of poetry here extends beyond such overt comparison. It might be argued, for instance, that if Dante had not remained a “remembered master,” Cimabue and Giotto would not have been remembered either. If the early commentators of Dante apologized for his reference to a mere artisan they merely acknowledged, after all, that there was no Muse of painting and sculpture as there was of poetry, of music, of the theater, and of the dance. In housing our works of art in museums, therefore, we have done some violence to the nine sisters who looked askance at these grimy practitioners.

But if the Muses were happy on Parnassus before the first art collection was ever dreamed of, we may also follow this lead a little further and ask whether they did not set the pattern which Mr. Alsop has undertaken to trace from its origins. Once more the meaning of the word “collecting” may give us a hint if we do not define it too narrowly. We still speak of collections of poetry and of a writer’s “collected works.” No literate civilization can lack collections of its poetic heritage, whether we think of the Psalms attributed to David, or the Chinese collection of ancient folksongs called the Shi King. There are counterparts and variants of such collections in Japanese, in Sanskrit, and, of course, in the Greek anthology, some of these collections being attributed to a single compiler while others are anonymous. Rather early on we also find manifestations of antiquarian interests, the desire to rescue old works from oblivion, later examples being the Ambraser Heldenbuch compiled at the request of Maximilian I, and Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry of 1765, leading to the collection of folksongs undertaken by Herder and the Romantics.

Here, too, linguistic usage throws light on the limitations of the author’s definitions. Though poems are not “objects” and cannot be equated with the unique treasures coveted by most art collectors, these collectors never confined their desires to unique objects alone. Coins and prints are specimens of multiples which were eagerly collected, and if we think of a collection of pastoral prints and another of pastoral poems, the gap no longer looks unbridgeable.

What is more relevant here is the role that copies played in the art collecting of the ancients and also of the Chinese. Our low valuation of copies must not blind us to the fact that their production is perhaps the most important symptom of that divorce of art from purpose which is at the very center of Mr. Alsop’s inquiry. If the works by Phidias or Praxiteles were largely cult images and victory monuments, the copies, good or indifferent, which were brought to grace a villa or adorn a palestra were in demand because of their beauty. The book by Haskell and Penny referred to before gives ample evidence of the role that copies and casts played in the history of later art collecting. It is true that the popularity of copies also produced the inevitable reaction, the increasing esteem accorded to the “original.” In the light of this development the downfall of the Apollo Belvedere when it was found to be “merely a copy” is less surprising than Mr. Alsop makes it out to be.

But it would be a mistake to confuse this new emphasis on the value of “originals” with their “value” in the auction room. It is here, I fear, that the author has failed to see the decisive change that has come over the attitude of art lovers during the last three centuries. His remark that “in the twentieth century everyone is an art collector” is surely the overstatement of the epoch. The very antics of the art market he has chronicled so wittily would be inexplicable if the works of the masters were still within easy reach. We cannot covet Leonardo’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, or, for that matter, the treasures that have long been “entombed,” as Mr. Alsop calls it, in the Prado and the Uffizi, the Mauritshuis and the Frick.

The characteristic “behavioral pattern” of the art lover today resembles rather that of the sightseer whose purchases may be confined to picture postcards or art books of the less expensive kind. These serve to nourish or refresh our imagination which make up together what André Malraux called the “museé imaginaire.” In our Western world and wherever its influence extends, that museum is the exact counterpart of the mental furniture of lovers of literature or of music. What part was played in this development by the spread of tourism, what by the new rise of photography and the higher standards of living in the Western world, it is impossible to say.

But none of these factors could have become effective if art lovers had not come to seek in art the same kind of imaginative experience they had found in literature and maybe in music. It was this shift also rather than any fluctuation in taste taken by itself which rendered the former canon of artistic excellence obsolete. Here, too, literature was in the lead. Long before the museums of the world were open to all artistic products of the globe, Goethe coined the term Weltliteratur (“world literature”) and testified in his oeuvre to his appreciation of Persian, Indian, and Chinese poetry. Thus it was not so much the work of the human hand which became an object of admiration, but any token of the creativity of the human mind.

It has recently been shown that this attitude which so many art educators and art lovers take for granted has its roots in yet another tradition. That great student of the history of ideas, M.H. Abrams, has pointed out in a seminal article that the work of art became an object of “disinterested contemplation” when the aesthetic response was approximated to the religious experience by writers such as Shaftesbury, Kant, and Schiller.2 The very demand for “disinterestedness” made the passion of the collector look irrelevant if not worse. One senses that Mr. Alsop in his heart of hearts shares this attitude and looks with contempt at the “seamy side” of the art world. It is fortunate that this healthy disdain has not prevented him from chronicling its vicissitudes in the first scholarly history of art collecting.

  1. 1

    Yale University Press, 1981.

  2. 2

    Kant and the Theology of Art,” Notre Dame English Journal, no. XIII (1981).