The Cultures of Collecting
Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Psychological Perspectives
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 have a great deal in common with private collecting as it is now usually understood.
Rulers and noblemen in every European society always proclaimed their status by the extent of their possessions, which in the Middle Ages often included jewels, relics, and illuminated manuscripts, along with horses and falcons. One of the great changes introduced in the Renaissance was to add ancient art to this list of desirable commodities, soon followed by modern painting and sculpture. After the discovery of these new ways of displaying wealth, art collecting has remained a pastime dominated by and largely confined to the rich, even though many collectors would continue to favor more traditional items, in particular very expensive objects of no practical value made of gold and silver, crystal and semi-precious stones, a taste that continued at least until the time of Fabergé. Although rulers like the Medici were enthusiastically praised by artists and other potential clients for their interest in art, in practice many of them acted like nineteenth-century millionaires, buying in bulk where possible and otherwise employing the most expensive and famous painters and sculptors they could afford.
Until the end of the eighteenth century the art market was dominated by aristocratic collectors of the traditional kind, and in this period it certainly makes sense to speak of an artistic canon, whose authority few felt inclined to challenge. In particular, it is noticeable that although many of the very rich were happy to employ modern artists, virtually none of them extended the scope of their collections to include works by the masters of the early Renaissance, most of whom, according to Vasari, had not reached the standard of perfection achieved by the generation of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. It was also primarily a closed system, in which the content of the major collections changed hands mainly as a consequence of political events, military conquest, diplomacy, or dynastic alliance.
The Cultures of Collecting includes an excellent essay by Thomas DaCosta Kauffmann about the formation and transformations of one of these collections, that of the Austrian Habsburgs, tracing its development from a semi-private institution to a semi-public one staffed by state bureaucrats. Among other changes, he draws attention to a phenomenon that occurred in the seventeenth century, the separation of the treasury, with its luxury objects, from the art collection proper. This is something that happened with most of the royal collections, and the effect has been to give a rather misleading notion of the priorities and motives involved in their formation. Today it is widely supposed, for example, that Lorenzo de’ Medici was a keen collector of art, even though he devoted far more money to the purchase of expensive cameos and vases.
The emphasis of the rest of the volume is on more personal and more idiosyncratic types of collecting. The topics discussed are very miscellaneous, ranging from early responses to the booty brought back from the New World to the collecting activity of Sigmund Freud, from the architectural models assembled by John Soane to the collages of Kurt Schwitters, from postcards to the memorabilia of rock stars, along with a strong dose of recent literary theory. Unfortunately, the editors provide no clear definition of what actually constitutes collecting, apart from the remarks quoted at the beginning of this review, and many of the individual contributions seem only peripherally related to the phenomenon. This is true of an interesting study of Charles Vincent Peale by Susan Stewart, who concentrates more on the iconography of the paintings that he produced than on the objects, principally of natural history, that he assembled in his museum. Again, an article on the ethnographic material obtained by Captain Cook is concerned primarily with the way in which it was published, and the discussion of Schwitters is centered on the selection of materials he used for his collages.
As a study of the phenomenon of private collecting, Werner Muensterberger’s book is more enlightening. He is a practicing psychoanalyst, and while this colors his interpretation in ways that will not convince all his readers, his actual description of that behavior, based on wide reading and personal acquaintance with many collectors, rings true. At the same time he avoids the judgmental tone so evident in some of the contributions to The Cultures of Collecting. His definition of collecting as “the selecting, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value” is succinct and precise. It excludes the mere accumulation of things, as well as acquisition, typically of works of art, motivated exclusively or primarily by considerations of financial gain. While Muensterberger, surely correctly, does not grant higher status to the collection of art, he tends to confine his discussion to objects that are no longer new; but his definition includes the activity of someone like Imelda Marcos, with her shoes (and her Old Master paintings), as well as collectors of football programs, stamps, and butterflies. Elsner and Cardinal, as well as several of their authors, seem to regard the assembly of sets of things, so familiar to many of us from childhood, as somehow central to the phenomenon of collecting, but for Muensterberger this is merely one facet, and not a particularly interesting one, of a broader activity.
He points out that a salient feature of collecting is that there has to be a regular supply of objects in a chosen field, and this is because the collector, unlike Noah, does not usually aspire to or achieve completeness. The satisfaction, he believes, lies as much in the search and acquisition as in the possession, a contention brilliantly illustrated in his account of a collector of Oriental art allowing himself to be manipulated by a shady dealer in Hong Kong, who first held out the prospect of acquiring a particularly desirable antique vessel smuggled out of China and then maneuvered him into buying a group of objects of an entirely different kind. As Muensterberger observes,
one is soon aware that the relationship between collector and dealer is different from any customary buyer-seller contact because of an apparently more complex interplay, largely due to the intrinsic power that accrues to the dispenser of magic provisions.
Fundamental too for many, but not all, private collectors is the notion of discrimination, of choosing something according to some subjective notion of quality. The objects themselves are inanimate substitutes for reassurance and care, and they prove “both to the collector and to the world, that he or she is special and worthy of them.” This may not be a very startling conclusion, but it explains very well why there has to be an element of difficulty in acquiring the objects, and why every collector seems to feel impelled to let slip, at some stage, that a particular object in their possession is as good as, or indeed better than, one in some famous museum.
Collectors may have many reasons for needing such reassurance, but Muensterberger is surely right to emphasize that there is a distinct type of collecting based on deeper motives than the wish to have a few beautiful pictures on one’s wall or the desire to conform to the prevailing social norms or to gain entrée into a particular milieu, such as a Board of Trustees. He is not the first to draw the parallel between the collector (who is most commonly male) and Don Giovanni, though the latter does not quite meet his definition because he does not keep what he collects, indeed quite the reverse (unless one argues that he is actually collecting names to be recorded in Leporello’s catalog). But, like a true collector, it is the conquest of the desired object, not its later possession, that most excites the Don.
The idea that the cause of collecting has to be sought in the psyche of the collector emerges too in some of the contributions to The Cultures of Collecting, notably in an essay by Jean Baudrillard. He is almost always irritatingly obscure, but sometimes astute, as in his comparison of objects with pets, both of which allow one to invest the affection that can be so tricky in human relationships. But he is not really alert to the difference between collections and individual objects, so that the pet analogy, for example, breaks down once the numbers start to build up, and he emphasizes ownership at the expense of the process of acquisition. Muensterberger is more convincing here, and certainly his analysis fits better with the comments of a collector named Robert Opie, who is interviewed by Elsner and Cardinal. Opie (a small part of whose collection is also illustrated by Muensterberger) specializes in commercial packaging, most of it modern, and has acquired enough of it to open his own museum. A man with 10,000 yogurt cartons is not likely to treat them like pets, but it is evident that the process of acquisition dominates his entire life. Even his eating habits are determined by it. Opie’s attempts to justify his passion on the grounds that he is performing some kind of public service in preserving this record of modern commercial practice are not altogether convincing, for all the undoubted appeal that his collection has to people nostalgic about the recent past.
In its emphasis on literary theory and its often moralistic tone, The Cultures of Collecting is very typical of current fashion in art history. Equally characteristic is the almost total neglect of the fact that collecting is in some way related to money. Muensterbuerger’s definition, it is true, refers to “things of subjective worth,” and this allows him to include objects which are not much traded in the market, such as empty yogurt cartons or items of natural history. But it is in the nature of things that demands create markets, and markets create monetary values. Even Robert Opie, with his preference for types of objects disregarded by other collectors, has found that his old packaging provides financial rewards in the form of fees from television and film companies; and doubtless the yogurt cartons will go the way of old Coca Cola bottles and barbed wire, both of which are eagerly collected and traded. Yet the only contributors to The Cultures of Collecting who have anything much to say about money are Opie, the collector, and John Windsor, a journalist. For the others, it seems almost to be a source of embarrassment.
This is a pity, because, as Muensterberger demonstrates again and again, money is central to the activity of collecting. This is particularly true of two collectors whose careers he discusses in detail, the obsessive nineteenth-century bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps—who said he wanted one copy of every book published—and the recklessly extravagant Honoré de Balzac. Both allowed their passion for objects to dominate the economic aspect of their lives, in the case of Phillipps to the extent of his quite explicitly selecting a wife exclusively on the basis of her fortune. His case may be an extreme one, but the notion of monetary value has been central to the acquisition of works of art from the earliest moment that they were collected. Just as the old princely collections were a dramatic demonstration of the wealth of their owners, so now for even the most idiosyncratic collector the market price of the objects he owns is the clearest indication, to himself and others, of their quality and rarity.
This seems to be true of virtually every type of collecting. But art offers one kind of satisfaction not available from other sources, namely that in most cases, prints and coins or medals being obvious exceptions, it involves unique objects and thus inevitably demands of the collector subjective assessments of relative value. For a collector of first editions, for example, the only criteria are rarity and condition, both of which can be objectively judged. It is easy enough to be a scholarly bibliophile, but not so easy to see oneself as an outstandingly discriminating one, except in the decision about the specific category of books to be collected. But there is a strong element of choice in every purchase of a work of art, and that is surely why art collecting is so often, and with good reason, regarded as a particularly elitist and snobbish pursuit.
If Muensterberger is right to see collecting as a means of satisfying fundamental psychological needs, the question arises how such needs might have been met in the distant past and in other societies. This is a question to which one might have hoped for answers in The Cultures of Collecting, but unfortunately the contributors have confined themselves entirely to Western societies over the past five centuries. There were certainly art collectors in the ancient world, and alongside the princely accumulators there were private persons in the Renaissance who collected rare manuscripts or examples of ancient and modern art in an apparently selective way. A group of such people, for example, lived in Venice and Padua in the early sixteenth century, and one of them, Gabriel Vendramin, was so attached to his collection that he left specific instructions in his will that it was to be kept intact in perpetuity by his heirs, a request that was soon disregarded. But in the Middle Ages the only obvious analogy to the kind of obsessive behavior that Muensterberger mentions is the collecting of relics. The parallels are undeniable, but the analogy is less than perfect, simply because relics were supposed by their owners to have a real therapeutic value, an almost magical power of the kind attributed to shrunken heads by head-hunters. Muensterberger suggests that something of the same kind of power is attached to other classes of objects sought by collectors, but this hardly accounts for the new demand for works of art that arose in the Renaissance. It is possible that, apart from its evident beauty, art was soon recognized to have the special quality of collectability, a quality that had never been so widely available during the Middle Ages, and this particular characteristic may have contributed to its popularity among those rich enough to enjoy it from the fifteenth century onward.
It is significant that the growth in the collecting of art in the Renaissance was very soon followed by a fashion for collecting other classes of material objects, namely exotica and natural curiosities, such as fossils, corals, and baroque pearls, which were often displayed together with scientific instruments and elaborate automata. Although sometimes created by rulers, these collections never seem to have acquired the cachet associated with works of art. Their owners often claimed that they provided a kind of encyclopedic microcosm of the world, combining the marvelous products of nature and man. But it is difficult to know how seriously to take such claims, and tempting to suppose that, as in the case of Robert Opie, these were often little more than convenient rationalizations of the collecting urge. In the way in which individual items were carefully categorized, these cabinets of curiosities certainly conform to what was to become a familiar pattern. But they differ from many modern types of collecting in one important respect, namely in the absence of any strong degree of specialization, which seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Muensterberger, it is true, mentions the craze for tulips in seventeenth-century Holland, but in this case demand was probably driven more by speculative pressures than by the collecting urges he describes so acutely.
If we are to learn more about the growth of collecting outside the fields of post-Renaissance art, books, and natural and man-made curiosities, we need to look more closely at the activities of dealers, for example at the growth of antique shops. Again, it would be interesting to know when the appetite for assembling comprehensive sets, whether it be of engravings or first editions of a particular author, was first exploited by publishers and others who offered for sale sets of objects specifically designed to be collected—a strategy so evident today in the production of new issues of postage stamps. But historians have tended to concentrate much more on the collectors themselves than on the commercial world that served their needs, and this applies even in the field of art dealing, although a good deal of useful work has been written on it. One obvious reason for this neglect is the relative difficulty of uncovering the evi