BMCR 1995.06.08

1995.06.08, Elsner and Cardinal (eds.), Cultures of Collecting

, , The cultures of collecting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. viii, 312 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780674179929 $39.95 (hb).

This anthology, assembled by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, merits review in BMCR not because Elsner is a scholar of classical art, but because collecting has played a central role in the post-classical recovery of the antique world. The materials that classical scholars use as evidence in a variety of fields reflect, quite directly, the interests and attitudes of collectors. We would know less than we do of Greek culture had it not been for the Roman penchant for collecting and documenting Greek art; we shall have fewer opportunities to develop classical studies if we lose the legitimate popular interest in antiquity that is encouraged by responsible museum exhibitions. There is every reason for us to inform ourselves about “the cultures of collecting”.

In view of the importance of the subject, the collection of essays under review is especially disappointing. The editors have attempted to define the topic as broadly as possible, offering “a bricolage of theoretical, descriptive and historical papers whose collective ambition is … to lay bare a phenomenon at once psychological and social” (5). Bricolage is still a critically fashionable notion, but this anthology recalls not the structuralist rigor of its Lévi-Straussean semantic range, but rather the dubious expedients of do-it-yourself odd jobs. The essays are uneven in quality; the selection is not, in the end, collectively illuminating; the standards of production are low.

The contributions are a mixed bag in terms of subject, depth, and clarity. The anthology begins with a section of Jean Baudrillard’s Le système des objets (1968) that approaches collecting as a “way of dealing with objects” (8). This simple premise grounds a coherent and still persuasive analysis of the interlocking social mechanisms by which consumer society replaces human values and relationships with material objects; he sees as the outcome of this displacement an imprisoning social structure that stinks of perversion at every level. Baudrillard’s theoretical treatment is followed by two studies of collecting in a consumeristic age. The editors’ own interview with Robert Opie, who is famed for his collections of materials relating to packaging and advertising, is surprisingly flat, but it does offer some pleasant looniness: “[I]f I did a display of a thousand sugar wrappers, how many people are going to stop and look at them, except to think ‘God, how stupid!’ I’d much rather have a hundred Bovril jars!” (34). John Windsor (“Identity Parades”) contrasts bad, Western fetishistic collecting with Japanese and Vedic practices, which brim with enlightenment. Moralizing aside, he is an acute observer whose choice of examples is diverting (perhaps an illustration would have clarified the relevance of the Thurn und Taxis phallic birthday cake [62]), and the essay effectively develops some of the points outlined by Baudrillard.

Individual accumulation moves into the realm of art with Cardinal’s “Collecting and Collage-making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters”. Increasing attention is being paid to the position of collage at the center of complex social and artistic issues (see now C. Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage, New Haven and London 1992). The most valuable part of Cardinal’s essay is his argument that the components of Schwitters’Merz compositions show him to have been an engaged social critic; there is merit in seeing the collage as “a literal slice of history” (84).

Several essays focus on specific episodes in the history of Western collecting. The most straightforward is Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s tracing of the path “From Treasury to Museum” in the case of the collections of the Austrian Habsburgs; it concludes with a useful consideration of the role of these holdings in the emergence of art history as a discipline. Elsner’s discussion of Sir John Soane’s house and museum treats a fascinating chapter in the nineteenth-century recovery, documentation, interpretation, and display of archaeological material; the existence of two conventions for models of monuments, which can show either the current state or a reconstruction, is rightly emphasized. The historiographic analysis of Soane’s project, both the visual materials and related texts, is more coherent than the author’s somewhat forced attempt to read it as “A Collector’s Model of Desire”. Anthony Alan Shelton’s essay “Cabinets of Transgression: Renaissance Collections and the Incorporation of the New World” is similarly weakened by runaway discourse. The idea of “transgression” is never satisfactorily explained in terms of the context in question. The highly interesting discussion of categories of aesthetic worth is hijacked by the author’s condemnation of the rapaciousness of the Spanish conquistadors; on p. 190 we find, “The New World’s material products that most attracted the Spaniards were items that closely corresponded with the canons of taste they had inherited from medieval thought; indigenous concepts of worth, often based on materials or artefacts not valued in Europe, were of limited interest.” Yet on p. 194, in the midst of a contemporary balance-sheet of plunder, appears the observation that the green stones called chalchihuites are “held in greatest esteem among the Indians, more than emeralds are by us”. This passage suggests that the Spanish did, in a rudimentary and self-serving way, attempt to comprehend different systems of value. Blame should not attach to the fact that the invaders saw the beauties of Aztec feather-work through the only aesthetic means available to them (191); blame belongs to the imperialist enterprise itself. Shelton’s account of the European collection of the New World is nevertheless informative and thought-provoking, and should be read by anyone interested in the Roman appropriation of Greece. Susan Stewart’s essay on Charles Willson Peale raises intriguing questions in the course of arguing that his art and his collections were attempts to transcend death and time. John Forrester’s discussion of Freud and collecting touches on many aspects of the correspondences between analysis and archaeology, a relationship made famous by Freud’s fantasy of Rome as “a psychical entity”. Most surprising is the poignance of Freud’s love for his objects: “Every piece or item in each of his collections thus represented a paternal figure standing guard over the mysterious feminine. And every successful act of analysis of them represented an Oedipal victory” (251). The essay ends, touchingly, with Freud’s recollection of a childhood nightmare involving bird-headed people, juxtaposed with an illustration of his falcon-headed Horus figurine, which is a fake. The final essay, Naomi Schor’s “Collecting Paris”, is an unsatisfactory revision of her article in Critical Inquiry on Parisian postcards of the turn of the century; she herself calls it a “(light) version” of the earlier text (299).

None of the essays is helped by the indifferent editing, the awkwardness of placing the notes at the end of the volume with scarcely any indication of the pages to which they refer, and the abysmal quality of the illustrations. Line drawings are sometimes legible, but everything else is too muddy for the reader to be able to follow any point made by the authors. Some illustrations even seem not to be referred to at all, a demonstration of the wallpaper principle of book decoration that has no place in a volume purporting to treat images seriously.

The sloppiness that characterizes the production of the book is also clear in its conception. Although several of the individual essays have worth, the volume as a whole fails to inspire productive questions. The editors have embraced so wide, so all-inclusive a notion of “collecting” that there remains no human activity that lies outside its bounds. It would have been possible to go beyond the traditional histories of the “great canonical collections” (4) without sacrificing focus, because, as some of the essays demonstrate, there does exist a solid basis for historical, sociological, psychological, and any number of other kinds of analyses. Mieke Bal, in her otherwise opaque “Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting”, makes an important point: in noting the difficulties raised by trying to define “collecting”, she wonders whether “these attempts at a priori definition are themselves contingent on a view of knowledge that is ultimately at stake in the problem of collecting” (99). This is precisely the point on which the anthology as a whole should have turned, precisely the point that the editors should have addressed. Their refusal to engage with the problems inherent in the category of “collecting”, however, implies that they see it as a unitary, if diverse, phenomenon; that is to say, many “cultures”, but one “collecting”. It is a conception that invites two kinds of errors: the failure to consider historical context; and the confusion of individual with group experience. It would be possible explicitly to reject the methodological principles which define these errors as errors, but the editors fail to do so, leaving the bricolage to fall where it may.

To begin the volume with Baudrillard implicitly establishes his 1968 critique of consumeristic collecting in the position of the theoretical key to all forms of collecting, which it is not. It is a document of its age, a time when a group like the “Vienna Action Analysis Commune” would stand on stage and shout at the audience, “All consumers must leave!” One sees the point, but the question is whether Baudrillard’s analysis, dependent on the particular state of the consumer society that gave rise to it, in any sense furnishes a basis for considering “collecting” in other historical and economic contexts. The very concept of “object”, of that which is the focus of collecting, is far from stable or universal.

There are also significant problems with the notion that collecting on the individual level and collecting on the institutional level occupy places on a single conceptual continuum. This fallacy leads to nonsense that is no less inexcusable for its foolishness: “The Holocaust is collecting’s limit case; for it combines the pathology of the compulsive individual, who will not compromise to attain his end and who innovates by finding a perversely new series to be collected, with all the norms and powers of totalitarianism. Yet one wonders whether the latterday Nazi hunters, fifty years on, are not possessed of the same collector’s zeal” (4).

Probably the editors were correct in declining to suggest any coherence in an incoherent body of material. The specific question of Western institutional collecting, however, demands more than an ultimately trivial approach to the historical and phenomenological questions it poses, and the materials for such an analysis lie close to hand.

Nicholas Thomas begins his essay on the publications of Cook’s Pacific voyages by asking, “Given the degree of manifest preoccupation with the newly-discovered peoples,” “why … were ethnographic artefacts … illustrated through engravings in which particular pieces were highly decontextualized?” (118). The obvious answer is that such illustrations follow the conventions of illustration for artifacts such as classical antiquities, but Thomas (130) chooses not to trace this course, preferring to explore connections with natural history illustration. I would suggest that no either-or choice is necessary, and that the explanation of the phenomenon leads to regions more disquieting than the “Licenced Curiosity” proposed by Thomas. For the natural world, no less than the world of human culture, is subject to the process dissected by Renato Rosaldo: “imperialist nostalgia”, in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed” ( Culture and Truth, Boston 1989, 1993, 69). To clarify the role of institutional collection and documentation in this process, we may return to the “limit case” of the Holocaust. This time, however, let us consider it not as collecting of an individual, pathological type raised to a monstrous scale, but rather in institutional terms. In the course of her “report on the banality of evil”, Hannah Arendt parenthetically remarked that “an eagerness to establish museums commemorating their enemies was very characteristic of the Nazis. During the war, several services competed bitterly for the honor of establishing anti-Jewish museums and libraries” ( Eichmann in Jerusalem, New York 1963, 33). She is referring to projects such as the Nazi “Central Jewish Museum” in Prague and its macabre “collections” and exhibitions, assembled through murder and curated by slave labor (for a brief history, see D. Altshuler, ed., The Precious Legacy. Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections, New York 1983, 24-38). Arendt sees the Nazi activity as a “strange craze”, but she might well have analyzed this phenomenon of the Holocaust, too, in terms of banality—in other words, craze, perhaps, but strange, no. The message of The Museum to those whose artifacts it collects may, in the end, be quite simple: Your culture is dead. If this is the case, the collections which we like to think preserve the life of the past are nothing else than mechanisms of death, and the rush to valorize contemporary life by committing it to museums should make us all uneasy.