On Collecting, Especially Art or Making a Difference in the Art World

Things explain each other, not themselves.  –George Oppen

An indefinable lyrical quality, something about the object calls out to us and asks for understanding and a home.  –Laura Stewart

Why are some of us driven to collect objects from our material culture? As someone who has been doing that for a long time, two responses come to mind:

– Amassing objects of interest, beauty and, ultimately wonder, feed the spirit.

– Collectors, when driven, are curators and critics who derive new knowledge.

Advanced collectors make sense of objects as they pursue their passions. The most interesting of them tend to hunt and gather in uncharted territory, away from the herd mentality. They organize and consider their acquisitions to yield fresh meanings. They often respond viscerally, with a sense of pathos that cannot be quantified by academic critical systems. In other words, on their less traveled roads they are doing something that often evades museum professionals.

Traditionally, museum curators deal with the dead, with history that has already been made and is ripe for scholarly pursuit. Renegade art that is unfamiliar, and perhaps naïve, does not fall squarely into the camp of formal criticism; however, it can be very appealing to some nonaffiliated art collectors cum aficionados. With time and temperance, these pioneering individuals’ ideas can indeed become fodder for museum studies, and may even temper the canonical premises about contemporary aesthetics.

The pitfalls to intelligent art collecting are, as John Szarkowski long ago pointed out, “avarice, jealousy, cupidity, and income tax evasion.” But for the yang of greed there is a yin, the virtue of knowledge, complemented by a generosity of spirit. The enhancement of one’s life enhances the lives of others; this salient point is central to valuing collectors whose intentions are guided by intelligence, sensitivity and their own prejudices. Collectors really do interpret, and they do so naturally and effortlessly, trusting their intuitions from the start and enhancing them with learning and confidence gained from experience, which breed independence. At that very point the gifted collector contributes to the extant knowledge.

There is a potential problem here because instinct is but a starting point, the core of which needs to be nurtured. Perhaps this phenomenon occurs from a reaction to something best explained in this vignette: I tell my first-year art teacher students during critique, with seemingly un-American audacity, that “No, you are not entitled to your own opinion.” It is hard to hear but it is the simple truth. They came to school to learn, to change their minds and not to reinforce dogmatic beliefs. And surely neophytes’ attitudes and assumptions about art were informed by popular taste. I’ve added, “Don’t show your pictures to your parents or best friends.” It was sound advice, for their praise or condemnation would be of little value; even though the students were just weeks into the semester, they now were way beyond rank appraisals.

Invention of course requires new ways of thinking, both in breakthrough science and in fine art. Both represent the highest achievements of human excellence. It is not surprising that people want to immerse themselves in the non-pedestrian world of art. In fact, attendance at art museums is soaring, outdoing patronage of sporting events. A transformation occurs through the attendant process of art making and art-collecting. Both the artists and the collectors are creating something new, which takes shape with time. Both are original and leading the way, opening avenues of thought and study as they gain expertise and enter fresh territory. They aren't bound by academics, markets, and politics.

It is fair to say that an artwork is completed in a viewer’s mind – that’s where quality ultimately resides. And although we might each have been created equal, the consummate collector has earned that status. His or her nuanced perceptions about the exalted, even transformative qualities of art were acquired through exposure, learning and an appreciation less than by the who, what, where and when of creation; the concern resides with its why. The serious collector, like each aspiring artist, knows that art is a dialogue. As with climbing a ladder, every creative artist is always reaching for the next rung, and in this way takes the conversation about contemporary aesthetics higher.

Especially as it pertains to contemporary expression, academic recognition often follows the pioneering spirit of collectors who are unhindered by scholarship or tradition. Contemporary self-taught or “Outsider” art is a good example; this genre was essentially absent from the dialog of contemporary aesthetics until relatively recently. Slowly but surely the power and seemingly anti-aesthetic presence of art that is literally “outside art’s mainstream” was co-opted into the realm of the fine arts, changing art values along the way. Similarly, concept-dominated art blurred the distinctions, and now a plethora of attitudes vie for attention… Art can be anything in our neo-postmodern world.

The paintings of inner city Miami life in all its abstracted glory, created by Purvis Young on scrap plywood and with house paint, was displayed in the homes of many Miamians long before it graced museum walls. An Outsider artist of unusual talent, Young’s work strikes a chord. His imagery is understood as it addresses something deep-seated (if not primal) in our collective unconsciousness. He was in tune with the world, inspired by Overtown’s mean streets. Imagery like this draws people in because it is a direct reflection of something inside these very viewers, something they innately understand and know.

There is no escaping the fact that meanings of an artwork are fluid and a function of a viewer’s sensibilities; indeed, art that can operate simultaneously on multiple levels is the most effective creative self-expression. Here the sensitivity, intellect and curiosity of the most daring collectors – those who do not echo the status quo – create new understandings. In the world of the Highwaymen, the African-American landscape artists who painted their way out of unpromising futures in rural Jim Crow Florida, collectors stampeded to own their paintings. During their banner years, the artists were so prolific and their creations so inexpensive that a millennial artistic gold rush broke out. Over time, these seemingly worthless paintings had gained status and become coveted; they underwent a remarkable reconsideration.

Increasing financial values led to increasing interest and vice versa, in a neat self-reinforcing pattern. Collectors helped interpret and contribute to new directions, just as their values shaped their collections. No two collections look alike and therefore each means something different. The paintings in the seminal book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, were culled from six private collections to “tell the story.” That is, the paintings metaphorically reflect the painters’ overarching narrative, which as an ensemble is much broader than “Highwaymen masterpieces.” Subsequent books focused on individuals’ collections; most of them, unfortunately, serve the ambitions of the collectors but not the achievements and relevance of the Highwaymen. The qualitative difference is that the original book analyzed and interpreted in its unique context this unusual body of work, to explicate the painters’ aesthetic in light of their time and place.

Few new-to-the-art-world collectors were satisfied owning just one of these paintings; many compulsively acquired scores of them. Collectors developed strategies, some wanting one by each of the twenty-six officially recognized original Highwaymen. Others concerned themselves with subject, such as the surf and sunsets, while others gravitated to the most distinctive artists of the cohort, Harold Newton and Alfred Hair. These collectors, it is safe to say, bought what spoke to them. Each collection developed its own voice; each one now reveals something unique about its owner.

Whether it is everyman’s art or more esoteric works, each collector inevitably is reflected in his or her area of interest to the point where the body of work becomes its own image – a statement of fact and fiction, a new creation that is more than the sum of its parts, just like each work of art is a fully resolved creative statement. The advanced collectors have achieved connoisseurship. Their choices were made through their learned insights; in this respect, they are like their professional counterparts who decide what hangs on museum walls. In fact, it is often through collectors’ discerning selections that the artworks that hang on museum walls ultimately achieve that elevated status.