Personal Collections is a 3-part series that explores art collections and their collectors.
There’s a memorable passage in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, in which the narrator, Adam, visits the Prado museum daily and stands in front of Rogier Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross hoping to have a profound art experience. One day Adam finds a man standing in his place:
I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone that I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed my life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change.
Like Lerner’s narrator, I admit to not having a profound, weep-inducing experience in front of a painting, and doubt I ever will. Don’t get me wrong, I’m often moved by images, architecture, and words, and can think of many memorable art experiences, but like Adam Gordon, I’m a bit of an art atheist.
Art atheism, though, makes me curious about why others collect the art that they do. Like my friend John’s art collection:
The collection began in Montreal in the 1960s when John was on his way down Sherbrooke Street to pay his rent. Along the way he passed the antiques gallery Le Petit Musée, and was stopped in his tracks by what he refers to as the thing. He recounts the experience in his memoir:
There among Chinese bowls and flintlock pistols and a Georgian silver coffee pot stood a wooden thing. It had a large disc-like face with delicately suggested features and a column as a body. Tiny breasts stood out. It made me look at it harder than anything had for years. I went into the store and asked the owner, Max Klein, what that thing in the window was.
He explained that it was a kind of doll from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana. But not exactly a doll. Women who were pregnant or wished to become pregnant carried these ‘dolls’ tucked in their robes at the back. The face embodied the Ashanti ideal of good looks and the doll was thought to confer these attractive features on the child-to-be-born. The object was known as an akua ba.
I was so moved aesthetically by this thing that I bought it on the spot, having with me, by chance its exact price as I was on my way to pay the rent.
After discovering the akua ba, John learned everything he could about African carving, to the point where the “inside of my head was coming to resemble the higgledy-piggledy cabinets of Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum.”
Such wild devotion to an object makes me jealous. It’s similar, perhaps, to a religious devotion — something that happens powerfully outside of oneself. It’s no surprise that images can create this experience, and no surprise that images were used to conjure religious experiences.
These days we’re not pilgrims making our way through a cathedral to touch the reliquaries of saints. We’re surrounded by images online, on television and especially in advertising. We’re so saturated with images it’s easy to feel artistic atheism, if not visual lethargy.
Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult to divorce a moving aesthetic experience from commodification. We value works of art — even in museums — because of their supposed worth. I admit to wrestling with what artist William Powhida calles art’s overculture:
Overculture poses significant challenges to the visual arts. It proposes that art no longer has any role in
theoretically resisting the ‘superior’ values of the ruling class and market-orientation has turned it into a
closed system of exchange between members that ceases to be relevant to the larger culture.
Art, according to Powhida, is meant to resist forms of cultural hegemony, but is inevitably engulfed into the ruling class’s value-system. Moreover, Powhida argues, artists enable their own absorption into this system, thereby “reinforcing the echo chamber enclosing the superrich:”
Like 19th-century French academicians, overculture artists flatter the circumscribed presumptions of an imperial order in which (from the press release), “price functions as the sign of absolute cultural value (Art) that subordinates all other relative cultural values (creative labor).”
It is one thing to play the role of high-end decorator to abysmal taste; it is another to convince your paymasters that the eye candy you’ve just sold them is a claim to intellectual and even moral superiority.
Powhida represents the most extreme art-atheism out there (with a can’t beat ’em, join ’em cherry on top). But, is it all that bad?
John also collects work by Tony Calzetta, a little-known Canadian artist from Windsor, Ontario. Calzetta’s work is simple, and fun and expresses a sense of humour that matches John’s. John first came across Calzetta’s work in Toronto, and he describes the moment as
One of those rare art experiences where one feels one’s life suddenly illuminated, enlarged, enriched.
John later became close friends with Calzetta, and the way he experiences Calzetta’s painting is likely linked to his close friendship with the artist. Knowing the artist is part of the art collection. John writes,
Tony’s art and his day-to-day life are inseparable. His concerns are always aesthetic and he reveals as much in making toast as in painting.
You’ll probably never see Calzetta’s work in a Sotheby’s or Christie’s catalog, (and he would probably hate Powhida’s work as “he finds painting with writing on them dreary beyond bearing” according to John). But John’s collection proves that an art collection need not represent a cultural keeping-up-with-the-Warhol’s. Nor does collecting equal artistic selling out on the part of the artist for the collector’s consumerism. For John, collecting is about illumination, enlarging one’s life, finding one’s tribe. “It is a fusion of knowledge, taste and experience,” he says
It’s not really possible to understand a painting without living with it. Dailiness is important in revealing the painting that is flashy or meretricious, the painting where awkwardness bleeds through.
I envy John not the specific pieces in his collection but the way he collects works of art with boyish wonder. John’s collection proves that collectors can work with artists and gallery owners to build a collection that has everything to do with extending those profound art experiences into everyday life.
(I should mention, too, that John’s wife refers to the thing as Boris.)