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  • Collecting as an Art
  • Kevin Melchionne


Snob appeal and bad psychology have hindered understanding the aesthetics of collecting. Theorists have tended to see collecting as a form of conspicuous consumption or obsessive-compulsive behavior, leading them to dismiss the possibility of any aesthetic value in collecting. These views of collecting as consumerist and neurotic are shortsighted. After considering two highly visible examples of the standard approaches, I offer an alternative view of collecting as an art.

For the critique of collecting as conspicuous consumption, consider, for instance, John Dewey, one of the earliest advocates of expanding our conception of art beyond the fine arts. 1 Despite his broad and inclusive conception of art, Dewey did not think collecting had any aesthetic value. He sought to redirect attention from the world of curators, critics, and collectors to an ordinary life infused with aesthetic experiences ranging from a “fire engine rushing by” to “the delight of the housewife in tending her plants” (p. 9). Given this outlook, it is surprising that Dewey dismissed the possibility of an aesthetics of collecting with the remark: “the typical collector is the typical capitalist” (p. 12). Dewey saw the pleasure of collecting as an “adventitious matter,” that “simulates aesthetic values” (p. 14). For Dewey, collecting is linked to the museum concept of art, according to which the work of art is raised above and segregated from everyday life. It is through the process of collecting that works of art end up in museums, mansions, [End Page 148] and warehouses. As the very means of this sequestration of art in our society, collecting seems at first glance to be no more than a symptom of the cult of the art object that Dewey was criticizing.

Dewey does not object to the museum itself as much as he objects to the reduction of art to the objects and performances found in museums and concert halls, and aesthetic experience to the occasions engendered by them. The consequence of the museum concept of art is a separation of what Dewey terms the “artistic” and the “aesthetic.” By the artistic, Dewey means production, creativity and expression; by the aesthetic, he means consumption, appreciation and interpretation. We tend to see production or creation on the side of the professional artist; whereas the art-goer, or, for our purposes here, the collector, is the passive consumer of aesthetic experience. However, for Dewey, “the distinction between esthetic and artistic cannot be pressed so far as to become a separation” (p. 53). Though analytically distinguishable, the aesthetic and the artistic represent a unified process for Dewey. Creation and appreciation are two sides of a pragmatic-phenomenological whole. The awkward phrase “art as experience” unites doing and undergoing, creation and appreciation. 2 The fact that there is no standard term to capture the continuity of the aesthetic and the artistic illustrates how deeply entrenched the museum concept of art is in our habits of thought.

Dewey’s rejection of the aesthetics of collecting may also be tied to his distaste for the elitism of high profile art and antiques collecting. Unlike his general theory of art, his vision of collecting was closely linked to the fine arts. While he must have marveled at the works that his friend, Albert Barnes, was assembling in his Merion, Pennsylvania mansion, Dewey probably also recognized that the collection was made possible by the patent medicine entrepreneur’s great fortune. Despite the ubiquity of beachcombing and tag sales, the association of affluence with collecting is deeply ingrained. Though collecting is common, public attention is directed toward the collections of the elite. Glossy antiques and interior decorating magazines feature priceless collections set in the sumptuous homes of the super-rich. Interest in collecting becomes voyeurism into the lives of those who collect the most expensive and admired objects. In return, the collectors are tacitly seen as the dedicated custodians of a common culture. Yet collecting is as common as spare change or a walk on the beach. While few people have the cash to drop on a Chippendale card table, collectors can be found among all classes of people. Children collect, though the old [End Page 149] cigar box has been...

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pp. 148-156
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