Gotta Have It

Three revealing books plumb the collector's urge

Ah, fall. The season of gallery walks, museum shows, dealer openings and party pics. Of hype and anxious activity, all aimed at luring that rare but highly prized specimen, Homo sapiens collectoricus.

This season, especially, the quarry is as interesting as most of the bait. Over the past decade, art historians bored with Baudrillard (finally!) and casting about for fresh angles have begun to focus on the lives, motivations and habits of the serious art collector. The result is a new spate of biographies and some interesting academic literature examining these fascinating creatures.

Before plunging forward, a few definitions: The true collector must be distinguished from the mere connoisseur and the aesthete, far less interesting creatures. The difference can be summed up in one word: obsession. Collecting is a form of compulsive behavior not unlike drug addiction or gambling, a behavior that must be ritually repeated. As the psychoanalyst and historian Werner Muensterberger has explained, there is one trait shared by all collectors: "that there is simply no saturation point." The connoisseur "may cherish or admire an [art] object, but receives little emotional support from its ownership. He does not need to own the object and can live without it. The committed collector, on the other hand, cannot."

True, collecting has social effects, which have also been studied at length. In recent works, authors as diverse as Steven C. Dublin and Rosalind Krauss have presented the almost Clausewitzian view that collecting is an extension of politics, a means for megalomaniacs to display great wealth and great power and to ratify "claims of superiority." And while the social benefits of collecting may well provide part of the collector's satisfaction, collecting remains at bottom an activity directed by deep-seated psychic causes.

Before trolling the galleries this season, you should spend a few hours digesting three tomes. The first is As I See It, J. Paul Getty's autobiography, first published in 1976 and now out in a newly revised edition. The perfect illustration of the supremely iconoclastic collector. A man with no need for role models and little or no regard for intellectual fashion.

If, as wags have said, President Bush the Younger is a man who was born on third and thinks he hit a triple, Getty can best be described as a man who was born on third and believes it was the least the Almighty could do. Not only does he reject the notion that, but for the grace of God, he might have gone the way of the poor; he goes so far as to pooh-pooh any notion of guilt or humility in the face of his fortunate birth as "absurd, baseless and stemming from the garish green envy that...success...inspires in the inept, the lazy, and the chronic malingerer." A self-described "autocrat," Getty spends the first two-thirds of his self-published screed holding forth on topics ranging from the evils of taxes and big government and indulgent ("Spockian") child rearing to the injustices history has heaped upon his dear friend, Edward, Duke of Windsor. Between the lines, however, one sees the quintessential psychological portrait of a collector. The only child of a wealthy, workaholic father and an aesthetically inclined mother, five times married and divorced, he emerges as a loner, a driven man who seeks refuge from the difficulties and disappointments of human interaction in work and intellectual pursuits. Despite his many successes in the arena of business, despite his many children and grandchildren, he views his art obsession as "the most important and gratifying facet of my life activities."

Like many collectors, his initial acquisitions were impulsive purchases inspired by college studies and his travels as a younger man. The objects, however, soon acquired talismanic, even magical properties in Getty's mind. They are at once a means of self-expression and confirmation of superior judgment and taste, and Getty's ownership of them is his one means of immortality. "To me, my works of art are all vividly alive...The beauty one can find in art is one of the pitifully few real and lasting products of human endeavor." Like all true collectors, Getty's objects provide an emotional experience; the hunt is full of highs and lows, and the acquisition produces exhilaration--but only temporarily. Like any addict, Getty is then compelled to perpetually repeat the cycle.

In The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner, biographer Douglass Shand-Tucci portrays Gardner as the personification of a slightly different type: the nouveau riche collector. An ambitious woman stifled by Victorian gender constraints, for Gardner, the pursuit, study, travel and acquisition of art contributed a sense of identity and a source of self-definition. Deeply insecure in matters cultural, we see Gardner's self-transformation into a woman of taste and sophistication--aided, of course, by Bernard Berenson, the crooked genius who volunteered to serve as Gardner's own intellectual Henry Higgins. As in Getty's case, the objects themselves provided her with an inner sense of security, with a sense of mastery and with much-needed applause. Unlike Getty, however, Gardner was almost totally reliant on the judgment and taste of Berenson and highly subject to intellectual whims of the time.

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