Confessions of a Poor Art Collector

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Edition Taube recently republished a lecture from 1970 given by Eugene M. Schwartz at the New York Cultural Center. The lecture now comes in a pocket-sized print edition (of 750), convenient for carrying around a city, perhaps between galleries, museums and dinner parties. Embossed in red on it’s cover reveals the lecture’s title, “Confessions of a Poor Collector: How to build a worthwhile art collection with the least possible money.” It’s a great book. It’s very friendly, sort of like a gentle Miss Manners, suggesting how best to court dealers, watch artists trading work (in order to assess the value of that work) and educate oneself. Above all else it is about possession. “The only thing that matters, at least as far as I know, is who ends up with the paintings.” Or, perhaps to pull the lens back slightly to Schwartz’s preceding sentences: “But, above all, look for the ‘Oh my God’ reaction. The reaction that literally takes your breath away when you stand in front of a great painting. Everything I’ve told you here is simply a mechanism to allow you to retain that reaction. These rules have all been only a means to that end. Once again, the only prize in the art game is art.” Schwartz describes the art on the wall as a kind of portal for recognition, an apprehension of something (maybe?) beyond oneself. Which is what makes this lecture so interesting, because he wants to show the poor populace how to attain (and more importantly retain) these portals.

Ownership is one of the most basic American rights. It seems impossible to conceive a social structure in which ownership did not exist. I grew up on stories about conquering Europeans and how, part of their effectiveness sprang from a conceptual ability to possess land when local populations found the notion absurd. While the ocean still resists our boundaries (think of Radio Caroline), most of the world can be bought and sold. Still, like the ocean the Internet taxes idea of ownership and copyright. The proliferation of recycled images alone, pulled from a search engine and reused in a variety of uncontrollable contexts makes it seemingly impossible to retain sole ownership over one picture. The impact of this common but ethereal medium has already transformed the music industry; the publishing industry is not far behind. While the plastic arts may manage to reinforce its own castle gate, its facade is also weakening.

On the one hand art relies on the aura of its tradition. It requires a certain cultural capital in order to deflect questions of its uselessness. To that end, the elite 1% need to invest in its wares, in order to buoy that cultual capital. At least this is another myth that I was fed on. In our culture, money makes things important. Money marks the success of an individual. This deep-seated moire is about as impossible to shake as the idea of property, which again is why Schwartz’s lecture is so charming, because you feel like he’s giving the disenfranchised, moth-eaten art lover a handbook to fulfilment. Nevertheless the value of these works, the possibility of success, is predicated on a system in which the fabulously wealthy exist and desire the same painting our pauper might himself win. This system is similarly dedicated to the myth of the artist: the surface of public persona. So long as individuals can buy and sell individual objects to other individuals, the lines of commerce remain clear and unmuddled. According to those circumstances, possession is possible.

That model is out of date. “This culture of use implies a profound transformation of the status of the work of art: going beyond its traditional role as a receptacle of the artist’s vision, it now functions as an active agent, a musical score in an unfolding scenario, a framework that possesses autonomy and materiality to varying degrees, its form able to oscilate from a simple idea to sculpture to canvas,” Nicholas Bourriaud writes in his book, Postproduction. What is striking it the seeming self-possession of images; like neighborhood cats, the images we feel belong to us have lives of their own and might even be capable of an associative cultural memory that is not contingent on any one person. In this setting the author loses her unique potency. But of course, we don’t yet know the philosophical consequences of this, nor do we know how to translate these developments into a capital equivalent.

Both of these books are available at the Paper Cave

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