The Collector Calling

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The Collector Calling

Collecting is perhaps an inherently normative process. Often cited within the discourse on taste, the act of collecting is a physical embodiment of sy

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Collecting is perhaps an inherently normative process. Often cited within the discourse on taste, the act of collecting is a physical embodiment of systemic classifications and the weight of thought behind these divisions. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, in their introductory essay for The Cultures of Collecting, propose that the allocation of nomenclature and the constitution of categories are precedents only to the act of collecting – a project is known to be never-ending but perhaps because of that, is never devoid of the ambition of the complete set. In this way, they suggest that the Empire is always ‘collecting’ with its mechanisms serving to perpetuate divides such as gender, class and race, and thus assembling collective hierarchies. It can be inferred from this line of thought that the discomfiture of the Empire when faced with a deviant from categorization is because this rouge element ruins the set, the attempted perfection of which is the very basis of social order.
The act of collecting, even when personal, becomes an instrument for exercising control. The practice of breaking up and reconstituting the world around us through possession is indicative of how we perceive things and how we wish to continue doing so. This is demonstrated in the fact that it is not an unfamiliar comfort for many of us to seek out reaffirmations of our beliefs in the company we choose, the interactions we pursue, the spaces we occupy, the voices we want to hear, the causes we rally around…in effect, we are always collecting our truths to fit.
Paradoxically, by creating (or receiving in some cases) assemblies of belief and objects that reflect our sense of self, we create this very sense and uphold it. This cyclic pattern is a base response to existential dilemmas. It occupies us in a way that helps us prop the dams of subjectivity in front of the inexorable continuity of time. This is one of the reasons why collectors are seemingly so preoccupied with permanence. The story of Noah as cited by Elsner and Cardinal is the collector’s prototype: a savior is pitched against the deluge and it is his collected pairs that will define the post apocalyptic future. At some level, it requires a measure of dissonant cognition to believe in absolute eternity and yet teams are dedicated simply to prevent a shark from rotting. It’s even likely that the collector doesn’t explicitly believe in eternalising of self through possessions in as much as he/she uses the illusion of it to dispel any reminder of his/her fallibility – a diversion which finds credence even in the title of the piece: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
Of course, it is a given that behind this preservative fanaticism fore mostly lies the economic value of the object. In many cases, collections are calculated investments that carry not only inflated price tags but also symbolic capital like social status, prestige and power. However additionally and clearly not at odds with its monetary value, extending the life of an object is fermented in a desire to collect the memory of the object and its presumed significance. In light of past amnesias and systems that have necessitated competition for attention, this effort seems to require physical evidence. Out of sight, we fear, will be out of mind. Memories, if those of the powerful, become histories and yet, the poet Agha Shahid Ali astutely reminds us, ‘Your memory gets in the way of my memory… My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.’ It is possible to collect against the grain, to fracture canonical ideas of beauty and civilization by laying court to the negative space, the wastelands. It is possible for an unconventional collector to provide us rare insights and naturally, to influence our definition, perception and experience of art.
The role of the private patronage is far from new in the art world. Particularly however, ever since the decline of the Parisian Academy, the art collector has emerged as a significant figure both loved and equally hated. We imagine the collector as an impassioned individual, a sympathetic listener for the artist, a likable eccentric, a guardian of our cultural currencies, but also as the cold, manipulative businessperson whose vested economic interests have made a parody of art and have left the public alienated. In any case, one cannot turn a blind eye to the sheer influence of the collector. Many artists today are pleased to wear information about the collections that their work is a part of as if the demonstration of a private interest determines the merit of their work and validates their position. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to hear collectors refer to a work as a ‘piece’, which is just descriptive of the relevance it holds for the collector only as a part of his/her larger set. In that sense the collector may not actually be sparing a particular audience for the artist in as much as he/she is looking to fulfill their own ambition. This was perhaps the case when in 1973 Robert and Ethel Scull auctioned off a selection a works that they had bought from artists early in their careers. Robert Rauschenberg’s Thaw bought for $950 eight years ago now sold for $85,000. Rauschenberg turned up outside the auction, shoved Scull and told him, “I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit” to which Scull replied, “It works for you too, Bob. Now I hope you’ll get even bigger prices.” Other artists included in the auction seemed to agree with Scull. Jasper Johns celebrated in his studio with champagne, Andy Warhol was only slightly upset that he wasn’t the highest grossing artist and Roy Lichtenstein referring to Rauschenberg is reported to have asked, “What did he want, the work to decrease in value?” This auction was the first of its kind and it established the role of the collector as simultaneously Judas and Jesus.
In the following decades the art market flared exponentially, engulfing and transforming many actors in its wake. Collectors now had investment portfolios that they rigorously pushed by bidding up the prices of works by artists they already owned and by directly or indirectly colluding with other art mechanisms like galleries and publications to provide a context for these works. Whereas in the past academia or art critics fashioned themselves as opinion makers, now the collectors diffused this power to the extent that today often, critics are commissioned by collectors. Moreover, the massive fortunes of emerging star collectors meant that public institutions simply could not compete. Accessibility to a huge chunk of art produced became the prerogative of the collectors, many of whom did and continue to loan and donate works to public institutions. Underlining this benevolence was of course the fact that the stronger foothold a work of art gained over the public imagination, the more it increased in perceived value, monetary and otherwise. This allowed the taste of a few private collectors to seep into and tint communal ideas about the cultural production of art. Critics decry this as elitist but that argument doesn’t take into account the fact that the museum’s function has always been at the behest of a few, whether they represent institutions, the state or as is now the case, private interest. What is concerning in the current collector model is that the symbolic value of an artwork is increasingly reliant upon its monetary value. Although the merit of art was never completely autonomous of the price tag, today the two seems to be almost interchangeable to the extent that Sotheby’s former principal auctioneer Tobias Meyers declared, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is smart that way”.
The market may indeed be smart but not in the way that Meyers would have us believe. It is smart because it is self-perpetuating. If an artist sells for a considerable amount of money, collectors will rush to buy her, resultantly further escalating the prices of this artist and of course those of their own acquisitions. This allocating of significance continues till the legitimacy of these works is established with other actors in the art world, or the need for this legitimacy is simply made superfluous. The most cyclic aspect of this is still, however, the fact that the favorite works of the market are those that address, unsurprisingly, the market. This insular narcissistic trend is most useful as the market flares its nostrils, in response artists seemingly outrage on cue and thus, the market again steps in to rescue, this time offering an ear and a handful. Criticism is often preempted by caricaturing the critic, by telling them that they ‘don’t get it’, which sounds like a blanket response to escape real debate. Robert Hughes’, albeit classicist, criticism of Damien Hirst was similarly dismissed by Germaine Greer who claimed that the much decried Sotheby’s auction of the artist was the work in itself. She goes on to say, “to develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even. The whole stupendous gallimaufry is a Vanitas, a reminder of futility and entropy.” Except that it is not simply a reminder, it is a demonstration of the already obvious – a demonstration, in fact, that hugely benefits all players involved and one that makes participation in market practices look mandatory for a critique of them.
Moreover, this entire exchange between Hughes and Greer centralizes the debate around figures – both personalities and numbers. It calls into question the Hirsts, the Koons, the Warhols and the estates of each but falls well short of asking itself if that is all on the agenda. By focusing attention, flattering or otherwise, on these collector/market determined ideas and personalities, we produce a closed simulacrum (fondly called the art world) that fore mostly manufactures consent of the public in its own necessary function, if not, sacredness. So whether one is fond of an individual Jeff Koons work becomes irrelevant when one is already complicit in providing a viewership to it – the result of which, whether one is aware or not is that one’s taxpaying money may be used in acquiring the next one. This cloud and soot of hype is also what has created the kind of star-studded superficial homogeneity that is characteristic of mega art events where the collectors are at their busiest.
In the absence of state patronage and a lasting public connection, art in Pakistan has different dynamics. Its vulnerability is simultaneously concerning and relieving. Step in the local collector and this one actor has immense potential to stir things up. It is important for a collector to understand this vantage position and to consider the consequences of her investment not only in terms of her personal acquisitions but also in terms of the trends that she is espousing. A collector can provide funds is a given but more importantly even in the absence of grandiose sums, a collector provides trust in an artist’s vision. To invest thus intelligently and unconventionally, a collector can enable lesser known artists to carry out potentially groundbreaking ideas that would otherwise remain buried. Similarly, by resisting cults of both artists and peers, a collector can dismantle formulaic art practices and allow room for exploration. In fact, exploration itself may be collected if a party provides patronage to it: collections that depend exclusively on physical manifestations are getting outdated anyway as virtual worlds gain a stronger foothold. The reward for providing patronage to process may seem modest at first but this will eventually include the fruits of the encouraged experimentation.
A collection is a project not only in the personal taste of the collector but also inadvertently in the history and context of art. If access to private collections is facilitated, they could provide important primary materials for research and help the art world forge more engaged linkages with the public. All this and more, currently collectors from Pakistan can do. Of course, no one can tell them that they must and we are yet to see if they will.
Madyha Leghari is a visual artist, writer and a graduate in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts. She lives in Lahore.