We all collect things. There are collectors of paintings, and there are collectors of vintage automobiles. Some collect old coins, others collect baseball cards, still others collect seashells. People collect all conceivable objects: clocks, stamps, mugs, buttons, matchbooks, pressed leaves, cat whiskers, whatever. Everything is collectible. There is nothing that cannot be developed into a collection, and everyone collects something.
We all amass things, too. This is a habit that no one, I dare say, can deny. But collecting is different from amassing. Amassing has to do with the way things behave. They have a way of amassing themselves unless they are deliberately disposed of, that is, unless we make an effort to rid of them periodically. Disposing requires much effort; amassing requires little effort. Amassing in excess is hoarding. When amassing goes out of control, we have the condition known as pack rat habit, which results from a refusal to dispose of things.
Amassing is indiscriminate, and there is no end in sight. Collecting differs from amassing in that it follows an organizing system and has a clear goal.
Amassing is gathering things at random. Collecting follows a self-imposed set of rules. First of all, when we collect we bring together objects that belong to a set of some sort. They may be alike one way or another, or they may be brought together under a certain rubric, explicit or implicit, logical or not. One might collect Meissen dishes exclusively, or the blue jasper, or the Imari ware; another may collect ceramics of all kinds depicting a certain motif -- Venus, bluebird, or dogs; still another only teacups. The rubric may seem arbitrary on the surface; a collection of old prints may seem to lack a visible organizing order, but its owner may inform you that they were all bought under $500. The collector delineates the taxonomy of his collection.
The collector prescribes the category. If she or he prescribes it too tightly, the collection may be too easily completed or, alternately, too difficult to bring to completion because available specimens may be found to be too scarce. Too broadly defined, a collection may lose a sense of order and may become a pile of odds and ends. A collection of postage stamps depicting a suspension bridge, say, may be too limited; it may not take you very far. Collecting postage stamps of world's statesmen may prove to be too broad to sustain interest.
Collecting is a taxonomical exercise. So it follows that collecting sets its own goal and aspires to achieve it. When we start collecting, we have an idea how the collection will be completed. The goal may be proximate and easily reached; or it may be distant and the collection may never be completed. Sometimes, the goal may redefine itself as the collection grows.
Three of something hardly makes a collection; seven of a kind may start one. But a collection implies a lot of specimens. Collecting habit starts early in life, at least in some of us, and it begins with a fascination with multiples. Multiples of anything are always more interesting than a single specimen; they make a pattern. In our quotidien exposure we forget how supermarket shelves are beautiful; Andy Warhol realized that. One daffodil is nice but a row of daffodils of one species in a garden is beautiful. A set of similar objects establishes a pattern that fascinates us for their repetition but at the same time draw our attention to the differences among the members of the set and provide another source of interest; daffodils of different species planted in clumps is a collection. Beer cans are mostly uniform in size and therefore make an attractive collection.
So, a good collection has a clear shape. Creating an interesting collection is therefore an art in itself and demands the basic aesthetic principle of balancing unity and variety. A collection of mugs is more interesting if it adhered to mugs of the same proportion and excluded those that deviated from it. If a variety of shapes was the interest, the collection might include only earthenware and eliminate porcelain. Or, one can make two separate collections and they will be better than one inclusive one. Any good collection can therefore be impressive regardless of the value of the stuff that makes up the collection. Items in a collection may be trifles but the collection may be noteworthy depending how it was shaped. Collecting valuables, like works of art, antique clocks, and rare books, is in principle not unlike collecting bottle caps, candy wrappers, and milk cartons. James Michener first collected reproductions of works of art in postcards and clippings from magazines.
A great collection of art as such is its collector's artistic creation. Collecting works of art is more challenging than collecting beer cans. The pool of works available to collectors may be scanty, as in the case of old masters' works, or it may be uncontrollably extensive, as in the case of contemporary works. Private collections of art therefore tend to lack a strong organizing principle. You buy whatever works that come up on the market and they come up at random. Some "collectors" collect in order to sell later at profit; they are dealers rather than collectors.
The standard advice given to initiates in collecting is to buy what strikes your fancy regardless of the label and the promise of rising market value. You will then own paintings you love to gaze all the time and derive pleasure even if their value failed to grow. A collection built on the collector's personal taste may seem random. But a great collection invariably carries a mark of the collector's distinct taste and personality regardless. Albert Barnes was no exception. This is the case with many of the collections of great collectors that eventually end up in museums.
A serious collector displays knowledge and connoisseurship. But she or he also collects with fanatic passion that verges on obsession. In order to complete the collection she or he will search frantically for the missing components and may travel miles to find them and willingly overpay for the object of desire. Curiously, it is the same obsession that characterizes hoarders who become pack rats. I believe that a great collector of anything starts with a propensity to be a pack rat but develops a discipline to shape the collection artistically.
T. Kaori Kitao, 08.15.04
Matter of Taste