Against Collecting


I hate collecting. I hate even the idea of a person being defined by things. I detest the thought of concocting a self from the horrible emptiness of stuff. Objects are nothing. Most last longer than we do. That’s something else I can’t stand.

I detest collections of first editions, Fiestaware, “vintage” eyeglasses, Indian stone lingams, Plains Indian ledgers, important American silver, ladies’ undergarments from the Age of Enlightenment, sports “memorabilia,” fine art photography, Rookwood, midcentury furniture with a special emphasis on the rarer productions of Robsjohn-Gibbings and Serge Mouille, lunchpails, of all things. Ugh! I hate Danish Modern. Let’s face it, everyone does.

I despise provenance. I hate having to know who has owned something before. Objects in and of themselves have no particular immanence, no voodoo, no power beyond their extremely limited ability to invoke sentiments about human beings, current or former. Things per se offer nothing but additional surfaces to dust. Books, of course, are the most tyrannical objects of all. Never mind what Walter Benjamin has to say.

I hate the fictions of shelter magazines, the lies they retail about the flawless lives of people whose habitations are crammed with overvalued junk. I hate when these journals batten on to ever obscurer forms of special accumulation: treenware, shagreen, Jasperware, cookie jars, tole. I hate tramp art. I hate prisoner art. I hate outsider art and any other kind of art that’s had the beautiful uncontrollable impulse to create bled out of it on the way to the market.

I hate insider art, too, for that matter, when presented as product, and the way that insider artists are given cachet when their splendid little Grade A­certified aesthetic productions are purchased by important collectors and sold selectively to said collectors in order to inflate the artists’ reputations. Has the Better Business Bureau ever gone toe-to-toe with those sniffy gallery owners in Chelsea? Don’t bet the farm.

I hate the Antiques Road Show, and how all the provincial sad sacks come towing a Flexible Flyer with grandma’s hideous mantel clock inside. I cringe at their class longings as well as their magical belief that the selfsame mantel clock holds the key to retirement happiness at a snappy little condo in Boca Raton. I feel a wave of Old Testament revulsion at the sight of auction house vultures rapturously running their hands over scuffed Mickey Mouse watches, Chester County spice cabinets, Tiffany water-lily lamps, autographed baseballs, or fraktur. It’s the vision of one person displaying so many of the Seven Deadlies (Pride, Envy, Covetousness) at one time.

I avoid like the plague the responsibility of maintaining. I hate to think that I’m the one owner who’ll chip a piece of Meissen that’s already lasted through 200 years of plate stands. I hate worrying about moths and damp and mildew and unsuspected industrial acids in picture mats. I hate having to worry about fading and foxing and staining and bent pages and splinters and accidentally doing something you cannot imagine to a rare patina.

I loathe objects that require you to know about patina. What is patina anyway but the wear and tear of age? How is it that humans will go to any surgical lengths to avoid public display of their dermal patina and then lavish fortunes on a beat-up piece of, say, netsuke? I hate netsukes. The only thing uglier to collect than Japanese belt fobs would be garden trolls. Come to think of it, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with garden trolls. In fact, they might be one area of collecting the market has overlooked…

I’m apalled at how easy it is to fall into that kind of thinking, to go from never imagining the existence of a certain kind of object to finding one cheap to owning so many of its type that you’ve created a taxonomy of garden trolls. The same trolls, I might add, that you’re now forced to spend a thousand a month keeping at Manhattan Mini Storage until a suitable loft comes along to permit their proper display.

I hate the sterile fake scholarship of connoisseurship. I’m offended by the inflated suppositions built into the phrase “coin collector” or “boulle collector,” the Victorian air of self-importance attached to someone with a lot of expensive furniture or a bunch of metal discs in a drawer. I hate the company of object “people.” What, in the end, is signified by the term “doll person” beyond the image of someone enraptured of scary little human baby simulacra who need a lots of special attention from Mommy but never breathe or cry? Is there any person who, in concept, it is less appealing to imagine taking a meal with than a “doll person?” Perhaps there is. It’s one of those scary types with Mickey Mantle’s hair in a safe deposit box.

One of four articles in our Shelter Supplement.