Curious Trends

14/06/2010

The new age of collecting

We're still relatively near the beginning of new age of collecting: an explosion of interest in art, antiques, historical keepsakes, natural curiosities, vintage and retro memorabilia.

“As a human being, as you go through life, you just do collect. It was that sort of entropic collecting that I found myself interested in, just amassing stuff while you’re alive.” - Damien Hirst, 2006.




Hirst’s art has certainly put collecting in the spotlight, but humans have been gathering stuff from the sea, sky and soil since time immemorial.

So why is it only now, in our time-impoverished, resource depleted world, that we're beginning to look at natural phenomena, ancient works of art and pieces of history through new eyes?

Sir David Attenborough urged us to ‘bring back the joy of collecting’ things like wild flowers, birds’ eggs, rare butterflies and fossils, so children could once again enjoy these educational, though recently deemed illegal, pastimes. More inspiring, perhaps, than visiting art galleries to see overrated exhibits like dead sharks pickled in formaldehyde?

Over the past few centuries, collecting has been seen as an intellectual pursuit – mainly out of bounds to the masses. A luxury pastime: the preserve of a largely male and monied class. Indeed, hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs are still collecting expensive wives, fast cars, real estate, yachts, watches and pieces of avant-garde contemporary art, as if they’ll never depreciate in value.

Of course, the artefacts most highly prized in any age are still directly related to the tastes and/or needs of those with the most influence. What really matters in the marketplace for antiques, works of art and curiosities is who has the cash to buy, the power to promote and to control the value of items.

Significant collectors determine what’s collectable, which is why they are often the focus of attention rather than their collections. They also know that amassing ‘stuff’ is never a wise investment – it’s clever collecting that will sort out the men from the boys. Money can buy ‘stuff’ and pay for some great professional advice, but compiling an outstanding collection requires style with brains - a great collection is a demonstration of taste and knowledge.

Nowadays, the art of collecting is available to everyone - through online auctions, local flea markets and charity shops. And, in future, collecting will become more closely linked to an appreciation of our  intellectual curiosity, not simply a measure of financial status, or a reflection of our personality and taste. Collecting will be seen as a function of our education and capacity to understand the world around us, our ability to interpret works of art and to say something meaningful through the pieces we collect. It’s no coincidence, either, that collecting is a way of achieving immortality - the increased focus on collecting as a worthwhile pastime is directly related to our desire to give greater meaning to our lives.

Which brings us back to Hirst’s iconic 1992 work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. One art critic summed up popular opinion when he described the controversial shark tank as a ‘cultural obscenity’, but perhaps he was actually overlooking the enormous cultural significance of the piece in recent social history:

Could this dead shark lie at the very depths of our new age of collecting?
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