READING The Rare Art Traditions has been a difficult and intermittent process, even for one who has spent most of his life in the ambience of museums and collecting. At many points the specter of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner appeared to me in pertinent and compelling phrases: "He holds him with his glittering eye... The Mariner hath his will... He [the listener] cannot chuse but hear...." Much of the new and fascinating content of Joseph Alsop's book compels attention but its presentation is often repetitive and tries even an avid collector's patience. Somewhere within this "damned, fat book" of over 500 pages with an additional 2,800-plus footnotes, a more taut and slender volume awaits liberation. It is the reader's task to find the second work, and most will find the effort rewarding.
Alsop acknowledges the labor of 17 highly qualified assistants and the consultation of at least 210 scholars, collectors, and others. The resulting gold mine of information and references, large and small, must amaze the layman and provide even the specialist with previously unknown nuggets -- for example, that the first public art museum was not the product of the French Revolution and Napoleon, but that of Anna Maria Luisa, the Medici princess palatine, and the new Hapsburg grand duke, Pietro Leopoldo of Tuscany between 1743 and 1775. It seems only fitting that the inherently conservative art museum should be the creation of a declining aristocracy rather than of the rising bourgeoisie. It is much to Alsop's credit that these cultural mines include those of the Far East (Chapter VIII), an area often ignored by Western writers on collecting and connoisseurship. We are fortunate that Alsop lived in Peking and continued his interest in things Chinese.
Alsop identifies five historic cultures or culture areas as having "Rare Art Traditions" -- an unfortunate word "rare," calling up searing visions -- marked by certain constant features. They are the Classical world, Renaissance and later Europe, the Chinese Empire (from 221 B.C.), Japan after the introduction of Buddhism (from 552 A.D.), and later Islamic culture. These five share specific characteristics, all of which he believes to be required and present. These cultures have developed philosophies of history and have writers of true history rather than compilers of chronicles or dynastic myths. They share an interest in art theory and the history of art. They also consider art as more than merely a document or useful tool, but look upon art as a thing in itself, as being art for the sake of art alone. They, therefore, also practice collecting, not just of treasure or curiosities, but of beautiful objects made by human beings, sometimes anonymous, but more usually, known. With all their other qualifications the rare art traditions reward innovation and individuality by collecting works by "remembered masters" who usually identify their works by signatures. Since sophistication and knowledge are necessary in such collecting, the binary concept of elitism and philistinism is also found in these five cultures.
All of this provides an interesting and useful structure within which one can understand aspects of the psychology and history of collecting. However, it is but one of many such structures, despite the author's belief that his is the structure. One of the weaknesses in the book's arguments is Alsop's tendency to name the single cause and the "simple rule." Like Toynbee, he is a practitioner of inevitable formulations, of causes with automatic consequences. So we get, "The historical response to art always -- and only -- occurs whenever and wherever people somehow situate in history artists and their works." He also indulges in tortuous special pleading, as he calculates the length of time (50 years) Niccolo Niccoli, the Florentine collector, owned a famous carved chalcedony gem on a base of its increase in value (40 times).
I have found a quite different structure to be useful in analyzing the collecting instinct. It is only one of many, but it has a special and humbling appeal. The Seven Deadly Sins, surely a reasonably shrewd, psychological analysis of humankind's character (see Titian's portrait of the avaricious collector-dealer Jacopo Strada), reveal much about collectors; kept under moderate control, the seven sins can be helpful to understanding. Still another useful structure is built from concepts of urbanization, high and low intellectual cultures, surplus production, and a leisure class. Alsop's exclusionist theory makes for a hard time with the copious supporting data for each piece must fit, hence the special pleading and the complex but often skewed logic.
Supporting material is particularly rich for the Classical world, the Renaissance, and China from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) to the end of Sung (960-1278). The Roman craze for Greek art and the emergence of the Italian Renaissance patron-collector, particularly the early Medici, is well documented. Occasional errors are usually of a lesser, technical kind. Some major misunderstandings do occur, as in his attribution of the cult of the first real emperor of a unified China, Ch'in Shih Huang-ti who founded the Ch'in Dynasty in 221 B.C., to "the triumph of Mao Zedong." The fact, the turning point from abuse to praise for Ch'in can be pinpointed to early 1974, when the Chinese insisted on a major rewrite of the text of the exhibition catalogue of Archaelogical Finds of the Peoples' Republic of China between its showing in London in 1973 and in Toronto in August 1974. The London catalogue speaks of "despotic rule by a boastful monarch," while the "Official and Authentic" Toronto catalogue praises his unification of the land, abolition of "the vassal system," and his "firm hand... suppressing... the attempts of slave-owning nobles to restore their lost power." The rehabilitation of the emperor was a final ploy by the Gang of Four, not by Mao. Alsop also underestimates the importance of the "useful arts" in the history of Chinese collecting and criticism. Ceramics, jade, old bronzes, and grotesque rocks were high on any self-respecting collector's list of desiderata.
Many will find interest and amusement in Alsop's numerous brief histories of the bizarre and unsavory in the anecdotage of collecting. My own embarrassment over the fake Grunewald acquired by Cleveland in 1974 is only slightly assuaged by the opportunity to point out that "the arcane" tests did affect the surface and revealed not many but few evidences of modernity. The picture, like a traitor's head on Tower Bridge, adorns the office of our conservation studios, an efficient reminder of the ease with which one can fall into grevious error.
The difficulty of reading the text is not only due to the inclusion of too many interesting but irrelevant note-cards, but also to the constant repetition of certain buzzwords and phrases -- "linked phenomena," "creative surge," "levers of power," "nor is this all," and the 18th-century picaresque habit of alluding to numerous tasty bits forthcoming in a later chapter. One cannot but sympathize with the author. Closer and more careful editing would have rectified these habits, sometimes useful in conversation or lectures, but disconcerting in cold and permanent print.
Still, as a reference work with much new material and useful insights into sophisticated esthetic cultures, The Rare Art Traditions is a positive contribution to the study of the not always attractive phenomenon of art collecting. The book deliberately ends its detailed analyses about 1600 in both East and West, but its "envoi" shows the 17th-century Cardinal Mazarin, in his last hours, pathetically visiting his collection for the last time. But the same cardinal in his prime wrote to his gardien about the impending visit of Queen Christina of Sweden to his country estate: "This mad woman must be kept away from my cabinets, because otherwise some of my miniatures might be taken." The pathos of the lone collector becomes suspicious rivalry, an only too common sin in the history of collecting in modern times. The achievement of a balance between smug virtue and obdurate vice has ever been the task of the collector in all developed cultures.