We are alive because of our collection.
Before he died in 1999, Paul Mellon gave the press a tour of his collection at his Virginia home, what were the last paintings that he had not yet given away. There was a Bonnard in the bathroom, a whole series of drawings by William Blake and the very first painting he had purchased as a boy, with $5,000, a George Stubbs horse painting.
Horses were to Mellon a touchstone of his desire. His Degas racecourse action paintings were perhaps his favorite holdings. Mellon was acknowledged as the greatest collector of his generation, but he frequently abjured the title, telling the New Yorker that "I thought of myself as a writer and a scholar, anything to avoid the label 'Mellon'." This is forever the lament of the wealthy, the bother of the objects that are not alive, but the waste product of life, whose acquisition and disposition often weigh down the soul as much as the first experience of a masterpiece elevates in a druglike rush.
Here, one must distinguish between the looking at, versus the acquisition of, fine art. The act of looking begins with something the artist sees in life or in the mind and proceeds to devolve amongst the repeated viewings of an owner, the chance glance of a tradesman, the continual search of the student in the museum, the sudden discovery of something new by just about anybody. Ninety-nine percent of art disappears pretty much instantly and the rest struggles to endure, most often with Herculean effort.
Art is spirited away from bombs, revolutions, deathbeds, impecunious institutions, auction houses, warehouses, customs agents and tax assessors. But the “Age of Fast, Dissolving Information” is deleting the necessity of all this valuation and preservation to the point which the act of collecting and even museums themselves may actually disappear. Ten years ago, Microsoftee Bill Gates seriously considered turning his house into a museum of techno reproductions of the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces. How odd that spurious dream now seems!
Similarly, the notion of a private museum or even a public museum dominated by the private solons of privilege seems very, very quaint in the Internet age, a luxury that we can't afford. If a few masterpieces must be sacrificed to achieve full democratization of images, so be it. Then a new league of monks will take the great paintings into their caverns to someday be unearthed by archaeologists from another dimension who arrive on a beam of light.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).