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With great zeal, distinguished tutelage, and a corps of researchers, Alsop has scoured art history and discovered, firstly, aesthetic relativism. (""In brief, the actual way of seeing changes with the passage of time."") His chief quarry, though, is art collecting--with he identifies with five ""rare art traditions"": rare because in the more numerous ""normal"" art traditions, art-objects were produced, allegedly, as things of use, as treasures, or as the result of patrons' commissions. The five rare art traditions, in which ""art-as-an-end-in-itself"" appeared, are supposedly the classical, the Renaissance (and post-Renaissance), the later Chinese, the Japanese, and the later Islamic. Medieval Europe is specifically excluded; and the present day--toward which all the discussion is obliquely directed--is deemed an extreme, ""abnormal"" situation: ""worldwide cultural homogenization"" on account of omni-seeing and omni-collecting. (In one of his dour moments, Alsop pronounces virtually all of today's art ""trademark art,"" done to an ""established formula""--like 17th-century Dutch landscapes and other painting-for-the-market.) But the book's almost endearing self-importance is best encapsulated, along with its theme, in the following: ""The strange combination of the separateness and similarities of the five rare art traditions in fact constitutes the truly major problem of the world history of art which I mentioned earlier."" It may strike the quite ordinary reader that, insofar as collecting did flourish in these five societies, it had some fairly obvious economic, social, and cultural roots. It will certainly strike the specialist that Alsop's categorization-by-elimination--of ostensible collections in other traditions--is altogether too nitpicky and rigid to bear any weight. (Collections of medieval illuminated manuscripts, for instance, were not just libraries). And what weight these nearly 600 pages of text and 150 pages of notes is supposed to bear, beyond demonstrating the various, mostly deleterious consequences of art collecting (inflated prices, fakery, vulnerability to loss, etc.), is uncertain: the common bond between the five rare art traditions, Alsop concludes, is ""a developed historical sense"" (for which he has no explanation). Somewhat more than half the book, which other scavengers may enjoy, consists of particulars, with (repetitive) comments, on classical, Renaissance, and Chinese collecting. What is somewhat baffling is why the respected Bollingen Foundation has given its imprimatur to this cheerily eccentric undertaking.

Pub Date: July 27th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row