Rubel and Rosman (The Tapestry of Culture, 2009) explain the history, psychology and economics of “the unruly passion” of collecting tribal art.
Collecting can be an obsession, an investment, or an emotional pull. But mostly, the authors assert, it’s “a game.” It has winners, losers and rules, and its main goals are hunting and acquiring. More specifically, fine-art collecting is like politics, where wealth begets power and reputation. The authors, both research associates from the American Museum of Natural History’s department of anthropology, write that collecting tribal art “goes back more than 6 centuries.” During the Age of Exploration, Portuguese and Dutch sailors returned from overseas with goods made by so-called “savages.” These “artificial curiosities” so thrilled the Europeans that African and Oceanic societies began to make objects to appeal directly to European sensibilities. The authors provide tales of collectors, from the Medicis to the modern-day de Menils, and case studies that examine the unique ecosystem of collectors, dealers, auctions and museums. They also investigate those who collect for commercial purposes and those “guided by rules of taste, connoisseurship and aesthetics.” Using extensive research, the authors highlight seminal moments in tribal art history—such as how “primitive art” collecting by Pablo Picasso and others led to the creation of modernism and how photographer Alfred Stieglitz used ethnographic objects. They also show how the civil rights movement of the 1960s led to a greater appreciation for the cultural significance of the “exotic.” Although Rubel and Rosman concentrate on tribal-art collecting, their book also examines collecting in general and what separates it from “mere acquisitiveness.” Although sometimes a bit pedantic, this book holds great treasures, such as the tale of a 19th-century “souvenir”: an Apache necklace made of human fingers.
A comprehensive treatise for collectors who regularly struggle between rationality and passion.