Collecting the primitive
19th Century Songyé Sculpture, Musée du quai Branly
From Books & Ideas:
Recently, Brigitte Derlon and Monique Jeudy-Ballini have ignored the tribes of Papua New Guinea on which they are experts in order to carry out research on the world of Parisian primitive art collectors. Their book, it should be said, fills a gap in the anthropology of the art world and the study of the relationship between collectors and their collections. Although collectors have played a major role in the development of public collections and more generally in the development of a taste for primitive art, very little attention has been paid to them by ethnologists. How can such a lack of interest be explained? More than anything else, perhaps, it is the result of the fact that research, influenced by postmodernism and postcolonialism, has so often concentrated on the often violent methods collectors have resorted to, on the commodification of cultural goods, and on the stereotypes connected with primitivism, all of which have somehow made of the collector a representative of Western supremacy and its discourse on “otherness.” Whether or not this point of view is legitimate, it has imposed a vision of collectors as predatory and mercantile. The main virtue of Derlon and Jeudy-Ballini’s work is to have concentrated, without preconceived ideas, on the practices and representations that underlie the imaginative worlds of collectors of primitive art. Philosophical, historical and anthropological references to collecting enrich the book and the authors, with peculiar ethnographic flair, allow collectors to express themselves freely and talk about their infatuation with their artworks.
And infatuation is the word — a constantly stoked infatuation that causes collectors to see their activity as incompatible with any form of speculation and more particularly with any form of financial speculation. There is no economic incentive behind their purchases, nor is there a desire for social distinction. Quite the opposite is true in fact, and collectors of primitive art flaunt their contempt for money. Of course, money does allow them to buy and conserve valuable artworks, but it also corrupts and damages their rapport with the works. For a “real” collector, money is “the language of other people”: the language of art dealers and of all those who are not inspired by love for these works. To be disinterested is seen as a prerequisite without which enthusiasm and aesthetic entrancement cannot take place.