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Rug collectors and art

Originally written 15 January 2003. Updated 26 December 2015

I keep returning to the pages of rugreview, and I don't quite know why. It is strangely interesting to contemplate the rug collector's frame of mind (since I feel I could easily turn into one, and sense the madness of it). Since there are many different rug collectors, 'the' rug collector is an idealized construction. Our rug collector, then, is a man, of advanced age, white, European or Northern American, born into the upper middle class, academically trained, and endowed with a profession (doctor, laywer, diplomat) that yields enough money to sustain his obsession. There may be a wife fading in the background; she may partake in the obsession (see the article "Mad about rugs", from which the picture below is taken) or quietly resent an activity which binds so much emotional energy and money. If I construct the mind of this idealized collector, it is at once sharp, polite, wise and strangely retarded; an analytical mind carefully weighing propositions within a well defined space that tends to render the outside of this space as mere irritation. He will attempt to be at the height of the discussion while trying not to come across as arrogant. Humour will be used deliberately to spice up the talk and render it less pedantic, even if pedantry regarding some fine details is at the core of the obsession.

Photo of Charley & Shirley Sykes

Charley & Shirley Sykes, rug collectors (Picture quotation from Rugreview.com)

This rug collector seems to have a blind spot just where I would locate the interest in any "serious art" (not necessary in the modernist sense, but clearly set apart from utilitarian craft ("Kunsthandwerk".) 'Serious art' is a dreadful term, but please excuse its use as a token for something that may be best defined through either negation or circuitous example.

Of course, there is no clear opposition between 'serious art' and 'craft' - what divides them is perhaps that both require quite different modes of reception or understanding. For example, to talk of 'loving art' immediately communicates insensitivity or ignorance regarding the context and history in which such art has come about as well as what might be called its 'intentional dimension'. Of course, several understandings and even misunderstandings of art are legitimate and can be productive, but the embrace of 'love' simply places its suffocated object within the regime of the embracer - a bit in in the way a collector puts a vase into a glass cabinet.

On the other hand, talking about 'love of (traditional) craft', be it tribal rugs, old tapestries, silver or whatever, seems quite appropriate. This love is not in conflict with study and technical analysis. But it clearly engineers and legitimises the appropriation of the beloved object. I am entitled to buy and collect this rug since I have read a bit about the tribe that supposedly made it; I may have travelled hot and dusty countries to lay my hand on it; I may have mastered a language that allowed me to learn more about its making or the foreign value schemes from which it has been torn it apart. (Today, the common situation is that an antique rug will have left its country of origin decades ago; dealers describe Iran and Turkey and the states in the Caucasus region as practically devoid of interesting antiques. The bulk of fare enters the market as former (usually Western-European or American) owners die, and their heirs sell rugs or entire collections to dealers or via auction houses.)

The collector then embeds an acquired object in the epistemological context created by generations of rug collectors' and dealers' publications (and to some extent, in the context of academic textile research). In the case of rugs, this epistemological context is incredibly complex, full of erors and constructions, and fiercly contended by rivalling groups. The more sober authors recognize this and try to sift through the heap of misinformation, which through continued use and repetition, has taken on a life of its own. Murry Eiland, for example, in his book "Oriental Rugs – A complete guide", starts his section on The Caucasus with the sentence:

There have probably been more misleading statements about Caucasian rugs than about any other major group, and anyone consulting more than one source is inviting a potent dose of inconsistency and fantasy.'

Beyond the epistemological context, the rug, once acquired, is invested with a history of personal appreciation: through research in the literature and attempted structual analysis; by means of watching, handling, placing or hanging; or by proudly showing it to peers or dealers, in show-and-tell meetings or as photo in rug news groups. The rug may be constructed as a milestone in the collector's personal aesthetic development. (While the value attributed to it—a value which would, at the point of an auction sale, translated into an estimate—is derived from virtually positioning it within the reference scenario composed of hundreds of rug publications and auction catalogues, the collector's personal idiosyncratic preferences may sometimes pay off when the market changes and a formerly depreciated group becomes fashionable.)

In many ways, the mode of studying rugs in not dissimilar to the study of a tradition of painting or of individual painters (the impressionists or van Gogh, for example). There is a circularity at work. The object of study is usually part of the accepted canon, or better still, at the verge of entering it; its study activates the historically grown value system that in turn assigns a value to the object of study. The valuable object then reflects positively on the connoisseur and his acquired capacity for appreciation, which continues to construct and extend the canon.

In contrast to the mode of studying the object of admiration, there is a different tradition of constructing the reception of 'serious art' (in the avantgarde tradition as well as in more recent camps of community-based, conversational or dialogical art). This different tradition discourages any quiet contemplation or study of objects. Instead, it aims for a different kind of relationship. The fate of the avantgarde concept of shock is well known. Shocking art ends up in the museum as object for contemplation like any old oil painting. Other concepts (e.g. of the Art & Language group) hold that the only legitimate output of art is to be used as input to other informed and critical cultural practices - e.g. by co-artists, political activists, or researchers. Still other concepts aim (or at least claim) to dissolve the boundary between artist and audience by facilitating open processes of co-operation and conversation that replace the art object as legitimate output (more about this in an essay on community and communication in art).

These different concepts of reception or interaction in art are alien to the mode of reception of rug connoisseurs, which is ruled by a widely shared, but largely tacit notion of taste which is in turn informed by the construct of an 'authentic tradition'. This tradition is constructed as a fundamentally timeless tribal activity before the intrusion of European capital and standardized production methods into Turkey, Persia, and India (Ziegler and Company, Oriental Carpet Manufacturers of London, Petag) began in the late 19. century. When collectors deplore the 'garish palette' of synthetic dyes (to take an example), they judge modern rug production with a mind informed by what they understand as the cornerstones of the traditional 'art' of rug-making: the use of 'ancient' motives such as the tribal guls in Turkmen rugs or the animal head columns traced by James Opie in his book "Tribal rugs"; the use of pre-industrial tools such as the horizonal loom and the hand-held spindle; the use of materials such as yarn hand-dyed with vegetal and insect dyestuff in small batches, a method producing the abrash, soft variations in colour; the subtleties of design and the slight varations in pattern that demonstrate the absence of loom drawings. An important attribute of objects belonging to the 'authentic tradition' is the fact (or rather claim) that a rug, bag or animal trapping was woven for own use or as part of a girl's dowry—i.e. not as a valuable tradable commodity, or worse, as an item explitily made for sale and export. It is ironic that the claim of the strictily non-commercial character of the object translates into the highest commercial value once it has entered the market.

Going back to 'art proper' (i.e., what is conventionally described as such without further qualification) the closest analogue to the aesthetics of the rug collector are the categories of beauty and aesthetic achievement of nineteenth century art. After that, art stops or supposedly turns into travesty. In the collector's mind turning to the valued objects of study, it is hard to find any trace of avantgarde notions that characterised art throughout the last century, not even romantic notions that preceded it - such as irony, self-reflection, doubt, hyperbole, fragmentation or the gesture of intentional failure. (Realism and demystification do appear, e.g. in the way the provenance of certain supposedly old tribal patterns is traced to Persian city rugs or court carpets, or to Chinese fabrics en route to European markets.)

(A short aside: This is not to say that notions of irony, self-reflection etc. were unknown to the mind of tribal rug weavers. Sally Price, in her book "Primitive Art in Civilized Places", has shown that the European connoisseur of 'Primitive Art' constructs a 'primitive' context of the collected objects as 'the other' to his or her own Western brand of civilization. He or she has no access to (and often feels no need for) first-hand information as may be obtained by simply asking the makers of these objects.)

Completely absent from the mindset of rug collectors are modern or postmodern notions of transgression, ambiguity, pose, citation or appropriation. In fact, what one does find is scorn:

'For better or worse, we have lionized the individual artist as self-invented maverick in our culture. Especially in our generation, the dismissal of tradition and the expression and promotion of self is the greatest good. And so, we have Campbell's soup can labels as visual art and the flushing of toilets as music, and the revolting drivel of sick self-absorption as literature. Only time will settle which will be lasting.' ('Color Truths and Other Wisdom' by John J. Collins, Jr. From Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 13/3)

For the artist, the collector is first of all a caricature; for the collector, the artist is a preposterous self-absorbed swine. Can they learn from each other?

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