Jean Burgess wrote an interesting post about collectors. While I’m not comfortable with the “high” or “low” distinctions, I think that collecting activity says a lot about a person. I tend to see collecting as a distinct phenomenon, separate from “hobbies” or amateurism. I think it has a lot to do with wanting to possess original objects (precious or not) that exude some sort of “aura” (in the sense used by Walter Benjamin) that has resonance to the collector.
In some objects, I think the appreciation is tactile. However, my primary collecting activity since I was a child has been maintaining a music collection. I stopped collecting music, for the first time in my life, around three years ago. I think it might have been that the rows and rows of bootleg tapes and CDs just didn’t have the joy that I found in LPs and real CDS. Original pieces have a certain “tone” (perhaps separate from the concept of “aura”) that is lost completely in the disc after disc of bizarre MP3s that I listened to around once, and then filed away. It’s weird to think of music collecting as tactile, but for me, I suppose it is. But it’s as much a matter of feeling the sound, as much as it is touching the physical object. I just have never gotten the same feelings from digital music that I do from its more arcane analog forms.
Part of the joy, I think, in being a music collector is in appreciating (feeling) the music of people that most people have not heard. It’s a sort of elitist, aesthetic exercise on one level. But it’s also the appreciation of the anonymous. Benjamin expressed it well when he compared collecting with alchemy near the end of “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian”:
As a collector, Fuchs belongs to their race. The alchemist, in his “base” desire to make gold, carries out research on the chemicals in which planets and elements come together in images of spiritual man; by the same token, in satisfying the “base” desire for possession, this collector carries out research on an art in whose creations the productive forces and the masses come together in images of historical man. Even his late works testify to the passionate interest with which Fuchs turned towards these images. He writes: “It is not the least of the glories of Chinese turrets that they are the product of an anonymous popular art. There is no heroic lay to commemorate their creators.” Whether devoting such attention to anonymous artists and to the objects that have preserved the traces of their hands would not contribute more to the humanization of mankind than the cult of the leader—a cult which, it seems, is to be inflicted on humanity once again—is something that, like so much else that the past has vainly striven to teach us, must be decided, over and over, by the future. (Selected Writings v. 3, 284-285)
I know of no music collectors that collect only “top ten hits” or top albums. They curate their collections (in the sense that Jean refers to, I think) as a creative activity bent on the resistance of whatever “cult of the leader” which fits their genre. Collecting, in the case of collecting music, is often a case of preserving the anonymous against the onslaught of the gold.
One of my favorite old LPs is an album by Gang of Four called Solid Gold. The title is of course deliciously ironic.