Still Life with Twin Towers

A Collector’s Reflections on September 11th, 2001

The 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001 is upon us. As an American and a New Yorker who vividly recalls the day – wondering if my soon-to-be wife was alive, sheltering friends in our apartment – it is a sobering occasion. It is prosaic to comment on how much has changed since that defining moment and this hardly seems the venue to attempt that, even if I had the ability to do so. Rather, I would like to focus on how those events impacted my perspective on collecting. It may seem trivial in the context of all that the tragedy wrought but it is my way of trying to grasp why, in the wake of such events, purchasing a work of art or appreciating an antique has any significance personally and perhaps to a society at large. I turn to an entry I made in my diary (those pre-blog days) in the aftermath. I would like to share my thoughts of the time, hoping the reflections still have some resonance today. Forgive the occasionally high-pitched sentimentality of parts; in my defense, they were sentimental times.

There was before and there was after. September 11th left little unscathed. Now, three months out, the initial wave of shock has given way to subdued acceptance. But the normalcy seems little more than a necessary veneer…heads turn uncharacteristically to sirens, necks crane to follow airplanes that now always appear to be too low, too loud. The missing persons posters are coming down but the evidence of the epochal change in the landscape remains all about. The Armory, long the bastion of affluent antiquers is now (of all things!) actually functioning as an armory again. Over the past few months, I’ve reflected a great deal about my various collections. How, in the face of such omnipresent tragedy can such things seem remotely important? But the more I’ve thought on it, the more deeply I’ve come to feel that these little collections to which we cling represent something quite profound. They stand in sharp contrast to the nihilistic life represented by those who flew planes into buildings. We preserve. If I covet an object let it not be out of greed but out of awe. There is, in this spirit, an element of selflessness in collecting. I don’t presume to claim that collecting is a heroic mission (though there have been some heroic collectors…Alexandre Lenoir who saved so much great art during the French Revolution comes to mind). Collecting is, however, a form of celebration. It is a gloriously subconscious declaration of optimism in humankind, a paean to our unique curiosity. In my collections I can see my own history…my ambitions and passions – perhaps too my narcissism and insecurities. But above all, I see my love of life. As Marguerite Yourcenar so touchingly put it, “the lover of beauty ends by finding it everywhere about him.“ Perhaps these collections are part of the loosely held-together bulwark of my spirited defense against my own transience. These drawings, these books serve – among other things – as the hooks upon which I hang my memories. And if we are but the sum of our collected memories than these works represent the milestones from which one can measure life’s varied journeys. In a way, those heartbreaking walls of missing person posters bare testimony to the power of a collection. Assembled together, they allow us to mourn collectively but also to commemorate the individuality of the lost souls. It is in the collection of them that the profundity of the individual losses is made more apparent. So to do we look at an object remarkably different when we appreciate it as part of a collection. It contextualizes our relationship with it, allows us to understand it in a new light. In this instance, the very walls of the wounded city became the gallery of our grief.
We view our lives as in constant motion but our moving picture is, ultimately, a collection of still lives. The events of September Eleventh seemed to slow down the footage for at least a little while…long enough for us to take a closer look at those individual moments that make a life. Long enough also to enable the millions of disparate individuals to realize they are part of a single great human collection.

Posted on 2011 08 28 in Moti Mentali