Universaldilettanten

Max Ernst

Love this portrait of Max Ernst with magnifying glass and sea horse (photograph by Josef Breitenbach, New York, 1942) – for me it’s the epitome of curiosity, ingenuity and wit. And look at the way he frowns and (sceptically? mockingly?) raises his left eyebrow.

Still have to get my head round this, but there seems to be a close link between collecting and artistic creativity – sort of a dialectical relationship, one often becoming the substitute for the other – and, in the same vein, between the artistic profession and dilettantism. Here are some relevant quotes:

Mark Dion sees himself more as a collector than as a creator in the traditional sense:

I am a bibliophile: I have calculated that, easily, I buy a book a day.

Keeping a scrapbook was an activity that no one really taught me, but it was something I always seemed to do. More than, say, traditional skills like drawing or sculpting.

For me, the dilettante is a much more interesting character historically than the expert.

Edward James, who never achieved the recognition for his poetry he desired, sought consolation in collecting:

When I feel depressed and think that I have wasted my life, I go into this little room and realise that I have been able to discover treasures on my own initiative, and this makes a vibration which chases away the sense of futility.

Marcel Broodthaers‘s artistic persona entails the frustration of being unable to become a collector:

Since I couldn’t build a collection of my own, for lack of even the minimum of financial means, I had to find another way of dealing with the bad faith that allowed me to indulge in so many strong emotions. So, said I to myself, I’ll be a creator.

Daniel Spoerri calls himself a “Universaldilettant.”

Cornelia Parker thinks that artistic activitiy and expertise are mutually exclusive:

I’m fascinated by that period of time, by those polymaths. I’m very jealous of it because people could have all these different lives, and now we’re forced into specialisms, and that’s why, even as an artist, I resist being forced into any category other than “artist”. I’m not a painter or sculptor or a conceptual artist or a word-and-image artist. Why do people have to invent categories? I’ve always resisted that. I enjoy making art because I can do a residency at the Science Museum or visit churches or argue with NASA; I can draw from all kinds of sources and not be an expert at anything but I can touch on lots of things and make something that might be a little nugget or amalgam of those things as a way of understanding the world.

Max Ernst, in his autobiographical notes (intriguingly all kept in the third person), stresses the fact that he became a painter largely as a dilettante rather than as a professional choice:

Peint moins par l’amour de l’art que par paresse et tradition millénaire.

The artist as jack of all trades, master of none? The artist as slacker? Or rather the artist as heir of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century polymath, trying to make sense of the world by re-arranging its material and drawing out connections between fields and phenomena?

One thought on “Universaldilettanten

  1. Your site is a nice collection in itself. I’ve just stumbled upon it googling Joseph Cornell. Please keep it up I really love what you’ve done and am very excited to read more.

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