The Laws of Nature

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Art of Collecting LIghtbulbs

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)

Chapter 5: The Art of Collecting Lightbulbs

The author once met a Baltimore dentist named Hugh Frances Hicks shortly before his death at age 79 in 2002. Dr. Hicks had collected 75,000 items that were either lightbulbs or things related to lightbulbs. Many are historically significant, like some of Edison's earliest experiments. His is the largest such collection in the world and he turned his basement into a museum called the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting.
Kimmelman queries “Why do people collect?” And, specifically, why did Dr. Hicks collect lightbulbs? Evidently, it began when Hicks was a toddler and his mother gave him an old lightbulb to play with. One thing led to the next and, before you know it, he became a dedicated collector.

In general, Kimmelman speculates that “some people collect because collecting can be a great art if earnestly engaged in.” This, he explains, accounts for why most of us like viewing collections even if we aren’t collectors ourselves. Also, “collecting is a way to bring order to the world” or “it is also a way to define some idiosyncratic niche for the collector, as art does for an artist.” I can add another reason: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). My deceased father-in-law had many collections: 1,500 works of art; 1,200 art books; 500 Santa Claus figures; over 200 pairs of glasses; hundreds of clocks, and many other collections. It was mind-boggling and a nightmare for my sister-in-law who took it upon herself to clean out his house before selling it.

But, I digress. The point is, serious collectors are ubiquitous and many of their collections are art forms. “Collected objects become symbolic when they lose their utilitarian purpose … Their uselessness becomes their asset: they turn into totems and fragments of the lost worlds they came from.” These lost worlds, like art, provide the viewers with a sense of wonderment. They heighten our curiosity and help us become more aware of our surroundings.

Back to Dr. Hicks. Evidently, psychiatrists once visited him as a part of their investigation into why collectors collect. “They were something,” he said. “They didn’t blink their eyes. They were interviewing collectors from all over the world. After spending $4 million, they concluded that collectors collect for the fascination of an object and for no other reason. Heck, I would have told them that for $1 million.”

So, now I’m wondering if we artists compulsively create art for the same reason that collectors collect. Is it fascination??

What are your thoughts?
P.S. Have a great weekend! I’ll be back on Monday.


Jean Spitzer said...

Fascination, yes. Obsession probably says it best.

-Don said...

I collect masks because I find them fascinating. Other artists' works fascinate me. But, I don't create art because I find it fascinating, I create art because it finishes me.

I'd love to see that light bulb collection someday.


Mark Sheeky said...

An interesting comparison. I don't know many artists who are collectors, and one collector who is not an art maker. Is obsession the link..? (stares at methodically aligned desktop items).

Lightbulbs are pretty things but I imagine that a vast collection of them would make for a very boring day out. How did he get started? Perhaps he was LED into it.

Anonymous said...

Good one Mark! :-))

My husband is a collector of motorcycles. Obsession is a component, but he also discriminates. He only collects what he feels will add to his collection. He spends his spare time researching, studying, and communicating with others who have similar interests. It is his art.

I create art for different reasons I think than for the reasons he collects. There is a component of obsession. I'm usually too tired to be fascinated. My obsession keeps me awake and going.

Unknown said...

Hi Jean - Amen!

Hi Don - What a lovely way to put it. Thank you.

Hi Mark - you are tooooo funny! Thanks for the smile.

Hi Pam - I like the distinction you draw between fascination and obsession. Works for me!

Dan Kent said...

I think of creativity as being a stream that everyone can tap into. I voraciously collect art visually (not actually). When I observe great art, I want to draw or paint. Or when I need to feel more creative and free in my art or writing, I will turn on Pat Metheny or another creative musician to tap into what they create. There is fascination, but not just fascination. Otherwise I would be satisfied just observing the art. It is more than that. It is a hunger that needs to be fulfilled. Jean and Don have it right.

Dan Kent said...

And, btw, I have been reading every one of your posts - just have not had time to comment.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I am a collector--I see sculpture in old tools, and I see old tools as subjects for paintings. I have an old tractor seat because it casts a beautiful pattern of shadows.

Now, if I can just throw out those burned-out spiral-shaped light bulbs! They are fascinating.

Most of my sculptor friends were collectors.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - I know what you mean. Creativity feeds upon creativity. Like you, I listen to music that inspires my own work when I paint and feasting upon the works of others also fuels my creativity. Thanks for your comment, and for reading!

Hi Hallie - I suspected that you collect from reading your wonderful blog and viewing your amazing creations. You definitely have a sculptor's "eye." I wonder if most sculptors are collectors? None of my spiral lightbulbs have burned out yet - and, although they're energy efficient, I don't like the type of light they cast. I suppose the manufacturers are getting better at it, but I won't replace them until they burn out. Thanks for your comment.

Nancy Goldman said...

I am compulsively creating art hoping that some obsessive souls will decide that they need to collect
it. : )

Robin said...

I don't usually like collecting things because it reminds me of clutter and it's hard enough making room for my art supplies and finished works. Maybe I am a collector of art supplies?! I do have a small collection of netsuke figures, something I began when my father passed away and my mother asked me if I wanted his small collection of these ivory figurines (I think she thought of them as clutter too). I have only added a few since I inherited his collection but I am always looking and learning about them. When I work art shows I always try to barter with other artists too, so maybe I am a collector after all.

Unknown said...

Hi Nancy - me too!! Thanks for ocmmenting.

Hi Robin - I know what you mean about collecting art supplies. This past year I decided to give some away to others who could really use them. My husband and I also inherited a netsuke collection. They're awesome! Thanks for commenting!