Why Do We Collect? by Dawoud Bey

From the archives of when Chicago Art Magazine’s Founder and Publisher Kathryn Born was at the helm of the Chicago Now blog. This post was originally published on July 25th, 2009.

Dawoud Bey

Collections of Nothing by William Davies King

I have been reading a wonderful little book, Collections of Nothing by William Davies King that a friend recently introduced me to. The book is partly autobiography and partly an examination of the impulse to collect and order objects–mundane or otherwise–and the ways in which this activity shapes our lives or the ways our lives shape the collecting activity. As King says, “Nearly everyone collects something, even those who don’t think of themselves as collectors.” King’s collecting began with a stamp collection he received as a gift from his godmother when he was eleven. From there he went on to eventually collect a vast assortments of objects and things, none of which have any real material or explicit monetary value. He doesn’t, for example, collect art objects. Instead he has an assortment of every kind of mundane object, from rusted skeleton keys to a pipe tobacco tin full of pebbles, from cigar ribbons (though he doesn’t smoke) to a mound of used airmail envelopes and on and on. His collection consists largely of things others would consider the cast off detritus of society.

King defines the collecting impulse as, “owning something in quantity for reasons beyond pure need.” Most children collect things and continue to into adulthood. As such this need to accumulate, categorize and relate one object to another and yet another would seem to speak to some fundamental need at the core of the human psyche. King sees it as, “a cry for help…The widely shared impulse to collect comes partly from a wound we feel, and partly from a wound that many of us feel deep inside this richest, most materialistic of all societies, and partly from a wound that many of us feel in our personal histories.” These are challenging and fascinating ideas indeed, and ones I suggest you explore through this book.

From expensive or inexpensive art objects to the mundane, indeed almost everyone collects something. King’s book suggests that this activity is fraught with a weightier locus of social, emotional and psychological meaning than we might think. It’s a compelling thesis and one that has given me much to consider as I continue my own collecting obsession. And you, what do you collect? And why?