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Living with Beautiful Things

Instead of scrutinizing ourselves in relation to our small treasures, let us look at big collectors, who should be subject to more influences. I am afraid we are no better off than we were with art dealers and museum custodians, at least in the moral sphere. Think of Goering. I have known gentle art collectors, mild and philanthropic where the arts are concerned, glad to lend and serve on boards, even one or two who are liberals (in the American sense, i.e., slightly to the left) in politics and devoted to human rights—this is a very rare species. But the majority, I must say, are not very nice people. Living with beautiful things, inherited or acquired, has not enlarged them; one could almost think the opposite. It would be interesting to study the evolution of a collector of art. Was he small, narrow, selfish, and deeply reactionary to start with or did devotion to his things bring those traits out in him? Or put it this way: is the owner of choice furniture and superb paintings better or worse off than a rich philistine? My guess would be worse, though he may be a little easier to talk to, at least at the start.

Quite poisonous people, on the whole, are attracted by the visual arts and can become very knowledgeable about them. This is much less true of literature: a bookish rich man or country gentleman is likely to be a quite humane and responsible individual. A bookish man will be an omnivorous reader, obviously, but he will not be greedy: by consuming more reading matter than is customary he does not deprive anyone else of his share . . .

Mary McCarthy

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