To the Collector Belong the Spoils rethinks collecting as an artistic, revolutionary, and appropriative modernist practice, which flourishes beyond institutions like museums or archives. Through a constellation of three author-collectors—Henry James, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Einstein—Annie Pfeifer examines the relationship between literary modernism and twentieth-century practices of collecting objects. From James's paper hoarding to Einstein's mania for African art and Benjamin's obsession with old Russian toys, she shows how these authors' literary techniques of compiling, gleaning, and reassembling constitute a modernist style of collecting that reimagines the relationship between author and text, source and medium. Placing Benjamin and Einstein in surprising conversation with James sharpens the contours of collecting as aesthetic and political praxis underpinned by dangerous passions. An apt figure for modernity, the collector is caught between preservation and transformation, order and chaos, the past and the future.
Positing a shadow history of modernism rooted in collection, citation, and paraphrase, To the Collector Belong the Spoils traces the movement's artistic innovation to its preoccupation with appropriating and rewriting the past. By despoiling and decontextualizing the work of others, these three authors engaged in a form of creative plunder that evokes collecting's long history in the spoils of war and conquest. As Pfeifer demonstrates, more than an archive or taxonomy, modernist collecting practices became a radical, creative endeavor—the artist as collector, the collector as artist.
Annie Pfeifer is Assistant Professor in the German Departmentof Germanic Languages at Columbia University. She is the coeditor of "Walk I Absolutely Must." Follow her on Twitter @anniepfeifer.