THE ART OF HOARDING.
Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
— Walter Benjamin, Unpacking My Library.
Teetering atop my towering pile of guilty pleasures is a reality TV show
on A&E called Hoarders.
Each episode is a less-than-subtle variation on the same theme: a compulsive hoarder is threatened with eviction, divorce, suicide, state
apprehension of children, estrangement from extended family, or any one or permutation of the above. These threats arose because their homes have mestastasized into grotesque and perilous repositories of clutter — dense jungles of clothing, dirty dishes, uneaten and moldy food, human and animal feces, tacky memorabilia and just about every other artifact of modern culture you could imagine. And some you can’t imagine.
These homes have metamorphosed into kitsch rococo cocoons, claustrophobic crypts in which makeshift tunnels have evolved over time and paths bolstered by strata of junk have displaced hallways, open floors and air itself.
If you haven't seen the show before, the first shots from inside these
"homes" can elicit gasps. Surprisingly the hoarders, while occasionally eccentric, come across as relatively "normal." Some seem as embarrassed and baffled by their mega-clutter as we do, while others simply look past it in an anxious state of denial. Of course the producers, in an attempt to muffle cries of Oprah-style media exploitation, trot out licensed psychologists or "professional organizers" with the film crews to assist the hoarder in getting clean— not unlike the same state of"clean" sought by recovering addicts.
In many respects Hoarders is like a cross between an archeological dig
and a "makeover" show, except here history has been replaced by personal memories and the self has been replaced by the home. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief at the conclusion, when the camera alternates back and
forth between the home's former thicket of detritus and the fresh, clean
re-claimed living space (a process not without it's product placement,
i.e. legions of trucks from 1-800-Junk and commercial breaks for Hefty Bags or sanitizing cleansers).
In an attempt to rationalize my own addiction to this show (and another competing hoarding show on The Learning Channel called Buried Alive), I have fashioned a theory: the hoarders are artists. Artists who don't know they're artists.
In many ways hoarders can stake a more authentic claim to art than the hoards of self-proclaimed "artists" who clutter gallery space. And I say this not because they pay the sacrificial price of suffering that goes with aesthetic ventures or endure the anguish of being social outcasts —another artistic trope.
First, (as I desperately trying to avoid being glib or to exploit the exploited), consider these tombs of clutter a form of artistic installation. An installation far too grotesque and palpable for even the most avant-garde of galleries. And no curator has sanctioned these “works” with a monograph or wine-and-cheese accompaniment.
"Works of art that react against empirical reality obey the forces of
that reality, which reject intellectual creations and throw them back
So said Frankfurt School theorist Theodore Adorno when he wrote an argument against didactic, polemical art (in this
case represented by the later works of Bertholt Brecht) and in favor of an
autonomous art, one that would "arouse the fear that existentialism
only talked about."
For Adorno, Kafka and Beckett represented this problematic, almost mute
expression (absence plays a part in both of their
works) he felt was a negative shadow of hope in a world without hope. This sort of art does not point allegorically to a higher truth or beauty, but expresses in an almost inexpressible way, the reality of the impossibility of a tidy"truth" or a comforting "beauty."
"As though with eyes drained of tears, they stare out silently out of
his sentences," Adorno said of Beckett.
The hoarders, too, stare silently out through the crevices amid their horrible creations, confined by the very "freedom" and "control" they compulsively sought through collection, consumption and accumulation. But alternatively, their hoards help bridge (or dam) the vast chasm between a fragile psyche and an overbearing society. Their “chaos” is the illusion of an order that re-connects them: photographs and clothing to lost loved ones or the past itself; commodities to a promise of happiness perpetually broken. Even the filth — the dust, mold, cobwebs and in one case the skeletal remains of a litter of kittens — is a testament to deep-seated and futile desire (like that of Miss Havisham’s petrified monument to her tragically interrupted wedding in Dickens’s Great Expectations) to stop the inexorable flow of time in its tracks.
Of course, that’s exactly what photographs attempt to do, and to some extent fashion and taste (read: hipness), and our culture now rests on a growing pile of images — not memories or history. The hoarders we find so luridly compelling only expose materially what we hide psychically or behind the curtain of the pop-culture industry, a compulsive love for things that have buried us in spirit and have in turn made us things. They wear their scars on the outside while we normals camouflage our damage in our need to acquire (no need here to reiterate the commodification Marx aligned with modernism). Sometimes we even adopt the guise of the hoarders’ evil twin — the anal-retentive minimalist who simultaneously lays waste and pays homage to space in Architectural Digest, Home and Gardens or any of the multitude of “style” and “living” guides and magazines.
Those meticulously tidy corners of the culture machine comprise the silent spectacle; they say nothing, purposefully. And most of us are at best like silent ventriloquist dummies, miming in a Beckettian way the emptiness and alienation that the style-makers make so fashionable.
Hoarders on the other hand may “stare out silently” but they have found a voice, an autonomous, if sickly, voice that screams out through the clutter and decay within they are simultanously soothed and tormented.
Yes, hoarders are afflicted people (and I’m not arguing against therapy here), but their pathos has something to say beyond psychology. And that’s what makes them artists, in what I consider the best and at the same time most horrible way.