All Art Is Dust Eventually
This week The Guardian brings us the news that “Conservation experts in Spain have called for a tightening of the laws covering restoration work after a copy of a famous painting by the baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo became the latest in a long line of artworks to suffer a damaging and disfiguring repair.” and I’m here to bring you a bad opinion.
It’s so funny to me. That so-called conservation experts think that restoration is vandalism – just because it isn’t very good. Where do we draw the line between restoration and vandalism?
Back in 2006, my undergraduate dissertation was about ‘The artworld’s obsession with restoring works of art as the wholesale vandalism of our cultural heritage’
It wasn’t so much an exploration of the topic. Instead it was a long rant against the art industrial complex that had increasingly been subsumed by the market logic of neoliberalism throughout the 90’s and into the Blair years resulting with an obsession with art as an investment. Therefore art needs to be made subject to the same market logics that the restoration of buildings, property and monuments fall into.
A painting had just been restored in the National Gallery at the time. I forget which one it was. But I do remember all the hoo ha in the media about it and how incredible it apparently looked.
We went to see it and I was shocked and angry.
Nowhere on the museum plaque did it credit the names of the people who had cleaned it. Nor did it credit the hands that had made the additions to the painting.
I think we can make a clear distinction between cleaning as conservation, and the application or addition of new paint to quote unquote ‘restore’ the painting is vandalism.
Vandalism is any action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property. It depends on what you value and what is being destroyed. Pulling down a statue isn’t vandalism. However putting one up might actually be vandalism due to what value folks think is being being expressed.
That 400 year old painting I saw in the National Gallery was now bright and vivid. Just like new. Photoshopped. Indeed it had actually been ‘re touched’. Gone was the patina of age, a testament to its passage of time though society and history.
Walter Benjamin suggested in 1936 that artworks have a quality known as Aura. Aura is an object’s presence in time and space. Its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. A quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through any other reproduction techniques such as photography.
Aura of course in the age of mechanical reproduction is now fed by reproduction. The Mona Lisa for example, is a mediocre piece of art. It is only special because of its Aura. If it hadn’t been stolen in 1911 and been so endlessly reproduced it wouldn’t now be so special in the flesh. Indeed Cutting at Cornell University in 1968 showed conclusively that people prefer art they have seen before. If they have seen a work of art lots of times before then they prefer that work over a comparable piece. The historical western canon of art is largely an accident. A consequence of the interaction between display and audience.
Some friends came back from the Vatican and Sistine Chapel relatively recently and spoke about its atmosphere. You walk through the Apostolic Palace and feel the weight, history and hyper thickness of the space. It’s Aura.
Then you walk into the chapel to see the freshly restored ceiling. Vivid now. Removed from time, dislocated from its surroundings. The Aura of Michelangelo’s ceiling had been reset or perhaps even destroyed to more closely match the endlessly reproduced images of the art work.
8 years ago, an artistic hero of mine Cecilia Giménez began her restoration of the Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez in the church she had been married in and spawned a million memes. Most people found it funny with the correct opinion that it had been improved. Historical art bores were of course outraged. The trans temporal collaboration between Gimenez and Martinez is probably at this point in 2020 one of the most well known works of art in the world. I’d like to see it someday.
That same year in 2012 Vladimir Umanets signed a Rothko in the Tate Modern “A potential piece of yellowism’ with a paint pen and the british media press with its very small imagination went bananas. I’ve honestly never understood why they cleaned it off. They should have put up a second plaque with Umanets name that said “In October of 2012 Umanets transformed this artwork, subsuming the object into the concept of yellowism”.
Instead they restored it. His contribution to the work of art and the art world at large hidden away, diminished and denied.
In 1972 Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo’s La Pieta with a geologist’s hammer shouting “I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead”. With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.
And they then went and restored it. Immediately.
I would have just piled up all the parts and put them on a plinth with a note explaining what had happened. Perhaps for a period of 100 years. “We will leave it to our grandchildren to decide what to do”
I’m sure some of you think I’m crazy. I probably am. Things happen to works of art throughout their lives. One event in its existence follows another. It is conceived, created, and then put out into the world. If you want it to last, make it out of a material that will last a long time. If not, let it live its life, let events around it unfold. All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
The script above is the original script for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.