March 17th 2011
“With our Art Laser you can clean any work of art without damaging it” ~ Why professional art conservation is not always a good thing for works of art
Art conservation is not at all like conservation in the real world. If you want to conserve marshland, you don’t drain it. If you want to conserve rich ancient meadows, you don’t plough them or spray them with chemicals. If you want to save rare species you protect their habitats. The essence of conservation in nature is leaving alone and not doing. Art conservation is a different beast: a systematised doing of things to art objects, in exchange for fees or salaries.
Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion. Chemical and other manufacturers promote their wares through trade advertisements and fairs ( for examples, see right). There are also substantial educational interests. Conservation training – degrees and doctorates are now given – converts otherwise superfluous arts or science degrees into hard job opportunities. Every last little museum (of which there are thousands) now boasts or craves an in-house conservation department. Sponsorship is easily attained – who would not want to be associated with saving art? For a petro-chemical giant to sponsor prestigious museum art conservation programmes makes particular image-improving sense. Development plans for museums (of which there are many) are virtually guaranteed success if they include a proposed expansion of conservation facilities.
Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes. History also reminds us that much art conservation was formerly called art restoration. Art restoration got a very bad reputation in the nineteenth century when picture restorers were dubbed “picture rats”. Throughout the twentieth century restorers sought to convert public opprobrium into approbation. The International Institute for Conservation (IIC) gives a biennial prize (The Keck Award – see our post of January 8th) specifically for those considered to have best increased public appreciation of “the accomplishments of the conservation profession”.
Even before conservation provided a fashionable gloss, restorers appropriated medical jargon and practices and presented themselves as “picture surgeons”. They dropped artists’ smocks for white coats and they began calling their apprentices “interns”. They x-rayed paintings for “diagnostic” purposes. Such medical airs proved spurious and deceiving. In art restoration there is constant methodological mayhem. There are no agreed methods of cleaning – some favour solvents; some, soaps; some, abrasives; others, lasers. Some advocate total and swift cleanings; some, slow and partial ones. Some favour selective cleanings. There are no universally accepted codes of ethics, no strict rules of professional behaviour, no striking off from registers. There is, as the painter Thomas Torak has regretted, no Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”.
While there is perpetual talk of conservation ethics, in practical terms this amounts to little more than a hope that one restorer/conservator’s interventions might easily be reversed by the next. If the next restorer can (sometimes) take off what the last left, he can never put back what the last removed or destroyed. Art conservation treatments are cumulatively destructive – which is why the art market places a premium on little restored works and not vice versa – and arbitrary.
In the privacy of trade journals, professors of conservation will admit that if four restorers could restore a painting at the same time, four different paintings would emerge. Some conservators insist that such different outcomes are acceptable as long as they are “safely” executed. The deployment of this non sequitur is a rash – or defiant – move in a profession where untested, supposedly “reversible”, manufactured synthetic materials that were sold as being superior to traditional natural materials, have so frequently proved irreversible and deleterious. Such bad experiences have failed to slow the conservation juggernaut for the simple reason that treatments are not means to agreed ends, but themselves constitute the profession’s raison d’être. When one treatment fails another must replace it, leaving alone, not doing, is not an option.
Criteria of appraisal are moveable feasts. The most egregious unintended outcomes of “treatment” are presented as “discoveries”. To lend credibility to such re-writing of history, picture restorers sport scientific airs. They produce peer-reviewed publications and organise quasi-academic conferences. To bolster this stance, real scientists are employed in conservation departments. Armed with academic respectability museum picture restorers demanded and obtained professional parity with curators. A new discipline, “Technical Art History”, was formed, a mongrel collective of art historians, picture restorers and conservation scientists. Controversial decisions (on restorations or attributions) are now defended/promoted by conservation scientists. This brings immense political advantage to museums because the public is more trusting of “scientific evidence” than of art experts’ aesthetic arguments. Appeals – sometimes cynically made – to the authority of science have trumped criticism and neutralised debate, which practices, in art’s case, should always and properly be considered as being of the essence.
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