Caring for Artwork

The care and treatment of works of art raise a host of philosophical issues, beginning with the challenge of formulating a clear understanding of works of art in relation to time. When a work of art begins to age, losing some of its color and definition, was this something intended by the artist? Some contemporary works of art are auto-destructive and intended not to last; arguably these should not be restored. But in cases when the artistic intention is not known, matters become more vexing. The term preservation, when used of works of art, refers to preserving the artwork in light of artistic intentions, whereas conservation refers to repairing and restoring artwork. Both can involve difficult decisions about retaining the substance or material constitution of the artwork (retaining Leonardo da Vinci’s paint in the painting, The Mona Lisa) or retaining the appearance of the artwork (how The Mona Lisa would have looked to Leonardo and his contemporaries). Some philosophers, such as David Carrier, think that artistic intentions should play no role whatever in making decisions on these matters. “Even if [the artist] says explicitly how he desires the work to appear in the future, we need not necessarily accept his viewpoint. Just as the artist is not necessarily the best interpreter of his work, so he may not be the final authority on how it should be conserved” (Carrier 2009,  86).

An equally vexing problem area lies in the extent to which the meaning and nature of an artwork rests on its original, intended use and site. Consider an icon that was intended for use in church services, but is now displayed in a museum. Arguably, its function has changed from a religious context of worship, veneration, and petition, to being an object of aesthetic experience, an experience that may be utterly secular.

I offer a modest response to both domains. Carrier seems right about not “necessarily” deferring to artistic intentions. Virgil wanted his epic poem The Aeneid destroyed and the world seems better off without the poet’s intention being respected. But I suggest that artistic intentions (when known) should carry substantial weight. If Michelangelo clearly intended the Sistine ceiling to fade in color due to time, the impact of burning candles and incense, I think that opinion should count as a good reason not to restore it to the appearance it would have had when Michelangelo finished painting it in the mid-sixteenth century. In this way, we would respect the appearance Michelangelo had intended, though perhaps like Virgil and The Aeneid we would (and should be) reluctant to countenance the destruction of the artwork even if that was Michelangelo’s intention.

(As an aside, I suggest that respect for artistic intention should also impact debate over the colorization of black and white movies. Unless the director or producer of, say, Casablanca, explicitly instructed future filmmakers to colorize the film, a colorized Casablanca should be regarded as an appropriation rather than as an authentic or even improved version of the original film.)

As for the relocation of works of art from their original setting, I suggest museums do have a duty to communicate as clearly as possible the intended original setting and function of the work of art. If the icon is not observable as an icon but only as an abstract representation of a saint, one does not actually observe the work of art itself. Perhaps artworks are in the same situation as animals in zoos. Taken from their natural habitat, the animals may look and act quite differently than in the wild.  This is why, for all that we benefit from museum institutions, they sometimes feel like zones of quarantine, where art has been hospitalized, or like petting zoos.