This Kat recently recalled these questions in reading a piece by Ben Lerner in The New Yorker magazine, “The Custodians: How the Whitney Museum is transforming the art of museum conservation”. The article describes how the Whitney Museum of American Art, located in New York City has established a so-called replication committee (including one lawyer as a member) to determine under what conditions a work must be replicated if it cannot be fixed or otherwise restored in any traditional manner. The acute question that arises is whether it is still possible to talk about the original object when it has passed from conservation or even restoration to (mere?) replication.
John Ruskin, who argued against any form of restoration, even if the result was that the building or object might wholly decay. In his words-- the “greatest glory of a building ….is in its Age.”
At the other end was the same Viollet-le-Duc, who argued and was engaged in multiple restorations. Reconstruction of a building was not only permitted, but called for, to--
“…reestablish it in a finished state, which may have in fact never have actually existed at a given time.”A vigorous modern proponent of Ruskin’s view was Andrew Petryn, the former chief conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery, who was committed to what is called “de-restoration”, as he sought to remove all the restoration done to a work, leaving the work as created by the artist itself. Much controversy ensued, and Petryn was euphemistically criticized for “aggressive over-cleaning” of some pieces of the collection. At the other end was Viollet-le-Duc and his work at such sites as Carcassonne. In Lerner’s view, Ruskin’s position risks “fetishizing damage”, while Viollet-de-Luc risks “the Disneyfication of the historical record.” As Lerner suggests elsewhere in the piece, do we prefer the work “as an archaeological artifact” or should it be something that allows us to experience it as a picture qua picture? It seems to this Kat that the treatment of a building, which has an inherent functional purpose—namely shelter, can be distinguished from a painting, for which the artistic experience is the sine qua non. Still, the foregoing discussion on the two polar positions maintained by Ruskin and Viollet-de-Luc, respectively, usefully sets out the parameters of the discussion.
A fascinating example of how this might play out was described by Lerner in connection with a painting at the Whitney by the noted Abstract Expressionist painter, Mark Rothko. The head of the conservation department said that staff had noted “some unexplained, inconsistent coloration” in the painting. A painting conservator went about examining the painting with an infra-red camera, looking for either evidence of damage or if there had prior “intervention” of the painting. If the latter, “[i]t might be that Rothko himself restored this, and did a poor job.” If this were the case, would it be proper for the Whitney to effectively save the artist from himself? But it is also possible that the inconsistent coloration was done intentionally by the artist. If so, change would not “improve” the artwork but rather could do harm to the artist’s aesthetic intentions. Rothko died in 1970, so the ability of the Whitney to resolve the issue would seem especially daunting (it appears that no decision has yet been reached).
More fundamentally, to what extent does the Whitney need to first take a position on the