Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, and the Scandal

April 8, 2009

Today’s restorers may insist that the test of a restoration is technical propriety and not aesthetics: ‘All previous restorations were contaminated by aesthetic taste and must, therefore, be eliminated.  My interventions, uniquely, are not.’  But no one, in any period can paint without betraying cultural bias…With the best will in the world and with absolute consistency of approach, a restorer cannot intervene ‘neutrally’ in the work of another person from another culture, in another era. P. 149

James Beck’s volume, Art Restoration, whether viewed as a defense of irreplaceable art or an assault on the field of conservation, is perhaps the most widely read text on conservation.  In graduate school, it was the first week’s reading assignment and a constant reminder not to overreach in our efforts to conserve items under our care.

Revisiting the book recently, I was struck by how one-sided the text seemed.  I cannot say that I was giving it the most critical of readings (nor should this be seen as a critical review), but this time around the book read more like a polemic in the vein of, dare I say, Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold?

The quote excerpted above, in which Beck states that the conservator cannot help but impose their own aesthetics upon a treatment, makes one wonder under what circumstances Beck would allow his strawman conservator to touch a work of art?  The conundrum that we are placed in here is a difficult one: is it better to leave an object in a precarious or even damaged state or to conserve it in the knowledge that  any intervention will change its aesthetics

The answer, I think, lies outside of this forced dichotomy.  With certain circumstances except, the conservator should strive to achieve a ‘neutral’ intervention, while recognizing that such a goal is an unattainable ideal.  This added recognition should force the conservator to examine their own bias or taste more closely, in the hopes of further minimizing their impact on the aesthetics of the treatment.

Upon finishing Art Restoration, I was struck by the sense that perhaps Beck had misplaced his frustrations over the ‘disastrous restorations.”  With some exceptions, Beck does not claim that the conservators caused physical damage to the objects that were treated.  Rather, his complaint is an aesthetic one that may actually be a curatorial or critical disagreement: the works of art don’t look like he believes that they should.  Does that mean that they were “overcleaned”?  Perhaps, but perhaps his expectations for what these objects should look like are as culturally/temporally biased as the aesthetics of the conservators.

Now that I have drifted further into art criticism than I feel comfortable, I will leave you a piece of Beck’s insight,

When done acceptably, restoration and conservation require immense skill, good judgement, patience and a heavy dose of humility, due on the one hand to the complexities involved at every step of the way and, on the other, to the potential physical and aesthetic harm that can result. P. 47-48

James Beck.  Art Restoration: the culture, the business, and the scandal.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

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