Thoughts on Art Preservation

Callum Costello comments upon the history of preservation and destruction of art, and what it means to us all today.

27th November 2017
Image: Wikipedia

I remember earlier this year when Joe Corré burned five million pounds worth of punk memorabilia on a boat on the Thames.

I was conflicted between sorrow that historical artefacts had been destroyed, anger that they had been lost as a consequence and thrilled that their demise had come about in the most defiantly punk way possible. The burning of valuable punk art is an act of punk art in itself, and indicative of the fluidity of art - for art is subjective in its life, death, creation, exhibition and consumption.

Recently, amongst the clutter of swimming cats and Donald Trump’s struggles to consume water, a video went viral of the cleaning of an antique artwork. Initially posted by ‘Fake of Fortune?’ presenter and author Philip Mould via his Twitter, the video showed Mould applying a gel based solution which removed two hundred years of dirt from a Jacobean portrait of an unknown woman in red - and the results were both spectacular and mesmerising. It re-opened the debate about art restoration and preservation, and by extension asked the question as to what role destruction plays in the art world.

For every ‘Unknown Woman in Red’ there’s a ‘Fresco Jesus’, but whilst the rescued portrait is flavour of the month there’s no doubt that the botched restoration of Christ by Cecilia Giménez also has its place in art history. Tourism might have been boosted for all the wrong reasons, but the audience’s engagement with this artwork has increased. Should there be a stylistic footprint left by the work (I long for the Fresco Maybot) then it becomes beyond an argument that this failed fix is both popular and influential - and that prompts discussion in itself.

what if we can ‘fix’ Fresco Jesus?

Recent years have seen a huge drive to preserve and rescue media art. The short history of film and television has been plagued by massive quantities of celluloid, tape and photography being destroyed after being seen initially as worthless. The industry hopes to rescue lost treasures, and technological advancements have been utilised to not only preserve but also improve classic films - sometimes even to a detriment (see; Star Wars Special Editions).

What if this technology can be transferred to art - what if we can ‘fix’ Fresco Jesus? Do we rescue the original? I would argue that it has evolved - that the original and the botched fix are part of the new history of the artwork, similar to how the cleaned portrait is relevant only in the context of it being uncleaned.

Maybe its time we consider destruction and deterioration part of the life of art

There’s no doubt value to cleaning and preserving artwork, but there’s an issue in where we draw the line. Expensive restoration is being done to Buckingham Palace in a time of austerity, and finance is at the forefront of Italian political discussion yet there would be no hesitation should a need to preserve the Sistine Chapel arise.

Whilst I’m not suggesting we burn any art that becomes financially burdensome, maybe its time we consider destruction and deterioration part of the life of art in the face of fiscal responsibility? Is that not part of the journey of art? Would the Pyramids still be the Pyramids if they were made of sixty percent 3D printed bricks? It’s a fascinating discussion moving forward.

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