A reader raises a profound question about the use of impermanent materials in an artists' or makers' work.
I have a question about how far a maker's responsibility goes for the 'lastingness' of a product. This was brought to mind recently because someone had a museum-quality bowl by a famous artist that was developing serious finish issues due to the use of polyethylene glycol as a soak to preserve the color in the material. We also sometimes see pieces put together with questionable adhesives, etc. I understand the importance of experimentation, but it troubles me as my responsibilities include the preservation and conservation of artworks.
Is this a question that has gotten much or any attention?
I was really hoping that this was a question that artists were asking themselves (and each other) on some level.
Signed, A Concerned Curator
Dear Concerned Curator,
Issues of the impermanence of materials, experimentation with materials, and long-term preservation and conservation of artworks are really complex.
The use of experimental or untested materials is a reflection of our society in a way. We applaud artists that use new materials or untested methods. The tried and true may be perceived as boring, been there, done that. Even the idea of "permanent" anything isn’t given very high regard. Buy cheap, express the "now," and throw it away seems like a pervasive trend of our culture.
Let's expand on the issues swirling around the use of alternative, untested, or experimental materials. Conservation becomes a concern of the owner, collector, or museum. I am betting that museum curators and professionals need more solutions. To buy, or not to buy...to exhibit or not to exhibit when just the act of putting work on display (even in a controlled environment) may cause further damage.
Let's itemize some of the profound issues:
- the impermanence of materials,
- experimentation with alternative or unproven materials, and
- long term preservation and conservation of artwork.
Conflicting perspectives abound on these issues which would provide topic material for endless debates. So here are my dueling opinions.
The artist has a responsibility to consciously choose how the work is made and what is intended for long-term display (if any). Basically, I think this leads to four possible scenarios from the artist's perspective:
1) Consciously choose to make impermanent work and know it will not last. The work of Andy Goldsworthy or of Eva Hesse are just such examples.
2) Consciously choose to make permanent work and use the best materials available. e.g. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.
3) Consciously choose the risk of using unknown materials and accept whatever the outcome.
4) Ignore the impermanence or untested aspect of your materials and pretend indifference.
The first three are valid approaches and should be honestly communicated to any audience or potential purchaser. The fourth scenario is questionable.
The materials used in a work will certainly affect its long-term conservation and preservation - and possibly its value.
This question should certainly be on the minds of all artists who want to have their work purchased. Artists have every right to choose how to make their work.
What is the responsibility of the artist during fabrication?
What is the responsibility of the artist/owner? For storage? For display?
What is the responsibility of the exhibitor? Lighting? Hanging? For some work, just the fact that it is on display is destructive?
What about care and maintenance?
Is polishing to restore the original finish a destructive act?
Is refinishing, removing grunge, old varnish, crackled surface restoration or destruction?
If you ever watch Antiques Roadshow you hear the voice of the experts. Each material seems to have its own definition for proper care and maintenance.
As an artist, do you think about how to care for your work?
Should the collector/curator have the same responsibility? It might surprise the artist to consider that a collector/curator may not have the same expectation for care and maintenance, or original finish as the original maker.
Please tell us what you think?
Have you ever thought about this before?
The next posts will break up this enormous issue into a series of thoughts. I've heard opinions from collectors. I have practical recommendations for my work. What about you?
This post was updated on February 18, 2022.