Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Neophyte on Ethics and Contemporary Art: Part I

I deeply appreciate the feedback I received on my article on the display of textiles. Those who submitted their ideas brought up a number of valid points; so many, in fact, that I intend to visit the issue again in the near future. However, before I do that, I wish to bring up an idea whose genesis is found in the November 19th post of Iridule Imagined. The picture displayed in the post depicts a large pile of trash that appears to be in, judging from the cleanliness of the surrounding floor and the lighting, some sort of exhibition studio. The extraordinary feature of this...Mess...Comes from the shadows it casts, which take the form of two sitting, slightly inebriated appearing humans.

The nature of this work, and indeed, the nature of contemporary art as a whole, raises two related ethical questions in my mind, which I shall attempt to answer in the next several posts: given the nature of the materials of this work, is it a responsible dissemination of either aesthetics or ideas? Given the nature of the aesthetics of the work, is it a responsible dissemination of overall aesthetics or ideas?

To try to answer the first question, look carefully at the composition of the pile of trash. The picture is a bit small, and the individual members are a bit difficult to distinguish, but there appears to be a considerable amount of plastic, paper, and metal; organics do not seem to be present in great quantities. Specific items that can be identified include a plastic bottle, a roll of toilet paper, an aluminum soda can, a sneaker type shoe, and two seagulls, whose composition cannot be determined from the photograph. The difficulty begins when the observer begins to consider how the piece should be conserved: the polymers HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) and LLDPE (Linear Low Density Polyethylene) are generally formed with the Ziegler-Natta catalyst, which may accelerate the photodecomposition of the plastic. Most paper products are subject to decay due to the degradation of cellulose fibers into various acidic compounds. Aluminum is stable enough, forming a tough oxide coating upon contact with air, but other metals, left untreated will begin to corrode. Some of the objects, such as the shoe, are rather complex, and their decay may be difficult to predict.

This all goes to say that working with piece, attempting to maintain it so future observers can enjoy it, might be a considerable challenge for those in the preservation field. Artistic materials are becoming increasingly diverse with the additions of substances like acrylic paints, and some contemporary artists, like the author of the work discussed to this point, shun classical materials to accentuate their point. Herein lies the problem: artists themselves may not understand the properties of the materials with which they work, and while they intend that their work to persist, their ignorance may only be setting up conservators for a future nightmare.

Another example of what I am attempting to get at here comes from an article from the Wall Street Journal, concerning the insuring of contemporary artwork. I do not have permission to reproduce the entire article here, so I will present the Abstract:

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Perishable Art: Investing In Works That May Not Last; Collectors Struggle to Preserve, Insure Contemporary Pieces; Replacing the Dead Shark
M.P. McQueen. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: May 16, 2007. pg. D.1

Abstract (Summary)
Some of the priciest contemporary works -- such as Damien Hirst's dead shark in a tank and Jeff Koons's 40-foot-high topiary puppy -- are made from perishable or delicate materials whose deterioration isn't covered by insurers. Other works, including pieces by Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, use synthetic paints that may not hold up over time and aren't easily restored; video art uses electronic and digital media that may stop working. Some installation pieces are even meant to disappear over time.

This week's auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York are expected to break records set last year for postwar and contemporary art with more than $1 billion in sales. Among the items up for grabs this week is Andy Warhol's 1963 "Green Car Crash," made of synthetic polymer and acrylic on linen, which has a presale estimate of $25 million to $35 million. A Damien Hirst painting in household paint on canvas with dead butterflies on it, "Untitled (Birthday Card Suite)," from 1999, is expected to sell for about half a million dollars.

"People love Marilyn Monroe's lipstick stain or fake studio blood and bullet holes in a John Wayne costume. It makes it a lot more personal and a lot more valuable," he said. "But if you come back as a collector and say the perspiration stain on Lily Munster's dress is now a giant hole and file a claim, they will say absolutely not. They don't insure for that type of deterioration." Mr. [JamesComisar] stores his items in a special temperature, humidity and light-controlled warehouse to prevent that kind of wear and tear."

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The article goes on to note that Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", the titular fourteen foot dead shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, was purchased by a billionaire investor for eight million dollars in 2005. However, the shark had not been properly treated, causing it to rot from the inside out, a process that soon became visible. The shark was eventually replaced at considerable cost, this time assistance being rendered by a curator at London's Natural History Museum.

Regardless of how one evaluates the artistic appeal of a dead shark, the artist's ignorance of his materials led ultimately to the unintended destruction and trivialization of his work. Although this is a dramatic example, there are numerous instances of a work of art that is intended to last ends up being a burden to conservators: the steel outdoor sculpture that collects water after each rain and rusts, the painting with highly photosensitive paint, the white stone garden sculpture that cannot be placed in a garden without rapidly deteriorating; these examples beg the question: should the preservation of ideas rest solely on the shoulders of conservators, curators, and librarians, or should the process begin with the artist? Should ethical codes, which are strong to being almost tangible in the conservation fields, be present in the minds of artists? Are artists who don't truly understand their media truly artists?

Postmodern philosophy may be somewhat to blame here. Postmodernism seems to be a prevalent world view in artistic circles, which would make sense with its subjective and personal view of ethics. But without a central core of professional ethics, ambivalence towards anything except raw, chaotic, decadent, and ultimately indifferent artistic expression would seem to be the ultimate terminus.

I started this article by raising the concern of the decay of contemporary artwork. I will end it by raising the concern of Postmodernity as an ethical system. Although postmodernism's philosophical critiques likely hold much value, its rejection of many ethical standards may result in the loss cultural institutions to pass to our descendants. Much of our identity as modern humans stems from the knowledge of the past; and to leave future generations without a cultural heritage, good or bad, seems a crime indeed.


Just to reinforce the purpose of this blog...I really cannot substantiate any this. Some research has been performed, but this is really just a repository of half-baked ideas. If I bungled my facts, cause offense, or say something that befits a total jerk, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Textile Conservation: First Impressions

Since it is fresh in my mind, I thought I might take the opportunity to address the conservation of textiles, at least my first impressions thereof. The text that follows is adapted from a short reflection paper that I wrote for my introductory conservation class.

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The study of textile conservation would appear to be far more pessimistic than the other divisions. Due to the inherent nature of textiles themselves, many of the treatments mentioned in both the text, Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection, and the lecture presented by Angela Duckwall, appear to be less concerned with helping the textile endure than attempting to reduce the stresses that result from normal display. The difference in these statements may be subtle; but whereas, for instance, with a metal sculpture, the application of a varnish may aide in the sculpture’s long term preservation and allow it to be more readily displayed, in the case of a textile, it seem that preparing an object for display simply increases the rate of decay, the trade off being that the textile would be lessened in its interpretive or aesthetic value if display was not possible.

The question of displaying textiles would therefore seem a more pointed ethical issue than the display of other media. A hypothetical example might be of a historically notable textile, the display of which would aide in understanding and relevancy of the history it represents to its viewers. However, the mere act of the textile’s display may result in decay that would deprive future generations of the ability to find the relevance experienced by contemporary viewers. However, this in itself provides a problem: if such a textile was locked in a dark room, it might last somewhat longer, but lack viewers to influence. Therefore, display would seem the better option of the two scenarios presented.

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Therefore, I ask you, my readers, what do you think? Textiles by their nature, are delicate and prone to decay, but their display is could be important for furthering public knowledge of material culture, something which cannot be achieved by locking them away in dark rooms only accessible by researchers. What should be the proper balance of strict preservation and display? Should some pieces be strictly preserved? Or perhaps I am wrong, and there are ways to enjoy the best of both worlds, like many of the other disciplines in conservation.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In Order to Justify My Title

I will preface this post by saying: This idea is half-baked, and only published upon stiff encouragement by friends. Take it with a grain of salt.

Several days ago, I happened across a book at a local Barnes and Noble written by the noted oceanographer, Robert Ballard; being a childhood hero of mine, I naturally could not resist leafing through the very spectacular (if morbid) pictures contained therein. One sight that has always struck me, and I believe a great many other people is that of the lonely bronze telemotor standing on The Titanic's destroyed bridge. Yet, beyond it being a ghostly reminder of what was, it also presents a problem for the casual viewer: why is it barely corroded, when the rest of the ship is disintegrating?

Now the simple answer is that "Bronze oxidizes more slowly than steel", which is true, to a point. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, both exhibit higher resistance to corrosion than iron. However, this may be just part of the answer. Copper exhibits an oligodynamic effect, or a tendency to be anti-microbial. Now, a large cause of decay on the Titanic are iron metabolising bacteria, which form structures called Rusticles, which are actually large colonies of the iron devouring bacteria.

It would seem plausible, therefore, that there is not a copper metabolising analogue simply because the surface of copper is too inhospitable for single celled organisms to effectively use. Interestingly enough, copper anologues to iron do exist in nature; the first that comes to mind is the Horseshoe Crab, whose blood, instead of containing the iron chelate hemoglobin, contains only the copper chelate hemocyanin.

This is not a complete thought, but interesting, none the less. Some questions that remain include: if copper chelates are not toxic to crabs, why can bacteria not adapt to use copper metal? Is the blood of horseshoe crabs also oligodynamic? Is the toxicity of copper truly the reason why bacteria do not metabolise it? These are questions I have yet to be able to answer, but with ample digging through journals, answers may present themselves. However, even though this idea is not complete, it does show, in some sense, my interest, and why I am trying to keep a blog: the art of history, and the sciences of chemistry, biology, and physics are deeply linked, and by pursuing history through the sciences, one may encounter secrets that otherwise would have been obscured.