Should artworks last forever?

The Western world is seen as a throw-away society, where everything has a use-by date. But what of the art world?


The question of whether an artwork should last forever seemed simple at the outset but as I dug deeper, the more complex it became. There were so many aspects to the question that trying to establish parameters was next to impossible. In order to begin somewhere I simplified things and speculated from the point of view of the practitioner, the gallery, the collector and the general public, then reduced the options even further by looking only at painting, drawing and sculpture.

For the practitioner is it the longevity of the materials that contribute to an artwork lasting, or is the attitude of the artist more concerned with getting the idea out and creating a new work? Do artists really care if their artwork lasts, and should they?

For the initiated student who spent time in a decent art school, a methods and materials course would have been mandatory and the mantra would have centred around the difference between shoddy material and good quality material. It was all about “the obligation to produce artwork that will stand the test of time”.

Why would an artist want their work to be around for eternity? To be remembered for posterity, ego, the possibility of celebrity or a genuine concern for the work? So, does the artist consider the materials when executing an artwork?

Experimentation with untested materials has sometimes proven to be ultimately detrimental to the longevity of the artwork itself. One well-known example is JMW Turner who, as a practising artist, produced an outstanding number of artworks. But he was to say the least experimental and only too eager to try new products. His methodology resulted in many of his oil paintings deteriorating quickly and badly and his watercolours fading. Despite this, his works are still exhibited and held in high esteem. Perhaps his bequest to the British nation and in particular the Tate Britain placed an obligation on the gallery to preserve the works no matter what condition they were in. Lovers of art would embrace the work regardless of its condition and accept the works in their present state in the same way we accept antiques, warts and all.

‘Blue Poles’ by Jackson Pollock is another example. When the Australian government acquired the work there was the expected reaction from the general public about the sizable amount of taxpayers’ money paid and criticism of the work itself. That aside, the use of automotive enamel paint and other unknown materials has led to a degree of deterioration requiring restoration.

The use of biro in the production of drawings when exposed to light will fade beyond recognition. Poor quality coloured pencils will fade into nothing and poor quality materials won’t last the test of time. From an artist’s perspective, if the best materials available are used, should the artist then be forever responsible if the work implodes?

Knowledge is valuable when it comes to materials, what to put with what, or what will indeed interact with other materials. Artists who are aware of the chemistry can make a choice, so in that case at least the coupling of unlikely bedfellows ending in unpredictable results is solely on the head of the artist.

A number of Australian artists are renowned for their experiments with unstable materials that have resulted in tenuous works requiring substantial restoration. Elwyn Lynn, though not falling into that category, consciously put acrylics over oil-based paint to produce cracking. The effect forms part of the artwork’s aesthetic.

On the sculpture front, the longevity of works executed in plastics, silicones or fibreglass is still unknown and only time will reveal any problems.

How do artists value their own work? For me, I am conscious about using good materials but don’t value my work in a monetary sense. Rather I see it as part of a personal journey, and once the work is completed, it is time to move on to the next work as the doing has been done, and the exploration of an idea is complete. It’s a methodology I fully engage in. The appreciation and/or sale of the work are certainly a bonus, but are never central to the production of a work.

What are the expectations concerning the artwork of the gallery director, who represents the artist? I am sure they would not want shoddy artworks especially when they are selling these to their clientele. The reputation and credibility of the art dealer could be at stake and their longevity in the art world would be short lived.

Then there is the collector or investor who has just purchased a work of art. Their hard-earned money has been paid in good faith, so the expectation that the newly acquired work should last forever does not seem an unreasonable assumption.

However if something unforseen did happen, such as fading, cracking or darkening, could the patron return it to the gallery and demand a refund? Is a disclaimer, a use-by date or warranty ever discussed at the point of sale?

A recent case of this happening was that of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum. Odd’s experimental nature led to various materials and unknown elements reacting with each other and rejecting each other’s company, resulting in a number of paintings falling apart. Compensation was sought by the purchasers in the way of refunds or a complete redoing of the work. It was a nightmare for all concerned.

The last part in this very limited discussion is the perception of the uninitiated, the general public. For the majority, whether an artwork lasts or not is most likely the furthest thing from their minds. Generally the worth of an artwork would not be appreciated. That is not to suggest that anyone is ignorant, but for most, the art world is an indulgence and so far removed from real life.

Many years ago on the outskirts of Longreach in Queensland, I was installing a series of artworks in the bush, when I was bailed up by a local, who stopped his car to ask what I was doing. I tried to explain, but stumbled when calling it art. Unconvinced, he did take the opportunity to demand that I explain why the government spent “over a million bucks on that bloody Blue Holes”!

I corrected him over the title and could only justify the purchase as an investment and that the work was now valued at more than triple what the government originally paid. Not convinced, he left and returned later with his mates to laugh at me, and what I had termed as art. I seem to recall the term wanker being bandied around.

The average person on the streets will look firstly at the price tag and react in a way that is based on a relative lack of knowledge of the work, its origin and its historical significance. But it is not only the general public who have an opinion on artworks and their worth and preservation.

At a conservation convention I attended several years ago the conservators were very disparaging about artists. According to them, we the artists were dummies, and if it weren’t for them, the conservators, the artworks would be lost. According to them, they were our saviours. A retort from an incensed artist was “if it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t have a job”.

So, who decides if an artwork is worth restoring should it show signs of decay or deterioration? It would be mandatory for an artwork purchased for significant public collections to be maintained and watched over. In the past artworks were exposed to the usual enemies such as mould, foxing, insects and exposure to the elements. Particularly works on paper.When the silverpoints of Leonardo were exhibited they had to be viewed in limited light. So who expects the artwork to last forever and what are the expectations? Is there really an assumption that art should just last forever like some magical object, a kind of Holy Grail?

In the end the answer to these questions must come down to the individual, what we value and what our perception of art is. There have been many great artworks that have been lost over time because of wars, natural disasters and human intervention.

How do we value artworks and measure that? As a society do we hold up artworks as representing milestones of human achievement, moments in time, historically? But if they crumbled into dust tomorrow would we mourn their passing and live on the memory of past sojourns to the galleries of the world and be grateful for the time we had together, or would a post card sent from a relative on a trip to the Louvre suffice?

Is it the actual artefact or the idea of it? Is it about the cost of the work, the time spent producing it, the money spent buying it and owning it? So many questions, and so little space to even scratch the surface.

But in the long run, does it really matter? I am sure everyone will have an opinion.


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