When I first started working as a conservation technician at Stanford I was surprised by how regularly an ostensibly subjective question was asked of me. My supervisor would often ask: “Do the sculptures look good?” or “Does anything look particularly bad?” While it was no surprise that she was concerned with how the sculptures looked, the fact that she was relying on my judgment of what “good” meant initially shocked me. Certainly there is some gray area between the aesthetics of “good” and “bad.” And should the lowly Technician be making this call? (My previous post “On Restoration” deals with some other gray areas in conservation.)
When I was given the mandate to keep the sculpture looking good, I playfully racked my brain for different aesthetic theories that the museum could be following with its maintenance program. Where in the history of aesthetics could the museum’s judgment of taste lie? Perhaps Plato’s theory of ideal types was appropriate? If so, all I needed to do was find the ideal sculpture that they were aspiring towards and then make everything look like it. Or perhaps the museum was a Kantian institution? In this case I would need to clean the sculptures until the artwork produced a harmonious play between my faculties of “understanding” and “imagination.” Of course, these approaches were too formulaic and idealistic for the practical responsibility of maintenance. However, applying the great thinkers of Western aesthetics to my rather simple task of cleaning kept my spirits high.
Over the course of the past year I have slowly come to terms with what good and bad mean in the context of Stanford’s outdoor collection. Viewing the sculptures over the long term proved to be the only way for me to grasp when certain works needed to be cleaned or waxed or intervened on in any way. This accumulation of experiences is the fundamental rubric I use for understanding how the aesthetics of each artwork is to be judged. In other words, how “good” it looks depends on how “good” it has previously looked.
Ironically, this approach to maintenance does fit into a philosophical framework: it is phenomenological. Because previous experiences of the sculptures are necessary to successfully judge a sculpture as looking good or bad, the experiencing subject assumes ultimate responsibility. One cannot defer to an overarching aesthetic theory; the knowledge needed for judgement is produced within the mind and perhaps can be understood as embodied. Wouldn’t Merleau-Ponty be proud? Here, memory and immediate experience work together to produce a dialectic understanding of “good.” Even though how the sculpture once was can never be recreated and how the sculpture currently looks is inevitably lacking, “good” is necessarily defined somewhere between the two.
What’s especially interesting about this belief in the purpose of maintenance is its inherent implications for our beliefs in art more generally. To be concerned with whether or not art looks good implies that the “goodness” of its visual appearance is a necessary component to its function, as if bad looking art lost some of its “artness.”
Understanding the state of condition of a work of art takes a lifetime of looking. The relative state of good condition today may be supported by condition reports, past photographs, and others’ memories but ultimately the technician or conservator who makes decisions regarding preservation needs of an object develops judgment from personal experience and an internalization of all those viewings. The “lowly technician’s” judgment and responsibility to a work is supported by ongoing discussion with curators, conservators, and others on what “good” means. But is something inevitably “lacking”? There is a richness in the narrative of a weathered or worn surface, the history of what an object has been subjected to that fleshes out one’s reading of the good and what we are led to accept as good looking “artness” and perhaps what we are led to acquire for our collections.
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