Several months ago, WJT Mitchell from the University of Chicago delivered a lecture and a follow-up seminar at the Stanford art department which discussed part of his book: What Do Pictures Want? In it, Mitchell speculates that the words idol, fetish and totem can be used to classify the entire spectrum of images: from the Mona Lisa to Ronald McDonald to your family’s holiday card. While the historical and philosophical twists and turns of his argument go beyond the scope of this blog post, the gist of his talk is thought provoking for art conservation. Indeed, I’ve been stewing over it for weeks now. By categorizing all images within the ostensibly magical spectrum of idol, fetish and totem, by proxy Mitchell endows all art works with a degree of agency. Intriguing! In the practice of art conservation we are used to thinking about what all the different agents of art – the artist, the curator, the public, etc. – would want for the object’s material condition. Very rarely – if ever – do we consider that the object itself might want something.
For instance, the word totem is derived from an American Indian word that means something like “member of my family” or “relative of mine.” Given the great lengths we go to in order to care for Western paintings and sculptures and the outrage and sense of loss that occurs when a so-called masterpiece is destroyed, perhaps “member of my family” is a more accurate definition for such objects than “work of fine art.”
The words fetish and idol can be used in similar ways. The former is traditionally defined as a object with magical properties while the latter implies a manifest, god-like entity. While I usually think of them as describing a foreign culture or distant time, could they also apply to Western art objects? Take the Poussin painting above as an example (the one on the far right). Perhaps my belief in its ability to teach us about the past makes it more of a “fetish” than a work of “fine art”? What is “fine art” anyway? And exactly how and why is it so good at teaching us about the past? It is after all an inanimate object that cannot actively teach anything in the literal sense of the word. In other words, perhaps my belief in Western painting’s ability to teach has more to do with my belief in its magical properties than in its distinguished history.
One of the primary benefits of thinking through art conservation with this triad is precisely that it approaches the art object from a non-Western perspective. It is very easy to assume that we know what art is and what we are supposed to do with it: we display it, look at it, enjoy it, learn from it, etc. And our conservation decisions stem from this understanding. However, following Mitchell, I want to suggest that these thoughts wash over a dynamism that is potentially at work within every art object. If art history has taught us anything in the past 50 years it is that the relationship between viewing subject and object viewed is far from static.
Such thought exercises are useful to art conservation because they help us elaborate our reasons and make us more aware of our actions. Our museum setting rose out of a Western tradition and continues to be dominated by Western objects and ideas. And if art conservation is to be a truly world wide practice we have to think through these exercises and honestly come to terms with them. By doing so future conservators might readily ask: Does the object want to be conserved or do we want to conserve it?