Sunday, March 28, 2010

How Do We Know An Artist's Intent? -- Ashton

Davenport’s “Impossible Liberties” brings out many of the important questions about artist’s intentions for their work in their lifetime and beyond, especially in regards to contemporary artwork in which the intent or concept is more important than the actual material object. As in the instance of Duane Hanson’s Sunbather, permission was given to replace the suit, swim cap and objects with completely different pieces. To some this may make the object entirely different, but to the artist as long as the work transmits the same message and original idea it is the same work. Such alterations, often times not even carried out by the artist, can be much more drastic, such as cutting the entire piece in half in order to fit in the space available. In the case of Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death to Someone Living,” Vogel explains how the actual shark was replaced with a new one and used a different method to preserve its appearance. Adrian Piper notes that we would be bothered if a Michelangelo foot was removed and put on a different part of the sculpture, and yet replacing entire objects, moving around pieces of the work and other alterations do not disturb the public as much. Is this because contemporary art is more concerned with original intent than the art itself? Is it because the work is done from the hands of the artist himself? Or is it because no great amount of time has elapsed since the work was created?

The issues of artist’s intent are important to establish before an artist’s passing. Joyce Hill Stoner’s article emphasizes the attention to detail that is required in order to fully present an artist’s intent for his or her works. Even in the case of Whistler, who left extensive records, as well as lifetime patterns, for how his art should be displayed, framed, restored and travelled, there are still many controversial questions about his artwork. Where do the intents and requests of an artist end and the judgment of the conservator and curator take over?

As Fred Sandback responded in Davenport’s piece, “When do you decide that the artwork is no longer carrying the ideas? I think rather that the work of art is an idea. Over time it may become a different idea.” While this can certainly refer to a painting simply “mellowing” over time as the varnish acts on the colors, it can also refer to Hirst replacing the entire shark from his work. Is there a difference between these changes?



  1. In last week’s discussion, Professor Balachandran asked when is it the “hand of the artist” that we value, and when is the “idea” being transmitted more important? When it comes to contemporary art, in an abstract way I think it is always the hand of the artist that is valued, even if that hand is not literal – in other words, if artists still see their pieces as their own even when changed, then their approval of the changes acts as the original “hand” (and the preservation of the idea/intent is the effect of this approval). In this way, the hand of the artist and the intent are much more closely tied in contemporary art.

    This seems to be the case with Hirst, who acknowledges the debate between intent and idea in his own piece; “Artists and conservators have different opinions about what’s important: the original artwork or the original intent…I think it should be intention. It’s the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time to come” (Vogel).

    I think this does reflect a preference for original intent over the art itself. Hirst confirms this in his discussion of preservation fluid, saying, “they actually thought I was using formaldehyde to preserve an artwork for posterity, when in reality I use it to communicate an idea” (Bracker).

    Ashton mentioned Piper as an artist who agrees with the fluidity of contemporary art, but it is clear that he also has some extremely rigid ideas about his pieces. Take “What It’s Like, What It Is; No. 2”: “the experience of not being able to fine tune this piece…was so awful that I never brought myself to actually go to the spaces”, Piper says (Davenport). The importance of his exhibit didn’t lie so much in the material itself (Piper tells us “it’s fine to say the work is going to deteriorate over time. That it’s going to look different and maybe shabbier…”) as in his authority over the piece and how it was positioned. In other words, for Piper it’s not as important that his hand constructed the piece so much as it be his hand that constructs the set-up each time so that his ideas are transmitted properly. Whistler, whose intent extended beyond the piece itself to its surroundings was the same way. Yet, even though these artist’s seem to have much more rigid ideas about the hand of the artist their pieces still have the same fluidity between hand and intent the Hirst’s do.

    I don’t think this is really a question of time, though. I think time really only becomes an issue once the artist is dead and can no longer be reached for input. Like Jean Arp – even though we know how he felt about shiny sculptures, many art dealers found this shiny, “modern” surface to be more profitable and therefore removed the patina from his bronzes. Many of these pieces were only viewed as shiny statues, and therefore make the surface a significant part of the ideas they transmit. As Arp is now dead, it is impossible to know how he would have preferred to proceed with preservation and display, and while other people who knew him can give us his original opinion, we have nothing to suggest how to proceed in light of this twist of events. It boils down to whether Arp would stick to his original hand, or whether he would find it better to preserve his ideas in the way his viewers preferred.

  2. I think that Modern or Post-Modern art is unusual in that observers do not find it as troubling if the art has been altered and parts have been replaced after it was made. When the artist is alive, or leaves detailed instructions on conservation, it makes it relatively easy to make changes. I don't think that the amount of time that has passed makes any difference. Instead, it matters that the effects of time, such as deterioration, are slowed as much as possible. The difference between a Michaelangelo and a Hirst also has to do with the materials being used. We know how oil paintings age over time, but how is anyone supposed to anticipate what happens to a shark in formaldehyde? The issues presented by these unusual materials means that newer art must have a special consideration that is different from older works. There is no need to "touch up" an oil painting, but there may be a need to replace a deteriorating shark.

  3. When considering the hand of the artist, I believe it is still significant for us to distinguish between literal, physical hands-on work and ideas or plans being carried out by others. I do agree that the concept or intent of a work may be much more important to many contemporary artists. But as Sol LeWitt has established in his writings, a single artist might prefer different conservation approaches to be employed even within his own oeuvre--LeWitt has authored both reproducible conceptual works as well as unique pieces made by his own hand. With contemporary art, it seems that works in need of conservation must be approached on a case-by-case basis with a huge emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration because the conceptual issues (not to mention the unusual materials) are much more complex. Reading the artist's personal accounts in "Impossible Liberties" and the other readings for this week show that artistic intent can vary widely from artist to artist, artwork to artwork, and sometimes even from day to day depending on the breeze.

    I still question which stakeholder should hold the most influence over the treatment of a work. What if upholding an artist's intent violates the conservator's code of ethics?

  4. Davenport’s article raises some very interesting points. She questions the definition of art and who has the authority over it. This ties in to the value debate of concept or technique. Phoebe Adams says that in the 20th century ideas are valued more than technique. After the readings this week I tend to agree with Adams’ point of view. Adrian Piper declares that we would be troubled by the removal and alternate placement of a foot in one of Michelangelo’s works. The reason for our discomfort would be that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s work comes from the work’s aesthetics and his technique. Moving a foot in such a scenario would disturb that aesthetic value. The impact of contemporary art, on the other hand, comes from the distinctive concept of each piece. We have read of examples like Sunbather, What it’s like, What it is; No.2, and The Physical Impossibility of Death to Someone Living where changes in size, shape or materials were acceptable. Replacing the shark or switching a 70’s can of Tab with a Diet Coke, didn’t disturb its conceptual value. Piper’s inability to control the setup of the exhibit, however, affected the art’s ability to transmit and communicate the artist’s exact vision to the viewers.
    In regards to Hill Stoner’s article and Ashton’s question “Where do the intents and requests of an artist end and the judgment of the conservator and curator take over?” I think Phoebe Adams, Kiki Smith and Petah Coyne make good points. Adams and Smith make the similar point that once someone else owns the art work, the owner can do what he wants. The other thing to consider is public vs. private collections. If a museum owns the piece, I think they have an obligation to meet the reasonable wishes of the artist, although “reasonable” is a very vague term. Those who own art in private collection, do have the right to do whatever they want, however unethical and destructive their choices may be. Coyne describes her experience with a curator who almost made her compromise her beliefs and processes with her own art. If Coyne wants to cut her pieces in half and if Whistler had documentation of what he wanted for his art, those wishes should be followed to the conservator’s best ability. Of course, these wishes can’t always be met, but when they can, the artist’s desires should not be overlooked, even if we don’t agree with them.

    1. lovely article and blog spot too.

  5. There are many reasons which explain why the public is not as disturbed by the alteration of modern art as they would be by older masterpieces. While some older works address contemporary issues, ideas, and individuals, the vast majority depict pictures with some cultural resonance and artistic style that will last for numerous generations. However, the principle behind and the reaction to modern art is as important to this genre as the subject and materials. Thus, one would think that conservators would need to rely on the artist more. In the case of the Sunbather, the artist was trying to project a certain mood and commentary about American consumerism which did not depend on the exact replica of the bathing suit, snacks, and magazines. It was interesting that the artist changed the 1970s publications and sodas to more recent equivalents. Certain exhibitions are meant to be sensational like the shark and capture the viewers' attention spans for about that long albeit the fact that Hist desperately wanted to preserve his work. There are more living artists, surviving documents, and related friends and family which can expose the creators' intentions such as with Whistler, but sometimes the varying versions of intent and misconstruction of facts can confuse and pose greater difficulties for conservators. Perhaps, one of the most significant reasons why modern art can be adapted is that the public has not grown attached to or even knows about most of the pieces and artists. The art has not existed in a particular manner for a significantly extended period, and modern art itself is still seen as a fluid and provoking category of art.

  6. Novik:
    Similarly to many of the issues we have discussed, the issue of the artist's role in cleaning and conservation is very case specific. The contemporary artists mentioned in this weeks readings seem to value their original intent over their original creation. Many of these pieces value their message before their appearance, so if the piece continues to transmit the original message and evoke the original feelings that the artist intended, why shouldn't conservators replace parts as needed? In the cases where the artist is still alive and willing to work on conservation efforts for their work, the piece should not be viewed as changing, but growing and evolving like the organism should.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Carambelas: I keep thinking about one possible authority not discussed in the texts and briefly mentioned above by Cummings: the owner. (Please note that I’m trying to play devil’s advocate more than express a personal view, so please do not detest me for this remark.) In general the owner (here I mean an individual, not an institution) of an item is the authority concerning its “wellbeing,” so what makes artwork different? When a person returns an item to the maker for “conservation” (i.e. repairs) it’s typically because the item no longer serves its given function. For example, when your camera is broken you send it back to the manufacturer for repairs. But art is not functional (in the traditional sense), it’s aesthetic. Why seek an outside authority for something owned for personal enjoyment? Shouldn’t the individual have control over the conservation process? Let’s say, for example, I own a painting by Whistler, who preferred the varnish on his works be redone often to maintain the work’s true color, and its varnish has yellowed. If I like the artwork with the yellowed look, why should I follow the guidelines set out by the artist? While re-varnishing the work might lengthen its lifespan, why would I care since my main concern is that I be able to enjoy the work (not future generation)? Selfish as this may be, just remember it’s my property.

  9. why does everyone write such long comments??? i agree with article.