My paper explores the philosophical debate between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism, and the how this debate changes the way conservation of modern and contemporary art is approached.
In the 1990’s, it was proposed that an artist’s intent is only important in the creation of an artwork, and cannot be applied to that work once it is finished. This anti-intentionalist argument was quickly challenged by intentionalists, who insisted not only is the artist’s intent relevant but it should be closely examined for the true meaning behind the artwork.
This debate was significant in that it opened people’s eyes to the issues of understanding art and the criteria we use to define it. This criteria, of course, is crucial for conservators because without it they have no direction from which to work. We have learned this year that the intent of the artist is one of the most crucial components to conservation, and have seen many examples where a conservator researched the artist in-depth or even worked with them first-hand to conserve a piece. But is this always necessary?
After reading Andrew Thorn’s article on indigenous sites in Australia and seeing how conservators were able to effectively conserve the site without understanding the intent of the artist, I was curious to find out what they had needed to know in order to preserve the integrity of the site, and whether these criteria could also be applied to contemporary art.
Looking at two case studies (Damien Hirst and Petah Coyne), I was able to conclude that it wasn’t the intent of the artist that was crucial to conservation, but rather the intent of the art itself (defined as “artistic intent”) and the role of the artist to protect that intent. The debate between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism allowed me to define intent in a way that made the subtle differences between these intentions and roles clear;
Damien Hirst is an example of an artist who appears to have no real intent with the creation of his pieces. Intent, however, can be defined from a biographical standpoint or from the importance of materials. It has been suggested that Hirst only uses his art for fame or money, and while this could be the motivation that drives him we also see an emphasis on expression through certain mediums and the mastery of manipulating those materials. These are Hirst’s intentions, and while they may be important to the creation of his art they are not what his audience is supposed to focus on. Hirst’s artwork takes on its own intent, and viewers are left to understand his work in their own way. As seen from his conservation of
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, Hirst takes on an advisory capacity for the rehabilitation of the artwork, replacing the tools but still leaving the audience to determine the deeper implications of the shark for themselves.
On the opposite end of the contemporary art spectrum is Petah Coyne, whose strict tendency to drastically change her pieces suggests a very specific intent for the message of her pieces. This need to manipulate her pieces, however, does not stem from her intent as an artist, but – like Hirst – rather as the handyman who ensures the artwork has the proper tools to convey its own message. Like Hirst, Coyne’s intent lies in the manipulation of materials. She has said herself that often she has no idea what she’s trying to convey in a piece even after it’s finished, so it is clear that the viewer is left to their own devices when it comes to understanding the specific artistic intent of the piece. The general direction that this artistic intent takes is the dialogue between the artwork and its surroundings and how people understand that dialogue for themselves. When the location changes, the message loses a key component to its transmission, and it is up to Coyne therefore to change the piece to fit its surroundings. This has nothing to do with her original intent, but rather the intent of the art and that of the viewer.