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September 25, 2003

Going, going

Courtesy of artsjournal.com, my invaluable host, a story from The Art Newspaper about a problem rarely considered by anyone other than museum conservators:

All colour photographs fade. According to best estimates, the average colour print has a shelf life of about 200 years. Now, in Basel, Switzerland, the Cesar Foundation, chaired by Claudio Cesar, an American photography collector who runs a company that specialises in coloured glass is trying to reverse this deterioration....

The problem is that the materials of c-print colour photography, chemical reactants which create the image, are complex organic compounds which are unstable and decompose over a long period. Unlike the constituents of black and white photographs or oil paints, the ingredients of c-prints continue to undergo chemical reactions in perpetuity rather than stabilise....

The Cesar Foundation is proposing a two-part solution. First, photographs should be stored in digital form, so that a new copy can be printed when the original fades. Second, the foundation's scientists have invented a software programme and device that scans non-digital, "normal" colour photographs which have aged, and then prints off a version which restores the original colour.

(To read the whole thing, go here.)

I almost hate to bring up Frank Lloyd Wright again, but reading this story made me think of Fallingwater, the Wright house whose conservators have had to work fearfully hard to keep from collapsing. Commenting on this in an earlier post, I asked, "Is a great painting less great because it makes use of innovative but chemically unstable pigments that change over time?" I had at the back of my mind the awkward but undeniable fact--astutely pointed out by the neo-Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson in his remarkable little book Painting and Reality--that all paintings are evanescent, due in the fullness of time first to fade, then to disintegrate. This basic fact of art is one nobody likes to admit, much less think about. A similar discomfort is now inspiring choreographers and their companies to struggle mightily (and honorably, though not always successfully) to preserve dances far beyond what once would have been their normal life span. It has also led museum conservators to engage in heroic acts of preservation--and, not infrequently, in ill-considered acts of mutilation.

Exactly what are such folk trying to preserve? Sometimes it's all too clear that a collector's interests are fiduciary--that he wants to maintain the value of an object for which he may have paid dearly. More often, though, I think their intentions are reasonably pure. If we think a house or painting or photograph or ballet is beautiful, we want it with us always. But the catch is that the more pieces of the past we succeed in preserving, the less space and time we have in which to display and contemplate the present. Too many lovers of art live exclusively in the past. I understand the temptation--I feel it myself--but it strikes me that we have an obligation to keep one eye fixed in the moment, and that becomes a lot harder to do when you're pulling a long, long train of classics of which the new is merely the caboose. Needless to say, this is a problem without a solution. The only thing you can do is fiddle with the proportions and try to get them right, or at least righter.

For what it's worth, I currently own 13 pieces of visual art, all but two of them works on paper--etchings, lithographs, screenprints. Of these, six are by living artists, two of whom I know. I won't say that's a perfect average, but I do think I've put at least some of my money where my mouth is.

Posted September 25, 2003 12:04 PM

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