Asymmetrical boundaries of judgment and expertise created around oil-paintings at MoMA 

Asymmetrical boundaries of judgment and expertise created around oil-paintings at MoMA 

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he aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active, constitutive, and causally effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. It does so through an empirical exploration of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes the museum as an “objecti- fication machine” that endeavo...

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... their popularization in the fifteenth century, oil paintings have become the canonical medium of fine art as well as the “ museum object ” par excellence. Although simple at first sight, oil paintings are indeed complex artifacts composed of an interlocking system of different layers of paint, binding agents, varnish, frames, and linings, which are always “ on the move ” as these elements interact with each other and with the changing environment in which these paintings are placed (see Fig. 2). As a result of the ongoing interactions among their constituents, oil paintings typically undergo physical transformations that can potentially change their original aesthetic form and compromise their status as meaningful and valuable art objects. For the most part, these transformations tend to be modest and controllable within contemporary art museums. One of the reasons for this is to be found within oil itself. Oil is generally a stable medium — highly resistent to environmental variations and color changes over time, what generally results in a long life expectancy for these paintings. This, however, is not always the case. Some oil paintings suffer from what is called “ inherent vice, ” which results from the incompatibility of materials the artist used in the production of the painting, and which has the effect of producing an irreparable process of degradation. In addition to this, oil paintings have not always behaved as docile objects. Prior to the twentieth century, oil paintings in museum collections tended to behave as unruly objects. The lack of electricity, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC systems) in museums resulted in highly unstable and variable environments in which oil paintings could not be easily stabilized, and resulted in reduced life spans for these artworks. To prevent this, new technical solutions and practices of conservation have been developed over the last centuries, such as the varnishes applied to isolate their painted surfaces from fluctuating environments and airborne particles, the lining techniques developed to prevent the ongoing mechanical contraction and expansion of the canvas, or the different conservation techniques deployed to repair damaged paint layers. The development of HVAC systems over the last century has enabled museums to engineer highly controlled environments specifically designed to create the particular climatic conditions that these paintings require for their display and stabilization. The combination of all these elements has transformed oil paintings from relatively unruly objects into one of the most stable and “ docile ” artworks within contemporary art museums. Thus, when I describe oil paintings as docile I am not referring to an inherent material property of these artworks. Rather, I am referring to aparticular and contingent accomplishment that was made possible thanks to the physical endurance of the material constituents of these paintings (such as oil), the various preservations techniques developed around them, and the artificial physical and climatic environments that have been created over time to stabilize them. The stability of these paintings has several consequences for the museum. One consequence is that, unlike more fragile artworks such as photography or prints, oil paintings can be on display for long periods of time, a property that is essential to confer durability to the institutional narratives built upon them. At MoMA, for example, the ability to have iconic oil paintings permanently on view, like Picasso ’ s Demoiselles D ’ Avignon , Van Gogh ’ s Starry Night , or the French impressionists, has played a decisive role in the popularization of these artworks and in the creation of the master narrative that has come to define the canon of modern art, as well as MoMA ’ s pivotal position within it (Lorente 2011). More importantly, the stability of these paintings has been crucial to define the organizational structure of the museum as well as the dynamics of meaning reproduction that take place within it. One of the places in which this becomes evident is in the definition of the boundaries separating conservators and curators, two of the main agents involved in the process of meaning reproduction at MoMA. Curators and conservators occupy very different roles and power positions within most fine arts museums. Broadly defined, the role of curators has been that of discovering and selecting the best art of the day to bring it into the public eye. Although initially relatively silent figures operating in the back of museums, caring and managing the collections, curators have become over the last decades one of the most visible and powerful gatekeepers in the art world. As exhibitions became the standard medium for the representation and display of art over the course of the twentieth century, curators gained the power to sanction and promote artist careers by controlling their access to the legitimating space of the museum (Altshuler 1994). This is particularly evident at MoMA, whose powerful curators have played a central role in promoting and integrat- ing different avant-garde movements, like abstract expressionism or minimalism, into the canon of Western art (Kantor 2003). At MoMA, curators have acquired over time an unquestionable monopoly over aesthetic judgment and meaning as well as over the production of institutional narratives. Not only do they design and produce exhibitions, but they also control the official discourse of the museum through the production of exhibition catalogues and scholarly articles. This renders curators pivotal in the power structure of the museum, which ultimately depends on them to attract audiences, to define its institutional narratives as well as its overall position within the art world. The central position of curators contrasts with that of conservators. The field of conservation, which developed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, has been only partially incorporated into the formal structure of most fine arts museums. 6 In the case of MoMA, the museum operated without a conservation department for almost three decades. It was only in 1958, after a devastating fire destroyed several masterpieces, including two recently acquired Monet ’ s Water Lilies , that MoMA decided to establish a conservation department. Essentially, the mission of the conservation department is to preserve the physical integrity of the artworks constituting the collection. Thus, if curators can be described as the custodians of the aesthetic integrity of artworks, then conservators can be described as the custodians of their material integrity. This distinction not only draws a specific division of labor but also presupposes a specific hierarchy of knowledge at MoMA. Unlike curators, who are typically trained in art history, conservators are formally trained as natural scientists with ample expertise about the chemical and mechanical properties of materials. This scientific knowledge legitimates conservators to produce scientific judgments about the material aspects of artworks, but not about their meaning. A conservator is entitled to say, for example, that a painting shows a significant loss of its green hue as a result of an undue exposure to light, but she is not entitled to assess whether or how such loss affects the meaning of the artwork. Only curators are formally entitled to make those judgments, as they are seen as the only legitimate interpreters of aesthetic meaning within the museum. Furthermore, any conservation decision, like removing the yellowed varnish of an old painting, cleaning the surface of an artwork, or inpainting (i.e., filling damaged areas of a painting), is first submitted to the aesthetic judgment of the curator, who has the ultimate authority to decide whether the proposed conservation treatment compromises the intended meaning of the work and its overall aesthetic integrity. The physical stability of most oil paintings has been crucial in creating and institutionalizing a hierarchical division of labor and knowledge between curators and conservators. Their stability offers very few opportunities to collapse the gap separating conservation and curatorial practices and knowledge ’ s. A major painting like Picasso ’ s Demoiselles D ’ Avignon only requires conservation treatment every 20 or 30 years, and these treatments rarely amount to more than routine and mechanical operations that do not compromise its outward aesthetic form. For example, when the Demoiselles was last treated at MoMA in 2004, conservators only had to clean the dirt that had accumulated since it was last treated in 1963, remove a layer of varnish, undo some conservation treatments done in 1950, and fill in some minor paint losses. The routine nature of these operations meant that the conservator in charge of the project did not have to perform jobs that could compromise the aesthetic form of the Demoiselles , or its meaning, which enabled him to avoid negotiations or confrontations with the chief curator overseeing the conservation process. In this sense, oil paintings enable a relatively peaceful coexistence between conservators and curators by stabilizing a peculiar hierarchy of knowledge and power in which conservators are subsumed under curators, who retain the monopoly over aesthetic decisions and meaning-making processes (see Fig. ...

Citations

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