Lately I’ve been preoccupied with loss, including the loss of artworks. Every work is the product of one moment, and as such it lives in the here and now. But since an artwork is also a thing it can be lost, damaged or destroyed. In the long run most of them are. Each moment is good just as it is, but some of them turn out to be really special, and when those are lost it’s a shame. The Proustian view is that there’s always plenty more to come, and I fully agree, but still, it’s only human to be attached to things at least a little bit. I guess the loss of my own works is in the back of my mind, and that was probably more upsetting than I admitted to myself at the time.
No work of art will last forever, most of them have already died, and they are so vulnerable it’s amazing that so many are still with us—that just about summarizes it. Needless to say the greatest danger any work of art faces is us. Some years ago the art historian James Beck made a pretty convincing case that the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel was a desecration; worse in fact, a real act of destruction. The strongest points I came away with were first, the utter arrogance of assuming that we, at this moment, have any idea what the work looked like, or was supposed to look like, when it was made. The very concept of “restoration” is flawed. Restore what? The work has a life in time, a history that naturally includes aging, damage, all kinds of changes, and we should accept that. Could you be “restored” to the moment of birth? Not without losing everything. I might even say that it’s the changes in time that keep the initial moment alive, at least for artworks. His second most compelling point was what’s the rush? So the dirt could be cleaned off, and we think we know better how to do that now, but in the future we’ll probably know even better. Again, leave time to its workings.
I like the Sistine Chapel, but I can be a little complacent about what’s been done to it, mainly because I like the Pauline Chapel better, and that’s not in any danger, as it is private. The popularity of certain works, meaning that millions of people want to see them for no real reason, is already a kind of destruction anyway. The works that inspire real love are always lesser known, so I was more upset to hear that the same cleaning crew has gone to work on the Arena Chapel in Padua. That piece has much more importance, aesthetic and historical, than Michelangelo’s tourist attraction in the Vatican, and if Michelangelo himself were here today he would agree. I don’t think it needs any improvement, and if it’s damaged that’s a real heartbreaker.
Modern art knows how to protect itself. The overall level is roughly the same. Fewer really special moments, but every moment good.