Striving For a Dubious Immortality
This problem in applied curatorial theory, based on an actual event that happened in 1972, is from Puzzles about Art: An Aesthetics Casebook, by Margaret P. Battin, John Fisher, Ronald Moore, and Anita Silvers:
A hammer-wielding attacker has damaged Michelangelo’s Pietà, destroying the Madonna’s nose, shattering her left arm, and chipping her eyelid and veil. You, as director of the Vatican Museum, must choose whether to preserve the sculpture as is or attempt to restore it. Suppose the options open to you are:
Do not alter the statue; do nothing to repair the damage other than clear away the rubble from the base of the statue.
Restore the nose, arm, eyelid, and veil as nearly as possible to their original appearance. You have available to you and your staff photographs and drawings of the Pietà made before the incident, as well as a plaster cast of the statue made 40 years ago, and you can use a polyester resin to reaffix any salvageable fragments and to form a ground-marble plaster where fragments are too small to be used. If your work is successful, the new parts will look just like the old, and viewers will be unable to tell which parts have been restored.
Working from photographs, drawings, and the plaster cast of the Pietà made prior to the incident, restore the nose, arm, eyelid, and veil to their original contours, but use a resin lighter (or darker) in color than the original marble so that the viewer knows which portions have been restored.
Restore the damaged portions with a material that is visually indistinguishable from the original (i.e., follow option 2), but incorporate a tracer dye into the resin to permit X-ray identification of the restored portions.
This problem, the authors say, is meant to bring forward our beliefs and assumptions about the values we place on artworks: are they important from an aesthetic standpoint, or from one of authenticity? Does western culture value the Pietà because it is aesthetically pleasant (beautiful, emotionally honest, or some other set of qualities)? Or is it valuable because it is a genuine work by that genius, Michelangelo? Depending on your answer to these questions, your response to the puzzle of what to do with the smashed Pietà will be very different.
But I am intrigued by how the authors of Puzzles about Art did not entertain a fifth possible course of action:
Discard Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Really, why is this not an acceptable option? We throw away broken furniture or tableware all the time. Where is it written that the works of artists must be kept for all eternity, even works that have become damaged?
Of course, we don’t want to just throw everything away as soon as it gets broken; that would be poor stewardship. We ought to at least try to fix things if we can. But what are we restoring when we repair the Pietà? If the statue’s value lies in its aesthetic qualities, then why go through the trouble of repairing the broken sculpture when the plaster cast is available to be put on display? If it’s value lies in its being made by Michelangelo, well—that’s gone and by definition can’t be restored. What I suspect is that the statue’s worth lies partly in its aesthetics, partly in its provenance, and, disturbingly, partly because it is an object of human culture, and modern humanism desires to preserve everything that has ever been touched by human hands.
For a secular culture, committed to a belief in the preeminence of matter and a ruthless naturalism, the fact is inescapable that all the works of the human mind will inevitably be lost to time, entropy, and the universe’s eventual heat death. But rather than falling into despair about the futility of any human effort, it seems that most cultural creators are settling for the dubious “immortality” of having their cultural artifacts preserved either in museums or in the collective memory of the species through constant reference and allusion. It is considered a good thing when some previously inconsequential artist or writer is saved from obscurity by having a distinguished critic, or even a graduate student, spend their time thinking and writing about them. And thus the idea is inconceivable that we would throw out any artwork which might, in the current cultural moment, be considered unimportant—who is to know that some future generation won’t find that artwork stimulating and engaging?
But surely we realize that it just isn’t possible to preserve every work of human ingenuity or art? Look at how much is piling up. Museums show only a percentage of their current holdings at any one time, and to read through the collected works of the canonical authors would take a lifetime—let alone reading the second- and third-string authors who have had their collected works and letters published. At some point, we have to start deciding what is worth keeping, and what is just clutter. There is nothing different from the way modern western culture treats the accumulated effusions of its writers, artists, and musicians, and the way a compulsive hoarder treats their collection of old magazines and newspapers.
But why is the culture acting this way?
In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
—Horace Smith, 1818
There is an existential dread, a fear that whatever we do, it will be swallowed in the great maw of the past and we will be forgotten, us and all of our works. This dread doesn’t only afflict individuals; whole cultures are faced with it. Since the renaissance, European culture has been looking at Greek and roman ruins and artifacts and wondering when it will be their turn to be reduced to rubble; a morbid line of thought that has only been exacerbated by the discovery of whole civilizations that have vanished without any written records at all. Will we share the same end? I think that part of the reason for the culture’s obsessive preservation of every fragment, every rough draft or pencil sketch by a noted artist, is a hope that something—anything—will survive the inevitable ruin of civilization. After all, we revere works from long-gone cultures and civilizations—even damaged ones.
That is the real reason the Pietà must either be saved as-is, or restored—because it might outlast our culture. And human-centered, secular culture can’t afford to give up that chance.