My friend Nicole sent me this WSJ article about a month ago – it’s about the sad reality that artworks made with nonarchival materials often don’t outlive the artist:
Art is sold “as is” by galleries or directly from artists. (Can you imagine Consumer Reports reviewing art?) Still, dealers hope to maintain the goodwill of their customers, and artists don’t want to develop a reputation for shoddy work. But it’s not fully clear what responsibility artists bear to their completed work, especially after it has been sold. That’s particularly the case for artists who purposefully use ephemeral materials in their art (bee pollen, banana peels, lard, elephant dung, leaves, mud, moss and newspaper clippings, to name just a few examples) — isn’t it the buyers’ responsibility to know what they are getting?
Mr. Nerdrum, who is known for formulating his own paints (and constructing his own frames), was contacted by Ms. Hamilton about the deteriorating painting, and he directed the dealer to offer the buyer her choice of other works by him at the gallery in the same price range. The collector, however, didn’t want any other Nerdrum painting in the gallery, so the artist rehired the same model he had used originally and painted the image anew. The matter took a year to resolve.
Sometimes a little conservation is sufficient; in other cases, like the one described here, or Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (the decaying shark in a tank), the artwork has to be completely recreated. When that happens, is the artwork still an “original”? Can it be the original, if the previous, damaged version is destroyed? And is the artist or gallery responsible for making the buyer whole when an artwork falls apart unexpectedly?
This question was revisited recently on Ed Winkleman’s blog, with an extensive (and sometimes rather obtuse) comment thread. In part, Winkleman says,
A dealer can always give a collector their money back, should a work disintegrate unexpectedly or unacceptably, and in doing so keep their reputation intact, but if word gets out, it’s the artist who stands to really suffer. Even by phrasing it that way (“if word gets out”), I’m betraying what I personally feel is indeed the responsibility of the artist to become an authority on just how archival their materials and/or processes are. Again, it’s fine if work has a short shelf-life (so long as that’s conceptually sound), but it’s not at all fine to my mind for an artist to say, essentially, “I don’t know…buy it at your own risk” (unless, again, that contingency is an integral part of the work). Especially when experimenting with new materials, accurate information is IMO the responsbility of both the artist and the dealer. What it costs to get an conservator to research the longevity of a piece is money well spent when the consequences can be irreparable harm to one’s reputation.
I agree with Winkleman. An artwork can be necessarily ephemeral. An artist should be free to work in crappy paint, fragile paper, even dead meat and insect larvae if he or she feels the urge. But artwork should not be misrepresented to the buyer as an investment piece if it’s a transitory, ephemeral creation. Most buyers want their art to last, either as an investment, or (let’s hope) because they truly love it and want to enjoy it for decades.
That doesn’t mean an artist has to say exactly how long a work will last, because he or she doesn’t necessarily know. Many contemporary artworks were created in media that are recent technological developments. We cannot have a sense of their stability; there simply hasn’t been time to evaluate the media’s archival potential. And here’s another problem: artworks that require specific technology to read or display could become inaccessible if the necessary technology ages out. Have any mix cassettes from the 1980s still laying around? How about 3.5″ disks? I do. Though I could recover the data if I really wanted to go to the trouble, they’re degrading in storage; if and when I ever get around to accessing them, they may well no longer be readable. That’s already happening to film stock: according to the UCLA Film and Television archive, fifty percent of all films produced in the United States prior to 1950 have already been lost, the tape formats used to create them both obsolete and deteriorating.
No matter whether you are talking about film, music, or paintings, the varied ephemerality of artistic media invites some interesting questions about the value of original art, and whether artists, gallerists, and owners are accountable or responsible for its preservation – especially when the medium exploits technical advances that are new and imperfectly understood.