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The Boundaries of Ethics – Art without Boundaries

Hiltrud Schinzel

Abstracts

Interdisciplinary knowledge exchange and new techniques as well as general technical and environmental developments prompt to review conservation ethics. Contemporary artworks show the state of the now in a paradigmatically aesthetic way which is documented by some examples and quotes. Findings in the sciences and humanities – neurosciences in focus – are named concerning the perception of art by the protagonists: artist, conservator, art-teacher/promoter and viewer. They document that it is relevant to modify conservation’s function according to human biological conditions including basic human needs. Some topical aspects are described paradigmatically by some characteristics of the material wood and its artistic use in different cultural and temporal settings. Wood - as any material presented by cultural artefacts - transports aesthetic knowledge that can stimulate and foster awareness and empathy, e.g. now, while climate changes, concerning nature.

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Editor's notes

This article is based on the lecture given by Dr. Hiltrud Schinzel at Panel Painting Institute Dresden 2013, a project of Getty Conservation Institute, J. Paul Getty Museums and Getty Foundation

Full text

Dual approaches to conservation-restoration around 1900 and today 

  • 1 Paintings between war and peace research in Austrian-French restoration history in the realm of ten (...)

1Intrinsic to intellectual history is that all structures are essentially shaped by new knowledge and the current social environment. The same can be said of ethics. Over the past few decades, increased interdisciplinary research and cooperation has opened up new opportunities for the field of conservation and these are reflected in its theory and code of ethics. We are witnessing a restructuring of the discipline, which shares parallels with the separation of aesthetics from technique that began in the 19th century. An interesting reference in this context is Natalia Gustavson’s dissertation1 on developments in restoration in the Napoleonic era :

‘In Paris as in Vienna, the treatment of paintings was divided between the structural conservation of the support and the restoration of the surface. The higher risks and the technical difficulties of such practices as relining and transfer meant that the job of the rentoileur (the re-liner, i.e., the technician) enjoyed a much higher standing and was better paid than the work of the restorer who cleaned, retouched, and varnished the painting.’

2This estimation indicates that the attitude towards such technical skills in Napoleon’s France was very affirmative whereas, today, the impact of earlier techniques is not always regarded as positive : the practice of splitting apart panel paintings that were painted on both sides is just one of many destructive interventions that altered the physical structure of the paintings.

3As in the field of medicine, we can observe various ‘trials and tribulations’ in the history of conservation techniques and aesthetics. Their influence on tastes and thus the wider effect of art and cultural heritage becomes clear sooner or later. Today, technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that new questions are replacing or modifying the old in ever quicker succession. The same pattern can be seen in medicine, where the rapid development of medical technologies into ‘high-tech medicine’ has resulted in an increasingly automated system of processing patients which challenges ethical standards. In 1977, Beauchamp and Childress devised the Four Principles for the medical field :

  • Autonomy – The right for an individual to make his or her own choice.

  • Non-maleficence – The principle that ‘above all, do no harm,’ as stated in the Hippocratic Oath.

  • Beneficence – The principle of acting with the best interest of the other in mind.

  • Justice – A concept that emphasizes fairness and equality among individuals.

  • 2 As far as I am aware, this point of view has rarely been discussed to date. Texts by the author tou (...)
  • 3 See Iris Kapelouzou, ‘Contemplating Integration: Modern Art and the Conservation System’ in Art & S (...)
  • 4 See ‘Theory and Practice of the Preservation of Modern and Contemporary Art: Complex, Tangible and (...)

4If we apply these points to the field of conservation-restoration, we will find point 1 particularly hard to grasp, yet I feel it has validity2 in the art world if we understand autonomy as ‘individuality’ or uniqueness. Point 2, the aspect of non-maleficence is best understood in the sense of do-no-harm or harmlessness3 as defined by Iris Kapelouzou in her 2011 thesis. Point 3 can be equated with Iwona Szmelter’s definition of care4 which has since been adopted in conservation-restoration. Care in this context also implies the concept of a duty of care. With regard to point 4, the situation is rather dire. Even in cultural circles, we see how ‘iconic works’ are afforded great attention, yet otherwise culture and education are the first to be hit when it comes to cutbacks. This is particularly regrettable, as quality is easily misjudged and the hierarchy of what constitutes quality is increasingly based on prevailing, subjective market trends.

5The field of conservation-restoration is currently undergoing considerable technical changes, triggered by the ‘digital revolution’ which is affecting all walks of life. A particular case in point here is the phenomenon of ‘iconic works’, whereby we see a division between the person who researches data and the practitioner whose work is hands-on. This is somewhat analogous to the separation of rentoileur and painter-restorer in the 19th century, insofar as both differentiations arose from technological advancements. We have all experienced the advantages and disadvantages of digital support, but two things bother me about its application in conservation :

  • the lack of ‘tactile contact’ with the object that is crucial for our line of work.

  • the ongoing technical difficulty of converting data into knowledge – an unresolved problem in systems research that only increases with the growing amount of data.

6Symptomatic of a new ‘hype’ in digital documentation and archiving is its utilisation by artists – although it must be said that artists rarely make the mistake of forgetting the sensual and emotional values of materials in the process.

7A significant example is Andy Goldsworthy, an artist based in Scotland, who creates his artworks exclusively in and with nature. His main preoccupation is the continual changes observed in nature. On his online digital catalogue, the artist says :

‘Movement, change, light, growth, and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials, and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.’

8Due to the ephemeral quality of his works, all that survives is their documentation, which he has compiled together with the conservator and art historian Tina Fiske. A dual relationship seems to exist between such ‘alternative’ conservation methods and the work on an object that is necessary for exhibition purposes. In the latter case, conservation supports the promotion of culture with different types of presentation and educational components. Linking analysis data with insights won through practice is a desideratum that can foster closer contact with contemporary artists. Experimentation notwithstanding, artistic thought on the production of art is very much rooted in the practical. An awareness of this pragmatism, necessitated by the means of production, brings us back to the essentials of materials and techniques.

The significance of the viewer 

9I would like to take a closer look at several aspects of this current state of affairs that are of significance to ethics. There has been an awareness that the viewer plays a part in the creation of an artwork since British empiricism (18th century) and the Enlightenment at the latest. Oxford defines empiricism as : ‘the theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the senses,’ and induction as : ‘the inference of a general law from particular instances.’ A conservator’s work is mostly based on induction too, i.e., on a case-by-case basis. Irrespective of the wealth of scientific research available, experiments are often necessary, even for well-known techniques, in order to test the aesthetic effects of materials and methods.

10The impact of our actions on the viewer is hard to assess, and it is frequently a balancing act. Yet nowadays we have to consider the audience more than ever before. With the emergence of modernism, many artists began to value the active involvement of the audience. As a result, the public has grown accustomed to a more liberal approach to art, and now not only expects information, but an experience. Educational and pedagogical aspects should be delivered in passing, almost as infotainment. Of course, we cannot simply apply this present-day attitude to the reception of older art, but let us contemplate, for example, the public restoration of artworks at museums. It may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but public art restoration could potentially have a similar appeal to tightrope-walking without a safety net, in that it combines a sense of drama and intimacy. In this example, conservators do not convey the past verbally but through a less obvious form of visual communication, which is at once more direct.

Social structures – the zeitgeist 

11Another observation concerning the conservator is worth mentioning here : an Italian colleague Paolo Martore (University of Tuscia in Viterbo) has asserted that existing power relations influence restoration work. Considering their universal function in the service of art and culture, it can be assumed that conservators are used to adjusting their professional social conduct accordingly.

12Either way : the zeitgeist and contemporary socio-technical conditions have always influenced art and conservation-restoration. While artists today may enjoy complete autonomy over their choice of medium and topic, they also play a role in the production and reception of art. In the case of older art, we can directly observe the effects of zeitgeist : all of the historical data associated with an old artwork adds up to a tangible, comprehensible reception history. We first became aware of this fact through interdisciplinary research in conservation science. This knowledge leads to increased interest in historical research, for instance, into the conditions that existed when restoration techniques were developed. At the same time, it hinders ‘baroque’ liberties and urges caution.

  • 5 Quote in: ‘Replacing objects: Historical Practices for the Second Museum Age’ in: The Canadian Hist (...)

13These are just some of the reasons that led to the division between conservation and restoration. Conservation is generally believed to be relatively safe, despite the fact that ultimately any intervention, even conservational measures, will eventually become visible, highlighting their temporality. Recent reflections on conservation theory have increasingly looked towards cultural anthropology, which deals with the relationship between humans and culture, and is grounded in empiricism. That artworks cannot be viewed solely as data carriers was memorably surmised by anthropologist and art historian Ruth Phillips in 2006 : ‘Objects have dynamic cultural biographies that do not end but only change when they enter museum collections.’5 This emphasis on an ongoing process is a general trend at present, but it is important to remember that it may well be supplanted by different priorities in the course of time.

14I would now like to turn to a completely different subject : the field of neuroscience, which can also be very useful in helping us identify the potential opportunities and constraints of our profession so that we can rethink ethics in a way that is more appropriate for our times. The following section will focus on the initial findings of the first generation of scientists to work with medical imaging in brain research, primarily in the 1970s.

How recognition and remembrance work 

  • 6 The following information stems largely from Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a (...)

15In 19756 the neurophysiologist Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle (born 1918) described the perceptual process as follows :

  • 7 from a brain. Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, 136, 3, “The view from within: Pathways to the study (...)

‘We confront the world from a brain linked to what is “out there” by a few million fragile sensory nerve fibers, our only information channels, our lifelines to reality. They provide also what is essential for life itself : an afferent excitation that maintains the conscious state, the awareness of self.’7

16In short, our brains select and elaborate things with the help of biochemical processes. The molecular geneticist Francois Jacob came to the conclusion that this process resembles ‘not engineering but tinkering, bricolage (as we say in France)’. He goes on to say that :

  • 8 Francois Jacob, molecular geneticist, quoted here from Kandel, p.259

‘While the engineer’s work relies on his having the raw materials and the tool that exactly fit his project, the tinkerer manages with odds and ends ... He uses whatever he finds around him ... The tinkerer picks up an object that happens to be in his stock and gives it an unexpected function. Out of an old car wheel, he will make a fan, from a broken table a parasol.’8

17This analogy used by Francois Jacob in the 1960s to describe the complex development of the memory is instantly reminiscent of the prevalent art movements of this period, which picked up on Schwitter’s idea of the objet trouvé and took it one step further : Kinetic art (e.g. Jean Tinguely), Pop art, Arte Povera, and happenings. These movements have since given rise to the broadly defined area of installation art. Installations can be likened to the visual impact created by panel paintings, traditionally conceived and presented as Gesamtkunstwerke in ecclesial or court settings. It is certainly no lie to assert that artists were developing their techniques in a bricolage fashion well before modern era.

18Furthermore, memories are established emotionally, i.e. they are individually selected and valued, as memory formation is a creative process. Neuroscientist Eric Kandel notes :

  • 9 Kandel p. 307. Against this backdrop it is worth noting that many artists are synaesthetes.
  • 10 From Kandel p. 308.

‘What the brain stores is thought to be only a core memory. Upon recall, this core memory is then elaborated upon and reconstructed with additions, subtractions, elaborations, and distortions9 ... because the information giving rise to the memory is not registered ... about a single sensory modality – sight, sound, touch, or pain – but about the space surrounding the animal, a modality that depends on information from several senses.’10

19Not only is perception modelled, like a Gesamtkunstwerk, subjectively, holistically, and spatially by the individual brain, but so too is memory itself. This fact is widely known to anyone involved in exhibitions, where the surrounding space and exhibit have to be placed in a context that is both coherent and atmospheric to the contemporary viewer.

20The brain thus analyses, selects, and interprets the sensory perceptions and conflates them into an interpretative structure that scientists refer to as the ‘cognitive map’. The Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon defines the term ‘cognitive map’ as :

‘the subjective representation of a spatial situation.... Such a map is a cross-section of the perceived environment, projected into the individual’s interior at a particular given time. It reflects the world as a person believes it to be, or how he or she senses it to be. A cognitive map is not usually a correct representation of the spatial environment, and deviations from and distortions of reality are possible ...’

21The creation of an individual’s cognitive map does not occur according to an ‘objective’ scheme, rather according to the natural connections and developments in the individual’s brain. It serves the mastering of the environment, not its representation.

  • 11 From: Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, 136, 3, ‘The View from Within: Pathways to the Study of Percep (...)

22In this respect one can agree with Mountcastle when he states : ‘sensation is an abstraction - not a replication - of the real world’, whereby the central neuron ‘is a story-teller’ that is ‘never completely trustworthy.’11 Since the capacity of the human brain to process sensory information is far more limited than the body’s capacity to receive sensory impulses through the nervous system, attention or at best active interest is required to pinpoint the objects of perception as per an individual’s current needs. It is, I think, worth pointing out that one can safely assume that both artists and conservators are particularly attentive.

23Against this backdrop, it becomes clear why it is impossible to give objective form to historical content in an artwork, let alone to interpret it in full. On the other hand, clues as to the original display environment of an artwork provide us with information about the emphasis that certain memories may have for the formation of an artist’s cognitive maps, as well as clues as to the artist’s wider context and significance.

  • 12 It is also for this reason that statistics are to be regarded with a degree of scepticism. As there (...)
  • 13 “If our view of memory is correct, in higher organisms every act of perception is, to some degree, (...)

24Unfortunately, schematic aids used in the field of restoration, for instance during the mapping of deterioration or damage, are also subject to the same characteristics of human memory as outlined above. Here too, the individual’s cognitive ‘mapping’ plays a crucial role in the supposedly objective creation of scientific models and their application. For this reason, some clues are noticed and considered pertinent while others are not.12 Molecular biologist Gerald M. Edelman thus relates perception to ‘creating’ and memory to ‘imaginating (and as such re-creating)13’.

25In 1971, the literary scholar and comparatist George Steiner summed up this condition as follows :

  • 14 Original citation from In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture, Yale (...)

‘It is not the literal past that rules us ... It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures...’14

Parts and whole 

26What is important to note here is the fact that, although visual perception is derived through a detailed composition of hundreds of separate visual impressions, the many complex and creative mental processes that occur in the actual aesthetic experience give rise to the creation of a whole. That the whole is greater than the sum of its parts was already observed, in relation to democracy, by Aristotle in his work Politics.

  • 15 In Seeing through Illusions, 2009, p. 212

27All our experiences, including the visual, are experienced highly subjectively and as a whole. The psychologist and neuroscientist Richard Gregory has realized another point which presents, among other things, ethical difficulties in the field of conservation-restoration : ‘Our brains create much of what we see by adding what “ought” to be there. We only realize that the brain is guessing when it guesses wrongly.’15 This instantly reminds us of endless discussions about various complementary methods such as the advantages and disadvantages of so-called ‘neutral retouching’ in restoration, which is by no means neutral and, in fact, never can be. Even today, there are considerable national differences in finding practical solutions to retouching and infilling losses. Analogue solutions would only be possible in an entirely globalized, homogenized world, which from a cultural perspective is not necessarily desirable. However, when one is aware of the reasons for our own actions, one is able to foster a greater understanding and respect for the reasons motivating others and to learn from them with less prejudice.

  • 16 Kandel p. 407 ff.

28Due to the inherent biological limitations, our mind’s creative subjectivity and propensity for imaginative augmentation in handling sensory experiences cannot, at present at least, be reduced to a single, time-independent state (of consciousness) in which understanding and perception are the same.16 Of the various protagonists – artist, conservator, art teacher, and viewer – none can infer, ad libitum, exactly the same information from an existent artwork. On the other hand, however, the artwork is in a way itself democratic and can be viewed analogously to the Aristotelian concept of democracy : the more versions of it that accumulate in viewers’ minds over time, the greater the work of art is as a whole. Nevertheless, each viewer experiences different sets of associations and the emotional responses towards the states of an image vary also. Given the complexity and subsequent fascination that the enigmatic exerts on us in art, causing us to marvel, relive, reflect, question, and sympathize each time anew, this fact can only be seen as a good thing.

29All the above-mentioned biological findings of recent times also explain the main problem underlying art conservation : namely the impossibility of a much hoped-for objectification of the object we sensorily perceive. The frustrating, Sisyphus-like striving for objectivity, a relic of the scientific optimism of the 20th century, itself a product of the Enlightenment, has given rise to the subject-object problem, a point of much discussion among conservation professionals in recent years. On the back of the latest neurobiological research, we are forced to accept that, due to the biology of our brains, an artefact cannot be tangible as an object and is thus not relevant as such, for a work of art primarily serves as a stimulus for the respective viewer and is not as ‘autonomous’ as we would perhaps like to believe. In this it is analogous to a reagent in chemistry, whereby the word ‘reagent’ is taken to mean a substance that causes chemical reactions (Oxford). Paradoxically, this in no way means that we should not try to attain objectivity : because, the more complex our knowledge is, the greater our potential for empathy, and, as a consequence, the more considered and careful our practical actions become. The same rule applies to reversibility : it exists only as an ideal, but it is a necessary and useful construct that supports ethical approaches in our profession.

New opportunities 

30Sören Kierkegaard once said : ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ The dilemma that arises from this is a very familiar one to conservators. It is perfectly legitimate to accept the environmental factors that inevitably flow into conservation and restoration work as a given, with the proviso that we can only ever claim to work in the present and can only assume responsibility in relation to it. This goes against the traditional ideal held in art conservation of preserving, for the sake of the future, a past defined in the artwork. In view of the current state of knowledge in science, the humanities, and applied conservation science, it is, however, no longer possible to orientate modern ethics along the lines of past illusions ; one must limit oneself to today’s known possibilities and try to optimize them.

31It is difficult, however, to make the ‘limitedness’ of the object of our profession simultaneously understandable to both the uninformed viewer and the highly specialized cultural professional working in art conservation. Our complex environment is structurally arranged, categorized, weighed up, and assessed according to the prevailing regulations to such a degree that it is no longer possible to imagine that this is not always useful. Indeed, of all people, artists are most keenly aware that regulations clip creativity’s wings. In collaborations between conservators it should not be forgotten that, due to the nature of the limitations outlined above, our ethical obligations are also limited, and that the responsibility for artefacts should again be shared by more parties. For, at the end of the day, we are not sorcerers and neither do we wish to end up as sorcerer’s apprentices. The general trend towards regulating decisions through the use of computer programmes remains, in my opinion, questionable, given that we are working in the cultural domain, which is governed by the imagination. Responsibility can indeed be most conveniently avoided : if you package decisions in software, then nobody is responsible any more.

32Eric Kandel, if I may turn to him once again, describes our relationship to art as follows :

  • 17 Kandel p.393

‘Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to recreate in our own brains the creative process – cognitive, emotional, and empathic – through which the artist produced the work.... Art is an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain17.’

  • 18 Werner K. Heisenberg once said: ‘The kind of reality which we are able to talk about is never reali (...)

33Those involved in art are primarily concerned with communication,18 not objectivity, as in the sciences. We have the ability to experience visual, literary, and oral stories aesthetically and to integrate their content into our individual lives. A particular point of fascination here is that we actually learn more about ourselves through works of art, a fact that is of great importance to education. Neurobiological research on the mechanics of thought processes can assist us in conditioning visual experiences through conservation practices. Furthermore, it is important to note that non-invasive neurophysiological research relevant to the field of conservation-restoration is comparatively still in its infancy, for it only emerged in the second half of the 20th century.

  • 19 Analysed by Manfred Spitzer in Digitale Demenz Droemer VI, Munich 2012

34The exchange of ideas and knowledge may help to enrich the new research findings with factual knowledge of artistic practices, while conversely clearing up some unsolvable problems in the field of conservation-restoration. This in turn could result in conservation instead being applied to serve the education and nurturing of human behaviour, which has been disrupted by the abuse of new technologies, in a process that now starts as early as childhood.19 Each epoch is committed to a different set of conditions ; the more those conditions are bound to evolutionary mechanisms such as technology, the more removed they become from natural states. Nevertheless, great art always renders human feelings visible, which are in turn understandable in any epoch.

  • 20 Frans de Waal ‘Wieviel Empathie’ in Der Affe in uns, DTV Verlag, Munich, 2009, p. 238

35Although the suffering in early Christian art (examples might be Stations of the Cross) is readily grasped by anyone, means of expression remain specific. Chains of association lead each viewer to revisit humiliating experiences in his or her own life, regardless of the period and cultural environment in which he or she lives. The empathy felt by identifying with the image opens up pathways to understanding and compassion. These mechanisms were discovered by behavioural science and there is neuronal evidence of their activity in the human brain.20 I am of the firm opinion that in a world which has become emotionally dumbstruck through visual sensory overload, a particularly important task for conservation is to enable and assist such emotional experiences in the viewer.

36There are scores of new technical tools that provide us with historical data. But when it comes to providing historical feeling, there are virtually none. That emotional experience or empathy is a general concern for humankind today can be attested in another quotation from artist Andy Goldsworthy. Regarding the durability of his works, he states in an interview :

  • 21 Andy Goldsworthy, Audio Portion of Interview Video with Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, Mo (...)

‘The most tangible, permanent thing that I will leave is the story of something that was made in that place and that people saw it being made - knew that the materials came from the site.... And then the work made in front of everyone’s eyes, and the anxieties, the fears, and worries along the path of the piece. That’s the result of the piece.... And the photographs and the talking now are all part of that story. I think that’s a legitimate form of sculpture. Even when the object’s gone.’21

37Goldsworthy here makes deliberate reference to the emotional states that accompany the production of an artwork. His view of seeing his works as stories echoes the same sense of continuity that the anthropologist Ruth Phillips has assigned today’s museum culture. They also adhere to the neural properties detailed above that make them not entirely trustworthy storytellers.

  • 22 For obvious reasons, market research and advertising have displayed an early interest in this domai (...)
  • 23 Arno Gruen, Dem Leben Entfremdet: Warum wir wieder lernen müssen zu empfinden, Stuttgart 2013, p. 1 (...)

38In view of current problems faced in education, much of the research currently being conducted in a variety of subjects is increasingly turning to the role of feelings in learning. Besides behavioural science, empathy research appears to have an important role to play in the context of conservation.22 Empathy is generally understood to mean ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (Oxford). It evolved in the oldest parts of the brain. Empathy and ‘visual thinking’ both originated before language and were important for human survival. ‘Empathic perceptions have an immediate and direct impact and are not influenced by social expectations. This makes them true to reality,’ writes psychoanalyst Arno Gruen in a recent publication.23 Looking at art teaches us empathy and so, by extension, conservation has the potential to teach us how to fine-tune that empathy.

  • 24 Ibid. p. 61f

39It is no stretch of the imagination to say that earlier artist-restorers demonstrated much, indeed from today’s perspective, even too much feeling for the works of their predecessors and therefore unconsciously enriched them with associations specific to their day. The emotional spectrum behind their motivations in doing so may have been similar to the one described by Goldsworthy, but reflected quite different historical and social circumstances. One cannot expect today’s science-based conservator or restorer to show an awareness of such emotional states. Or if one does, they at least cannot be given the same emphasis in teaching as the body of technical information known to constitute fact today. As a result therefore, far too little is known of the influence of emotions and emotional responses on the conservation and restoration of works of art. However, the neuroscientific findings outlined above provide evidence that the following things are just as important as facts : sensitivity for the object’s material, emotional empathy for the circumstances which accompany the creation of the artwork and for its later social history. Only when an awareness exists of the emotional factors that go into art production and conservation, are treatments possible that aim for a holistic reception in today’s viewer. And by ‘holistic’ I mean an informed balance between fact and feeling. As Arno Gruen states, unfortunately ‘the separation of feeling and thinking [is] a process that has long become characteristic of our social consciousness.’24 As far as conservation science is concerned, it seems to me that our profession does not sufficiently recognize the fact that technique and material instil and convey feelings in the viewer. As a result, the possibilities that this fact holds regarding art education and art appreciation are currently insufficiently exploited, if at all.

The possibilities of material and aesthetic phenomena 

40There are special properties inherent in wood, for instance, that support certain artistic aims and which are well recognized by conservation practitioners. The following examples have been taken from the Museum DKM in Duisburg, where the interrelatedness of the objects’ materiality is thematically integrated into the presentation of art from different cultures.

Fig. 1. Shinto Buddha, 12th century

Fig. 1. Shinto Buddha, 12th century

Shinto Buddha, Museum DKM.

Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Museum DKM

41Due to its simple and harmonious design, the Japanese Shinto Buddha from the 12th century CE resembles an early European devotional image created to aid the worshiper in religious meditation. Wood is associated with touch, warmth, and intimacy : properties that are particularly well suited to promoting internalization.

Fig. 2 .Yin Xinzhen, Peking Opera, 2001

Fig. 2 .Yin Xinzhen, Peking Opera, 2001

Installation at DKM, Peking Opera, 2001 detail.

Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Museum DKM.

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43Yin Xinzhen’s 2001 mixed-media installation is accompanied by recordings of street noises and is entitled : Peking Opera. Her piece consists of 4 large-format photographs and 40 Chinese wooden stools. Despite the work’s partial use of modern technology, it is nevertheless traditional in concept and shares similarities with one of Brueghel’s many peasant scenes that invite the viewer to share in the joys of everyday life. The used everyday objects are provided to assist viewers in surveying the genre scenes, as well as to lend an authentic air to the depicted events.

Fig. 3. Wortelkamp, Oranges for Hans von Marées, 1996

Fig. 3. Wortelkamp, Oranges for Hans von Marées, 1996

Installation at DKM, Oranges for Hans von Marées, detail

Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Museum DKM

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  • 25 Jörg van den Berg Orangen für Hans von Marées. Emil Wortelkamp in Linien stiller Schönheit aus der (...)

45The handling of the wood in Oranges for Hans von Marées by German artist Wortelkamp seems violent when compared to the two Asian works. As the collection catalogue claims :25

46Wortelkamp’s wooden sculptures expose [the hidden], in that they injure and mutilate to achieve a sense of completion. In this, they become forms of existence.’

47Subsequently therefore, the artist’s ‘existentialist wooden sensations’ may well be much coarser in design, but to European post-war sensibilities they might have a more immediate impact as a result.

Fig. 4. Richard Long, Falling in a River Walk, 1993

Fig. 4. Richard Long, Falling in a River Walk, 1993

Falling in a River Walk, 1993

Credits: Museum DKM http://www.museum-dkm.de/​richard-long-gb/​

48The wooden pieces in British artist Richard Long’s installation at Chatsworth (Richard Long Chatsworth 1990 Press photo available via the Internet) and his 1983 Falling in a River Walk, on display at the Museum DKM http://www.museum-dkm.de/​​richard-long-gb/​ are found objects from the natural world. In view of the fact that the artist views his walks through nature as art, possibly as the art of living, both works represent an image of nature, in which human beings can be seen as life’s driftwood.

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Fig. 5. Song Dong, Write Your Message with Water. 2001

Fig. 5. Song Dong, Write Your Message with Water. 2001

12 sets each with 1 stone, 1 table, 1 cushion, 1 brush, 1 bowl of water, 2001, (detail).

Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permissiom of Museum DKM

50Indicative of what is referred to by some as ‘Context art’, the work of Chinese artist Song Dong explores the conditions surrounding the creation of art.

51Here the wood offers a perfect base for the stone placed on top, onto which the viewer is encouraged to write, in water, a message that will vanish from sight after drying. As the messages are all written in the same place, essentially on top of one another, the stone becomes a ‘storer of memories’. This work thus has close affinities with the interests of conservation, as it too attempts to preserve faded memories. In this function, the wooden board is analogous to a wooden panel : the more perfect it is, the less it deflects from the painted image it supports.

52It is plainly evident that one cannot apply the same treatments or measures to these works if one is to do justice to their differing artistic intentions of nurturing an awareness of wood as a medium. Based on these examples, it is also clear that prevention is at least just as important in preserving these works as subsequent conservation and restoration treatments are.

53As conservators, we are thus particularly well adapted to both recognizing aesthetic phenomena that have an emotional impact on us and interpreting artistic techniques empathically.

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Fig. 6. Will Küpper, Flowers, 2013

Fig. 6. Will Küpper, Flowers, 2013

Detail: masterful brushwork

Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Küpperarchiv der Stadt Brühl

55It never ceases to amaze how, when magnified, a single masterful brush stroke vividly conveys a sense of temperament, speed, precision, and many other characteristics that can be perceived tangibly and intellectually, and how this in turn contains the key to its painterly quality.

Fig. 7. Vandalism

Fig. 7. Vandalism

Unknown artist, 19th century, oil on paper, 30x24,5 cm.

Credits photo Roswitha Friedelt, Düsseldorf.

56The painting was mounted on wood and painted over, adding a beard in the 1990ties.

57Every conservator knows the drama of seeing a surface photographed in raking light to reveal flaking and distortions and their own concerns over a material’s instability. The phenomenon of formally and/or aesthetically integrated deterioration is equally known to conservators. Also enlightening is the hopelessness of brutal ignorance.

58Taking aesthetic knowledge, visually elucidating it and, where possible, practically implementing it more consciously than before may be a new option for our profession, because after all, visual information is phenomenologically better suited to the diverse media of the visual fine arts than the written word is. During practical work, the material and technique convey much non-verbal information to us conservators, one could say through touch, but also through the subjective association of previous experience. They are thus an important means of communication that lead back to the artist, but also serve to channel information, and we can pass on this information to the viewer. Re-viewing, re-experiencing, and re-considering actions, on the part of both artist and conservator, can be enlightening for each and every gallery or museum visitor ; one does not need to be particularly cultured or highly educated to do these things, in fact they can occur in an atmosphere of peaceful globalism.

59Visual insights into the multiple levels existing in an artwork could thus greatly contribute to the public awareness and reception of fine art and would be well suited to our predominantly visual society. The broadening of the goals of our profession outlined above is dependent on an interpretation of data regarding the physical, functional, cultural, and emotional conditions on which it is based. Data alone does not yet provide knowledge, for knowledge requires empathy. Knowledge also requires few words, because, as the artist Franz Gertsch rightly noted : ‘The better a picture is, the more it leaves the viewer speechless.’ Gertsch’s statement expresses the possibility of surrendering oneself completely to the intensity of the visual experience in the mere act of looking at a compelling artwork.

60Due to their extensive practical experience, conservators can contribute a great deal to our general cultural knowledge through the non-verbal, physical, and sensual realm. Modern research could furthermore also assess existing visual knowledge as to its empathic consistency. This would also help broaden our view of history and foster our awareness of human, all too human actions and existence. And in advancing culture and education, the field of conservation could cooperate with other disciplines to a much greater degree than is currently the norm. The neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s investigation into art is, in my opinion, particularly important in this regard, as he purposefully takes feelings into account while linking Viennese art at the turn of the last century with concurrent phenomena in the sciences and his own subsequent research.

61I would like to end with an artist quote that also hints at these kinds of opportunities. What Diana Thater, American artist, curator, writer, and educator, remarked in 2004 in response to installations also applies to other art media :

  • 26 Diana Thater in Diana Thater, Keep the Faith, A Survey Exhibition, ed. Barbara Engelbach and Wulf H (...)

What interests me most about installation is that it directly addresses consciousness and that it raises questions about subjectivity. When one moves through the space of an installation and is aware of this movement, one achieves what Robert Morris calls ‘presentness’. One engages what Morris describes as the ‘I’, living images here and now in space, as opposed to the ‘me’, the self remembered in an arrested state as if in a photograph, frozen in time. It is this possibility of ‘presentness’ that installation addresses and it is what defines it as a medium equivalent to painting and sculpture.’26

62In this vein, an approach to conservation or restoration that takes into account feelings can provide a similar emotional link to the viewer. It presents a growing awareness of the ‘I’, the possible ‘I’ in the ‘you’ inherent in the artwork.

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Notes

1 Paintings between war and peace research in Austrian-French restoration history in the realm of tension of “Napoleonic” art theft, Ph.D dissertation submitted to the Universität für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, Institute of Conservation and Restoration, under o.Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Gabriela Krist, Vienna, 2012.

2 As far as I am aware, this point of view has rarely been discussed to date. Texts by the author touching on this subject include: ‘Zerbrochene Eierschalen und eine deformierte Leinwand’ in Restauro 3, 1999, and ‘Restaurierungsethik: Im Spannungsfeld zwischen Auftraggeber und freiberuflichen Restauratoren’ published in Restauratorentaschenbuch 2002 by Ulrike Besch, Callwey, Munich 2001; both translated into English in Touching Vision VUB Brussels University Press, 2004.

3 See Iris Kapelouzou, ‘Contemplating Integration: Modern Art and the Conservation System’ in Art & Science vol. VIII, edited by George Lasker, Hiltrud Schinzel, Karel Boullart, IIAS 2010, p. 39 f

4 See ‘Theory and Practice of the Preservation of Modern and Contemporary Art: Complex, Tangible and Intangible Heritage’ in Theory and Practice in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art. Reflections on the Roots and the Perspectives edited by Ursula Schädler-Saub and Angela Weyer, Archtype, London 2010 p.33 f

5 Quote in: ‘Replacing objects: Historical Practices for the Second Museum Age’ in: The Canadian Historical Review 86(1),Toronto, 2005, pp. 83–100. Quoted from Miriam Clavir in ‘Conservation and Cultural Significance’ in Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, Oxford 2009, pp. 139–149.

6 The following information stems largely from Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, originally published in New York, 2006, and The Age Of Insight, New York, 2012.

7 from a brain. Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, 136, 3, “The view from within: Pathways to the study of perception”, p. 109 ...

8 Francois Jacob, molecular geneticist, quoted here from Kandel, p.259

9 Kandel p. 307. Against this backdrop it is worth noting that many artists are synaesthetes.

10 From Kandel p. 308.

11 From: Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, 136, 3, ‘The View from Within: Pathways to the Study of Perception’, p. 109, 1975.

12 It is also for this reason that statistics are to be regarded with a degree of scepticism. As there is a human qualitative component to data collation, its quantitative evaluation is not always useful nor necessarily ‘correct’.

13 “If our view of memory is correct, in higher organisms every act of perception is, to some degree, an act of creation, and every act of memory is, to some degree, an act of imagination.”
(Edelman and Tononi, 2000:101) Tononi, G., Sporns, O., Edelman, G.E. (1999) Measures of degeneracy and redundancy in biological networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, 96(6), 3257-62.

14 Original citation from In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture, Yale University Press, 1971, quoted here from Kandel.

15 In Seeing through Illusions, 2009, p. 212

16 Kandel p. 407 ff.

17 Kandel p.393

18 Werner K. Heisenberg once said: ‘The kind of reality which we are able to talk about is never reality itself.’ Similarly, the reality that we can see and describe is never reality itself.

19 Analysed by Manfred Spitzer in Digitale Demenz Droemer VI, Munich 2012

20 Frans de Waal ‘Wieviel Empathie’ in Der Affe in uns, DTV Verlag, Munich, 2009, p. 238

21 Andy Goldsworthy, Audio Portion of Interview Video with Andy Goldsworthy, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, interview by Mildred Constantine and Paul Bochner, Getty Conversation Institute, Los Angeles, 28 October 1997, typescript, 11.

22 For obvious reasons, market research and advertising have displayed an early interest in this domain. In methodological historical and conservation research, investigations that are limited in scope in order to fulfil a specific purpose only have limited potential.

23 Arno Gruen, Dem Leben Entfremdet: Warum wir wieder lernen müssen zu empfinden, Stuttgart 2013, p. 12. (Translated here for the purposes of this essay.) This book outlines, in a clear and lucid manner, the foundations and functions of empathy, its relation to consciousness and language.

24 Ibid. p. 61f

25 Jörg van den Berg Orangen für Hans von Marées. Emil Wortelkamp in Linien stiller Schönheit aus der Sammlung DKM, vol. I, Duisburg 2008, p. 197f. (Translated here for the purposes of this essay.)

26 Diana Thater in Diana Thater, Keep the Faith, A Survey Exhibition, ed. Barbara Engelbach and Wulf Herzogenrath, in Diana Thater: Hey – Survey This!, Cologne: Salon Verlag & Edition, 2004, p. 51

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Shinto Buddha, 12th century
Caption Shinto Buddha, Museum DKM.
Credits Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Museum DKM
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 48k
Title Fig. 2 .Yin Xinzhen, Peking Opera, 2001
Caption Installation at DKM, Peking Opera, 2001 detail.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 92k
Title Fig. 3. Wortelkamp, Oranges for Hans von Marées, 1996
Caption Installation at DKM, Oranges for Hans von Marées, detail
Credits Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Museum DKM
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Fig. 4. Richard Long, Falling in a River Walk, 1993
Caption Falling in a River Walk, 1993
Credits Credits: Museum DKM http://www.museum-dkm.de/​richard-long-gb/​
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 80k
Title Fig. 5. Song Dong, Write Your Message with Water. 2001
Caption 12 sets each with 1 stone, 1 table, 1 cushion, 1 brush, 1 bowl of water, 2001, (detail).
Credits Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permissiom of Museum DKM
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 128k
Title Fig. 6. Will Küpper, Flowers, 2013
Caption Detail: masterful brushwork
Credits Credits: photo Hiltrud Schinzel with kind permission of Küpperarchiv der Stadt Brühl
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 2.5M
Title Fig. 7. Vandalism
Caption Unknown artist, 19th century, oil on paper, 30x24,5 cm.
Credits Credits photo Roswitha Friedelt, Düsseldorf.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/6737/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1.7M
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References

Electronic reference

Hiltrud Schinzel, « The Boundaries of Ethics – Art without Boundaries  », CeROArt [Online], 11 | 2019, Online since 10 January 2020, connection on 23 January 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/6737 ; DOI : 10.4000/ceroart.6737

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About the author

Hiltrud Schinzel

Hiltrud Schinzel is restorer (Magister Artium, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria), art historian (PhD, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany) and artist. In the field of conservation she specialized on contemporary art and restoration theory. She was curator at Municipal Museum of Bochum, project leader of Restaurierung Moderner Malerei at Restoration Centre Düsseldorf, researcher and lecturer at Gent University and Gent Academy of Fine Arts. As associate Professor and Dr.H.C. of IIAS she coordinates the Symposium on Advances in Art and Science since 2003. Main publication : Touching Vision – Essays on Restoration Theory and the Perception of Art, VUB University Press, Brussels, 2004 and 2008. hiltrud.schinzel@t-online.de

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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