Artistic Permanence

February 11th, 2009

a broken bicycle, a damaged chair, and a mediocre painting; none will last

a broken bicycle, a damaged chair, and a mediocre painting; none will last

All artists are concerned with the permanence of their work.

As I see it, there are three aspects to the issue.

The first is the quality of the materials themselves. Is the painting on high-quality linen, or on a self-destructive material like masonite? Are the pigments lightfast, or will they fade rapidly with daylight?

Second, how well are the materials used, in a craft sense? Are the paints applied so that they will have good adhesion? Is there a proper priming material on the support, so that the linseed oil doesn’t penetrate? It should be clear that the best materials, used improperly, will yield a relatively impermanent result.

The third aspect, rarely mentioned in a discussion of permanence, but really the most important of the three is, artistic merit of the work itself.

These three components may or may not be related. An artwork might look better because high quality materials were used, it might look better because the craft application was more competent. But not necessarily.

What is clear is that a mediocre artwork, no matter how permanent in terms of materials and application, stands a slim chance of survival, simply because someone is likely to throw it in the garbage. A great but impermanent work, on the other had, will be treated gently and with reverence. It will receive the anxious attention of conservators who will do whatever possible to prolong or extend its life. It might not last centuries, but it will last long enough for the art world to lament its disintegration.

. . .