Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Jesus painting is better than your Jesus painting

I know I'm a little late to this flash-in-the-pan story of the "restored" Jesus painting that has so "shocked" the conservation community.

First off, I want to acknowledge and appreciated Beth Doyle's post on PCAN for her compassionate response to this event. I've seen several people suggest that this event is evidence that the conservation community should do more public education, but I would also suggest that this should also be an invitation for the conservation community to do a bit more self reflection.

I would suggest that the this "restored" painting bothers the conservation community because it violates the very specific and controlled narrative western conservation has constructed. It violates the narrative which justifies the work and existence of western conservation. What is "supposed" to happen with old painting X that has some damage, is those responsible for the painting humbly seek out professional western conservator Y who treats the painting according to their strict professional code of ethics. The final "restored" painting will fit seamlessly into the narrative and the conservative community will look on it with satisfaction. When someone, like this 80 year old woman steps outside the narrative, and the final "restored" painting looks as it currently does we are offended. Our narrative, and our authority was ignored.

I wonder if there is a useful comparison to the narrative of western medicine. Western medicine also presents a very specific narrative which is much like the narrative of western conservation. However, western culture has been open to draw on other medical/health narratives of chinese remedies and chakras and the like.

I don't mean to suggest that the western conservation narratives are invalid, nor am I promoting the idea that everyone go out and paint over all the old paintings they want, but I do think it is always helpful to recognize the world is larger than our narrative, and thus, a little humility is always a good thing.


  1. Great post Kevin. I think Dr. Stoner's interview was well balanced and brought some of these issues to light. I do think you are right about narratives. I try hard when speaking to people who have done "restoration" of their treasures to approach the experience from their viewpoint. We can be very snarky and quick to judge, and we need to keep our prejudices in perspective, just as you say.

    And thanks for the shout out!

  2. Book conservation was intent on escape from the book production trades so we aligned with art conservation. The Florence flood provided the pivot to a distinctive book conservation profession. We advanced into a larger technical service field within libraries and were assimilated there. Now we are swept along within a library pivot away from physical collections.

    We sense the problematic issues with every model; the commercial expedients of the trade, baggage of item domination from art conservation, administrative influence sharing within technical services and, now, testing our tether to the physical collections within the screen library. We can also note losses with each transformation; loss of craft skill, loss of cultural mission, loss of institutional role and loss of relevance.

    Book conservation is a brave orphan. We should look to a new identity as a book preservation specialty that will integrate all our experiences. After all, there is no more exciting challenge that assuring the future of the book.