Original Intent

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about if art should be displayed and conserved to follow the “artist’s original intent.” The phrase “original intent” is used a lot by conservators, specifically in terms of describing how the conservator aims to preserve and restore exactly what the artist originally created. However, Steven W. Dykstra argues in his article The Artist’s Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation (found online here) that this term is ambiguous. There are several different definitions of the word “intent.” For example, the original intent of the artist could refer to the artist’s aims for a work of art, or it could refer to the artistic outcome (which may or may not be the original artistic aim). In addition, “intent” could refer to biographical motives – the artist could be seeking fame, emotional catharsis, or the satisfaction of patrons by creating a work of art.1 Often, we don’t even know what any of the possible intents of the artist may have been.

The art historian Gombrich discussed original intent in connection with a controversy that happened at the National Gallery. Before an exhibition in 1947, conservator Ruhemann and his team used new positivist scientific methods to clean some paintings. There was a mixed reaction to the results of the cleaning. Gombrich and his followers felt that a scientifically driven method for cleaning did not allow for artistic or historical consideration.2 Ruhemann, however, felt that conservation techniques naturally followed artists’ intentions as a guiding principle.3 Gombrich disagreed (which I think ties into the ambiguity of the word “intent”). In an indirect reference to the cleaning of Titian’s painting Virgin and Child with Infant Saint John and a Female Saint or Donor (c. 1532, shown above), Gombrich mentioned, “One should have thought it is common ground that Titian is dead and that we cannot ask him what his intention was.”4 To finally retalliate to Gombrich’s accusations, Ruhemann’s followers came up with a mocking (and clever!) pun, accusing Gombrich’s camp of having a fascination with “dirty” pictures.5

What do you think about the phrase “original intent”? Can conservators (or connoisseurs, for that matter) determine the original intent of an artist? Is it important to try and learn about or follow the intent of the artist, whatever it may be? Does the artist’s intent even matter? (Postmodernists likely would argue “no” to that last question, but I’m not sure how I feel about that.)

I guess I’m thinking a lot about this lately because of my last post, where I complained that reproductions of Monet’s water lily paintings are used as decoration in college girls’ bathrooms. I still think that’s inappropriate; I would never do it. But now I’m starting to wonder what Monet’s specific “intent” may have been.

1 Steven W. Dykstra, “The Artist’s Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35, no. 3 (Autumn-Winter 1996) : 205.

2 Ibid., 202.

2 Ibid., 201.

3 Ernst Gombrich, “Dark Varnishes, Variations on a Theme from Pliny,” The Burlington Magazine 104 (1962): 54.

4 Sarah Walden, The Ravished Image, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 118. This book specifically deals with the Gombrich and Ruhemann debate.

  • Amber says:

    One resource you might want to consider is Richard Kuhns, 1960 publication “Criticism and the problem of Intension”, which outlines 11 disticnt variations of meaning carried by the term ‘intent’ in are. This is a topic that conservator’s still weigh in their treatments today and the philosophy of treatments has changed since the 1940 debates on what ‘original intent’ of the artist is.

    If you research this topic on the JAIC online website you will find many articles relating to this debate. Positivism vrs Antipositivism; Intentionalism vrs anti-intensionalism; etc. Of specific note is very well written overview of this tope titled “The Artist’s Intensions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Consevation” by Steven W. Dykstra (JAIC 1996, vol. 35, number 3, article 3, pp. 197 to 218). His reference list for the article is an excellent resource as well.

  • M says:

    Amber, thanks for the different recommendations. I just found that Richard Kuhn’s article “Criticism and the Problem of Intention” is available on JSTOR, for anyone who is interested.

  • Amber says:

    Speaking from a conservator’s point of view, I try to respect the orginal intent of the artist in regards to the context in which they wanted their art to be appreciated. When I consider the aesthetic compensation of a work I am conserving, I do extensive research into the techniques the artist used and the historical record of the artist. I also dialogue with curators, collectors, and owners on their perspective of the work. Each case is weighed separately taking into consideration the condition of the work, how it has changed in its history, and how we can present the work in it’s closest interpretation to what the artist initially thought of for the work; recognizing and working within the parameters of the work’s current state and the implications of time and changes in the work. As an example, if the paint layers have become more translucent and pentimenti, or underdrawings are now visible, I would not try to hide these elements, but instead I would seek to educate the audience on what they are looking at so they may intpret the work more acurately.

    As stewards, our interventions, analysis, and interpretations should aim toward preserving the works for future generations in a manner that best represents the artistic intent, without imposing our personal marks upon it.

    Many conservators and curators work with living artists to establish their intent for their artwork now, and for the future. Artist’s are interviewed, video taped, and recorded, so that their orginial intent for the work is clearly defined and implimented in the preservation of that work from the start. Just check out the IMA’s artbabble website and see all the artist interviews they have posted, http://www.artbabble.org/signup

    It is always good to see the debate of this topic come up. For that is the only way we all can keep ourselves and our disiplines in check with the reality of the work, and diligent in our efforts toward understanding and preserving art.

  • M says:

    I really enjoyed reading your point of view as a conservator, Amber. It sounds like you are very sensitive to preserving the artist’s style and being historically accurate. Like you mentioned, I’m sure each piece of art involves different work and research. In your experience, have you found it to be easy or difficult to work with art historians and connoisseurs? Have you ever run into conflicting opinions regarding the original intent of an artist?

    Also, I think it’s great that living artists are starting to write down and record their artistic intent. I’m sure there are few things that would be more useful from a conservator’s perspective. (And I know that this also makes things a lot easier from a curatorial standpoint!)

  • Amber says:

    Usually the dialogue with art historians and connoisseurs is both educational and invaluable. Especially when the viewpoint differs. Keeping an open mind and sharing knowledge only benifits the artwork and keeps the conservation treatment in a balanced perspective.

    That being said…I find the greatest challenge is getting the curators to participate in the dialogue. I’ve known some who would be insulted not to be included in the treatment process, and those who don’t want to be bothered at all.

    An analogy given to me during my training was that conservation is like a three-legged stool. One leg being science, another being art history, and the final leg being studio skills. To be a balanced conservator all three legs must be equal in strength and length, otherwise the stool is off balance. Conservation scientists, art historians/connoisseurs, and artists help to keep the stool balanced.

    I hope it is just a generational thing and that more art historians consider including art conservators in their research (and vice-a-versa). There is so much that each field can offer the other in interpreting and preserving art, especially when it comes to orginal intent.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.