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OUR COLUMNIST SCULPTURESTEPH GIVES HER OPINION ABOUT THE PARADOXICAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRICE AND VALUE IN ART:

‘I basically agree with all of the comments on this subject (including previous posts).

I have been thinking about what is Art and what is it’s value, what is good Art and is a million dollar price tag ever justified? Asking these questions has mainly come about through and during my daily work as an ‘object’s conservator’, where I have been entrusted to ‘preserve the original intent and/ or authenticity’ of the object.

Jeff Koons - Cracked Egg (Red), 1994-2006

This is a big responsibility, as I have to accept that I am a subjective being, meaning my character, environment, memories, circumstances, tastes, interests, dislikes and education (my own value and belief systems) cannot be easily switched off- but have to be left outside when trying to objectively assess, study, research and interpret an object prior to coming to a judgement of its condition which will determine any decision I make from there as to what extent and how I achieve to reveal it’s ‘true’ nature. All of this is relative to each individual (and conservator).

The most difficult part is to make some sort of judgement that the object requires my intervention. Why does it require intervention? Is it because otherwise it falls apart and is lost forever, or in it’s present condition it might not be accessible as certain signifiers to date and place it into a historical cultural context to appreciate it, are obscured by dirt, later paint applications, or any other active alteration post its creation? Or is it to confirm that it is by this or that generally accepted/ appreciated artist and therefore determining it’s monetary value?

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All of these above examples are often at play for one singular object. A treatment that might stabilise a weak structure (of a sculpture for example) and includes substantial surface cleaning to reveal an obscured aesthetic, may simultaneously remove irreversibly evidence for various events that have occurred in the object’s existence, such as an event of great violence such as a war, or the object being submerged over centuries in the sea after the vessel that carried it, sank, leaving it to corrode. The cleaning and stabilisation would address the aesthetic- and maybe even financial value for the object, while the ‘surface obscuring dirt’ and the corrosion layer allow to learn more about some of the circumstances, conditions, and use of times past, and have therefore a historical and information value.
Depending on which aspect (value) of the object is to be highlighted, in an exhibition (the same sculpture maybe for example on display in an exhibition about sculpture as an Art form itself- or may become a social history object, as the image conveys for example human suffering as a consequence of war).

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The conservation codes of ethics and practice I had to learn serve as a guideline to not only explore the many values of an object but to also interpret how these can be practically made accessible to the viewer without irreversible erasing evidence for the many other narratives.

It is this process of detangling the multiple complexities and contexts into questions, which I can then go and find the answers to, to eventually make informed decisions about how I rate the object’s condition and what this means to any potential practical and technical intervention. This is the best attempt I have to be scientific, or to base my judgement on facts rather than my personal opinion or preferences.

I didn’t have a great time in school, I got it all done in the end but it was a struggle. Especially the sciences were my personal idea of hell. I never understood formulas, mathematical and in Chemistry, and as these were rated more important by my school than the subjects I did enjoy and excelled at (Art, Music and Sport!) I left school feeling inferior to my peers and that people have categorised me as ‘not the sharpest tool in the box’.

Contrary to my sheer determination of never having to endure any more ‘education’ (University) I ended up studying at different Universities overall for ten years. In all this time, I felt like the ‘blind passenger’, the intruder that wasn’t meant to be at University, until the end of my first year on my Master’s in Conservation of Historic Object’s, where apart from learning techniques, material science, analytical tools and equipment, documentation, investigation, etc… I learned how to learn.

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This was a big realisation for me as it made a lot of sense with hindsight, why I didn’t learn/ understand in school. The big difference was how information and/ or knowledge was explained and communicated to me. In school a formula would be written on the board and everyone had to set off and try to calculate it. I never understood where that formula came from, and what the individual factors in it, I had to use, actually meant?

With my science in conservation all of this was applied in and to practice or the real World. I could visualise a piece of iron laying outside in the rain for years to eventually go rusty, I understand that, and by replacing the object made of iron with the chemical name of Fe, Air (Oxygen) as O2, Water as H2O the rust (or corrosion product) can be expressed in the chemical formula such as 4 Fe + 3 O2 + 6 H2O -> 4 Fe3+ + 12 OH- -> 4 Fe(OH)3 or 4 FeO(OH) + 4 H2O.

Another eye opener was the question thrown at us right at the beginning of the course: ‘Do you believe everything you hear or read in the news?’ This was to highlight that when you consult a record to find out about the object you have in your care, you have to bare in mind that this can contain bias statements, mistakes, assumptions, and speculation, which you need to not get distracted by in your quest for the objective reality, so to speak. And to avoid that you consult the object itself, through observation, photography, drawing, taking measurements, weight and identify materials used. It is astounding how much you can find out about any obscure and/ or alien object by utilising your senses alone. Drawing the object makes you look closely at it, you discover all the nuances and intricacies on it’s surface, handling the object you find it is much lighter or heavier than it looked, which may confirm or exclude certain materials used. This goes further for once you have all the factual information you can place it into a historical and technological context that suggests a specific manufacturing, technical, process and lets you emphasise with the difficulties or advantages of these working techniques of a specific material, as experienced by its maker.

Taylor Wessing: Mark Rylance, by Spencer Murphy

The other effect this (somewhat nerdy) focused attention has on the individual is that you start to care for the object, you gain access to, through ‘listening’ to it’s many narratives it contains as ‘a witness of the past’. If an interventive treatment is required you also very quickly realise that it is relatively easy and quick to think of which methods and materials to use- but a whole different ball game to physically and practically do this! Often the treatment I come up with in my mind is just the starting point which develops and evolves in the actual duration of carrying it out. The biggest difference when you physically do something are the real problems, challenges and the time that is required to practically solve, as otherwise these can have devastating consequences for the survival of the object. I assume these experiences are also occurring during the Artist’s work.

I assume that during my training as conservator and with increasing experience, my learning has shifted from information transfer (reading or hearing) through an authoritative figure- to experiencing (touch, seeing, hearing, smell, and even taste) an object not as a singular thing with only one function, purpose and value- but as you rightly suspected- a medium- that communicates intangible cultural, political, emotional, social, economical, religious and personal narratives, scenes or contexts. It communicates from one human being in the past to other humans in the past, present and future.

And what I noticed is that these are always unique, there never is the same narrative in two objects, while simultaneously always are about the expression of humankind and it’s consciousness.

Apologies for this long winded reply, but in order to answer some of your questions, I felt I had to explain where my replies are coming from:

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Blockages have been caused, by placing greater emphasis on the limited communication through language, words through a programmed (softwares, apps, functions, etc…) media while simultaneously restricting our natural communication (through the five senses and for example the seven liberal Arts). Information is not conversed (exchanged and shared), many statements left un-challenged in their applicability or truth, and ‘language’ is an open can of worms in regards to individual’s understanding and definition of what words ‘mean’, leaving the gate wide open for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, offence, accusations, discrimination and manipulation.

Q: Am I correct in saying that you would view the art object as a trigger between maker and viewer to create this intangible experience which combines sense, thought and emotion in an attempt to elevate our awareness in a manner that is uniquely human?
A: Yes, I see this, whatever it might do to the viewer, always as multi-dimensional and sensory communication.
Q: So, are the different forms art takes simply expressions of our different human cultures?
A: I think their appearance, care and use is determined by different cultures and their values and beliefs, but they all express to communicate humanity in all it’s diverse and unique beauty.

We are currently facing many real challenges in society, cultures, ecology, environment, politics, and human suffering. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as blaming the evolution of modern communication media and its increasing popularity as a primary tool for communication for getting to this state of affairs- but I do think that it will and cannot solve any of the real challenges that basically require action in resolving (by action I mean people doing their own personal bit to actively express their responsibilities for looking after the other person, as we are all interlinked and connected- by action I do not mean ‘military intervention’).

With my very practical job of ‘academic DIY’ I now find myself to be a bit of a dinosaur in my environment of ‘tablets, smart phones, twitter, facebook, Instagram, etc… (wordpress is a massive leap into current society for me!), as I have witnessed how people become so reliant- on what in my mind is very questionable- modern media communication to make decisions affecting their lives. Some of these have become fully dependent on spending money on things and processes they could do themselves, for free. They have to keep the ‘system’ in which they exist going in order to function.

I personally do think that remaining independent in thinking and doing is a more fulfilling route to take but it also has it’s disadvantages (it can be very intense in good and in bad terms, for example).

I do not want to judge, they are two very different approaches and I also think which path you choose is partially conscious but mainly circumstantial to each individual.

But I do think that the way we communicate and not necessarily what we communicate- has to have a direct impact of how we perceive and shape our World.’