I know that when I was asked to participate in this symposium it was most likely expected that I would lament today’s obsession with obsolescence and the triumph of the ephemeral, and that I would proclaim the lasting qualities of art while decrying its diminishment in the culture at large and, in too many cases, the museum world as well.

I would, of course, be perfectly ready and willing to expatiate along those lines. In the hope of eliciting a more lively discussion, however, I have chosen to speak instead to that other melancholy reality, and this one is permanent, because it is in the nature of the thing—I am referring to the inherent fragility of works of art, their precarious existence, their surprising vulnerability. For, from the moment of their creation, works of art are thrust into the physical world and all its vicissitudes.

In short, the reality is that works of art, by their very nature, are ineluctably on an entropic path of deterioration and ultimately disappearance.

Works of art are ineluctably on an entropic path of deterioration and ultimately disappearance.

Take the example of Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel, once in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. The sweetest of angels who guides the hand of a totally bemused Matthew with the tips of his fingers, expressing ineffable tenderness, is one of those unforgettable genial inventions that stays with one forever, in this instance, only in our mind’s eye, or through a black and white photograph. This is because the painting, along with some 450 other masterpieces from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, renamed the Bode in 1956, was destroyed during the allied bombing of Berlin in 1945.

I want to underscore today not only how vulnerable are works of art, but also how fragmentary is so much of the art that we see in museums, at least of the past. Not only because, as in the case of many antiquities, it is often broken pieces that have survived, and not the whole, but also because fragments—and this time not only ancient—are what result from dismemberment or displacement: dismemberment as of altarpieces with their predella panels scattered among collections and museums the world over, or palace decorations displaced and in effect neutralized when subtracted from their original programmatic or architectural setting.

In the case of ancient art, ironically, it is the exhibited fragment that is enduring, and it is the whole, either lost or forgotten, that is ephemeral. Fragments then are not so much ars brevis as ars longa, precisely because they survive as the only tangible vestiges of lost civilizations, especially in the case of those without writing.

The more one studies works of art (and museums as well), the more one is struck that, more often than not, it is change that is the norm. The canon is continually shifting. One example would be the Parthenon marbles, in the early nineteenth century, displacing the Apollo Belvedere as the ne plus ultra of ancient art. Such shifts in taste suggest that attitudes toward art—and its meaning as well as affect—are as contingent as they are inherent.

In fact, we live in a world of permanent impermanence, with the result being that it is through that immaterial attribute, the value we place on art, that we fend off its ephemerality. We confer permanence through our system of values. This has its flip side, I’m afraid, for it has been shown that it is precisely because we place a high value on certain monuments, as in the Middle East, that these are being destroyed. We place them at risk in the eyes of our iconoclastic enemies by our very attachment to them, and I could say that nowadays, conferring on a site the seal of approval of, let’s say, unesco is most probably to invite destruction.

Attitudes toward art are as contingent as they are inherent.

Returning to the museum, let me say it is clear that they too manifest change, even sometimes impermanence. One of the first museums to open its doors to the public, albeit then a limited public, was in Dusseldorf, fully catalogued in the eighteenth century. It is now, and since 1805, the core of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, an accident of princely inheritance. And we have our own variant in New York State, with that of the Albright-Knox, disposing of much older art in order to morph into a museum of modern and contemporary art.

But change in the museum world need not be altogether a bad thing. Even granting that some of us still want them to reflect authority—in the sense of expertise—this does not mean the museum as a mausoleum, but rather the museum as the home of ever changing narratives and explorations to indicate better the complexities of an artwork’s place and meaning in space and time. One such example would be the recent inclusion into the Byzantine canon, once dominated by the production of Imperial Constantinople, of such regional schools as Ethiopian Christian art, once considered merely provincial. This is yet another manifestation of a shifting canon.

Works of art are in perpetual mutation in answer to different times and correspondingly different responses, because they are in conversation with each other in most installations, thus in an ever changing dialogue, and it is one that mirrors our own changing conversation.

As to how works of art look, we need to remember that from time immemorial they have been subjected to human interventions; first directly, when overpainted or badly abraded as in the case of the Jarves collection of Italian primitives at Yale, or, indirectly, when faded beyond redemption as with the Rothkos at the Fogg. Such lamentable interventions can even be compounded as in the Sebastiano del Piombo Adoration of the Shepherds in the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, first ruined in a transfer from panel to canvas in the last century, and in my view now ruined a second time through extensive repainting. The picture today, bluntly put, is no longer by Sebastiano.

A lot of art has not just been altered, but, as we saw in Berlin, totally destroyed.

And then again, a lot of art has not just been altered, but, as we saw in Berlin, totally destroyed—ars really brevis—as in the catastrophic fires in the seventeenth century at London’s Whitehall or the Alcázar of Madrid, or the thousands of ancient Greek bronzes converted into cannons—the firing kind, that is.

When it comes to works of art or architecture, I’m afraid permanence is of a rather chimerical nature.

Since inevitably tempus fugit and ars brevis, let me end by stressing once again that if at least temporary permanence is going to be achieved, it will be through the value we attach and confer on works of art. It is through our love and probing interest that they survive. This allows me to come back full circle to the museum, which is likely to remain one of the prime venues in our time for the experience of art, however much the conversation may change.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 49
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