JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)




The restoration of fine art, as it is conceived and practiced in the West, is occasionally accompanied by controversy. Since the Renaissance, various standards and principles of restoration practice have been proposed and pursued, debated, and revised or discarded by succeeding generations. Among the most prominently debated principles in the 20th century is the claim that the goal of art conservation should be to present the artwork as the artist originally intended it to be seen. This idea emerged informally and anonymously in the late 19th century after advances in scientific analysis raised the possibility of identifying the artist's original materials and distinguishing them from later additions or alterations due to age, nature, accident, or human intervention.

It was inevitable that science would be applied to art and art history. Scientific approaches to worldly knowledge found increasing acceptance and recognition in the previous two centuries, and, by the early 19th century, the scientific perspective was formed into a system of philosophy based on the positive data of sense experience. Positivism located the roots of truth and knowledge in positive, observable scientific facts and their relations to each other and to natural law. In reaction, antipositivism arose to proclaim and defend the validity of human experience and human knowledge beyond the analytic reach of scientific method. Antipositivists concerned themselves with the soundness and cogency of experience and knowledge in the personal and social realms, especially in what came to be known as the social sciences. Debate between positivists and antipositivists received the most focused attention in the fields of anthropology and sociology. By the end of the 19th century, positivism was so broadly exercised and widespread that national differences in its application to art and art criticism were apparent (Broude 1991). In art history and in the emerging discipline of art conservation, debate about the role and influence of science and scientific technologies became involved with the concept of artist's intent in the National Gallery cleaning controversy of the 1940s and 1950s, when a technologically defined idea of following the artist's intentions was formalized as a principle of art conservation.

Simultaneously, in literary and philosophical circles, the concept of artist's intent became the direct subject of another debate, unrelated to scientific and technological considerations. The phrase “intentional fallacy” was coined in the title of an influential scholarly article claiming that artists' intentions are neither available nor desirable as a standard for assessing art. The position established in “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1946) became known as anti-intentionalism. Intentionalists disagreed, arguing that any sense of the artist's intention, however obscure, can be a useful resource in interpreting a work of art.

Philosophy is not often a forte of the pragmatic practitioner, concerned with empirical results. Unlike philosophers, historians, and literary critics, art conservators did not separate along intentionalist and anti-intentionalist lines. While other disciplines perceived their specific issues in terms of positivism versus antipositivism and differing theories of art criticism and interpretation, conservators were artificially and superficially separated into two ad hoc schools—aesthetic conservators and scientific conservators. The broader issues became mired in methodological disagreement, and the principle of adherence to the artist's intentions was reduced to a casual tenet of conservation theory.

Most of the uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding artist's intentions can be directly attributed to the use of the word “intention” when it is applied to artists and their work. The word is tightly tied to subtle and diverse references to artistic biography and to competing theories of art, creativity, and aesthetics. Unraveling the knotted meanings of this word is necessary for improved discussion of the idea and its surrounding issues in the field of art conservation. Precise language and a deliberate understanding of the role of the artist in the artwork allow artist's intent to be carefully comprehended and applied to art conservation issues in a clear and constructive way.

Important contributions to this work come from philosophers working in the field of contemporary hermeneutics, the specific subdiscipline of philosophy concerned with the processes of interpretation, discourse, and humanistic understanding. In the past two decades, this work has shed new light on artistic discourse, the role of the artist, and the fundamental nature of works of art. The nature of art, artist's intentions, theory of the text, and theory of the work are all vital topics in contemporary hermeneutics.

Copyright 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works