Artist intention and the conservation of contemporary art

Glenn Wharton

Abstract

This article addresses the use of the term artist intention in the conservation of contemporary art. The author draws from work with artists and from literature about intention, creativity, and the influence of social context to build a critical understanding of the term. The context for this research is the ongoing life of artworks in museums, where conservators, curators, and others decide how an artwork should be conserved and how the public should experience it.

Are artists the best source for articulating the intentions they had during the creation of their work? Some argue that artists’ intentions during the creative process are not necessarily reflective of their artistic production, as they may not have achieved their intentions. Following this logic, it is best to rely on curators, art historians, conservators, and others to define an artwork’s symbolic and aesthetic values based on analyzing the work itself, without interpreting expressions made by the artist. Other scholars argue that we need to go beyond the art object and study the social and material context of production to comprehend its meaning and aesthetic value. Examining conflicting debates in philosophy, literary criticism, art history, and the social sciences complicates using the term artist intention in the field of conservation. An argument is made for working with artists to arrive at conservation decisions, but to avoid mistaking artist opinions about problems at hand with expressions of their original intention.

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