“Ars longa, vita brevis” should be uttered (and was, repeatedly, ad nauseum by my moustachioed diploma fine art tutor) with a heavy dose of irony.
Yes, much art has a greater life span than the average puny human, yet even the Art Loss Register – a vast trove of seemingly endless recorded works gone, pinched, burnt, sat on (and those are the recorded works) – seems obsessed with the recovery and survival of art, its homepage filled with examples of ‘Recovered’ objects. Physical art is fragile, and, like compulsive cultural hoarders, we now attach an insane degree of importance to the preservation and ‘saving’ for the nation of artefacts; hence the Artlyst lyst of destroyed art is named ‘Top 10 Art Disasters’, a word synonymous with volcanic eruptions, the Hindenburg.. Yet again Andy Warhol is giggling in his grave with his piece named ‘Tuna Fish Disaster’ playing on our commercialised obsession with infinite comfort as part of a developed society. Certainly, I am all for the recovery of Nazi looted works to their rightful family owners, and against the IS destruction of heritage: these are cases of humanity and international politics for the greater good, totally beyond dispute. But grumpbag Brian Sewell may have had a point when he lamented how the National Portrait Gallery pleaded for the nation’s spare change to “save” a relatively undistinguished Van Dyck self portrait from the terrible fate of sitting in a private collector’s bathroom. Shudder.
What happens to the importance and status of art when it is lost? As an enormous fan of Courbet I learned through Wikipedia that the ‘Stonebreakers’, a favourite long vaguely stored in my mind as one to go and see in person, was in fact destroyed. Cue pouring over photographic records of it, wondering starry-eyed at how my beloved brushwork could be reduced to cinders. A deliciously wicked part of my imagination actually enjoyed the wrongness in visualising how the paint must have bubbled and cracked, just like the pleasure derived in deliberately smashing one’s best china. In some ways I envy that chap who had the experience none of us can boast of: physically body-smashing a priceless 17th Century Chinese vase. Now that’s worth getting a lifetime ban from the Ashmolean for. And yes, it is totally hilarious that an overinflated businessman managed to poke his di- er.. finger through his prized Picasso while showing off to guests (come on, there are more than enough Picassos in the world to fill more than his fair share of art historical studies, one rip is just funny).
In my more pretentious student days I once argued that the Mona Lisa should be destroyed, for its negative effect on worldwide understanding of art history. Recently in the Louvre (now an assault course of selfie sticks), I saw how the Mona Lisa is now nothing more than a cultural black hole sucking people away from enriching their minds with other, new, unseen artworks by forgotten painters denied the luxury of post-mortem celebrity. I saw tourists photographing themselves standing in front of directions signs throughout the Louvre which had a mini picture of the Mona Lisa on them. Tragic. Except of course now I regard wanton destruction of art as akin to the Nazis burning books; just to clear that up.
To return to the value attached to works that are lost: do Vermeer, Caravaggio and Rembrandt enjoy a greater cultural significance and emotional attachment from art history because examples from their already precious oeuvre were destroyed or lost? Probably not: such is their immeasurable value (and dead status) that they are already in the stratosphere of untouchable importance. Certainly, the monetary value of remaining pieces goes up, that’s for sure. But for living artists who lose works, the best response is to do a Jake and Dinos: shrug one’s shoulders, express enough humility that you probably will never be as important as Rembrandt, and make another ‘Hell’, this time calling it – aptly – ‘Fucking Hell’. Shit happens.
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