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




The technologically defined idea of following the artist's intentions did not survive as an authoritative principle of art conservation; it was scientifically doctrinaire and lacked scope and rigor. Its narrow definition placed it at odds with conventions of connoisseurship, the mortality of materials, and historical explanation. Critical debate surrounding the intentional fallacy illustrates significant obstacles to defining and judging artist's intent, and philosophical explanation of the autonomy of artworks contradicts its authority over the artwork as a whole. In art conservation, following the artist's intentions remains attractive only in its reference to evaluating and considering the characteristic individuality of artists exhibited in their work.

A specific branch of the literature of analytical research in art conservation is devoted to describing and measuring particular artist's distinctive methods and materials. Measurable, material things such as the choice and preparation of media, size, and shape and order of brush strokes, even idiosyncrasies of drawing, modeling, and line—all represent artistic intent in a limited and specific sense. In the narrowed focus on the distinctive use of materials in a particular work, psychological insights, social and intellectual purposes, and aesthetic effects are not addressed. The artist's intent, in this individual and characteristic sense, can be interpreted systematically in the individual stylistic aspects of an artwork, specifically in technical matters of distinctive artistic style.

Appeals to artists' intentions through this type of characteristic individuality can find a useful role in art conservation only if the artist's specific investment in the work of art is not equated with broader, nonindividual connotations of aesthetic style, historical period, genre, and oeuvre or equated with the remains of the artist's original materials. The artist's investment is expressed in the choice, preparation, and application of the media, not in the nature of the media itself. This is the explicit reference that conservators can maintain with professional expertise to save discussions of artists' intentions from falling into ambiguity. However, its application to conservation work requires more than the scientific delineation of an artist's style.

The history of debate among conservators, critics, and art historians over artist's intent illustrates the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach. Historical knowledge and interpretation can inform the relationship between conservation treatment needs and perspectives on the disposition of the artist's work. Connoisseurship can suggest the desirability, quality, and extent of treatment necessary for maintaining the individuality of the artist and the individuality of the work and placing them together in a meaningful context. Scientific analysis of the physical structure and chemical nature of the artwork can indicate how the artist's use of materials and their present condition pertain to the selection of conservation treatment goals and technologies.

The interdisciplinary task of applying artists' intentions to conservation work requires exacting contributions from historians, critics, and connoisseurs, philosophers of art, scientists, and conservators alike. Purposeful discussion of the role of the artist in the artwork requires careful language and deliberate understanding of the essential nature of art. Precise language, commonly understood, is the first step in this direction. The importance of unambiguous language is paramount. Clear language among the disciplines will be necessary to describe how the artist's individuality and the individuality of his or her work can be fulfilled and maintained in conjunction with three other factors—the historical contexts in which the artwork is documented and perceived; the traditions of connoisseurship that give it reference; and the physical and temporal characteristics of the media employed. Artists' intentions can be investigated and applied to art conservation issues in terms of the distinctive characteristics that determine the individuality of artists and their work. The productive application of this specific conception of artist's intent will account for and acknowledge that the artist's investment functions in concert with these other factors to give an artwork a meaningful and lasting life.


The author gratefully acknowledges the editors of this journal and the anonymous reviewers who provided extensive comments and constructive criticism on several successive drafts of this article. Their careful readings and thoughtful advice encouraged necessary improvements in its style, content, and organization.

Copyright � 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works