Volume 12, Number 1, Jan. 1990, pp.11-14, cartoon

Dear Xylene


Dear Xylene:

I was shocked when I read "Solvents and Sensibility Part III" in the May Newsletter. Is it really wise to print formulations that could be misused by lay people, potentially doing serious damage to artworks.

Worried out West

Dear Worried Out West (WOW?):

Is it "wise"...? A little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing, but is more knowledge even more dangerous...or less? Aye, there's the rub. (And too much rubbing is probably part of the danger.) Xylene doesn't believe that doctors refrain from publishing important new information about medical procedures in medical journals for fear some untrained oaf may wield a scalpel upon his/her own precious family members. And how else can those who have been out of school for a while keep up? (Besides, one trusts that the WAAC Newsletter does not have the same general readership as, say, "Women's Day" or "Sports Illustrated"--in spite of the impending boom in circulation caused by this column.)

P.S. I understand that these new formulations, while being generally less toxic--always a concern to Yours Truly--can be considerably more potent than traditional solvents when used on the "perfect match" layer of grime, oil or varnish, and often require new wielding techniques. Xylene cannot help also worrying about perfectly well trained conservators plunging, with their own special brand of confidence, into these new materials. But then we all can't lose as much sleep as I do, or we'd all be pretty shaky at the easel or bench, right? I'm for freedom of information. Let the best get better, and I'm not sure an information blackout will hinder the oafs anyway.

Dear Xylene:

As an employee in a Conservation Laboratory with poorly (primarily apprenticeship) trained conservators, I routinely witness the performance of ethical & aesthetic atrocities upon our hapless charges. My suggestions and cajoling fall on deaf ears. Usually, I avoid knowing about my "colleagues'" treatments. Those mistreatments too gross to ignore I report to my superiors, but nothing ever changes. HELP!

Nauseated in the North

Dear Nauseated:

(By the way, I hope your condition is not exacerbated by O.D.ing on any of my colleague solvents.) Firstly, do I note the slightly snide tone of a Program Trained Conservator (PTC) toward the Apprenticeship Trained Conservator (ATC)? Many PTCs were trained, after all, by ATCs, and there are many excellent ATCs. (Xylene prefers not to harp on the possibility of the existence of not-so-excellent PTCs...at this time...but back to your question.) "Ethical and aesthetic atrocities," eh? Well, the best approach is always a direct one in my bottle. Open discussion with the culprits. (Conservation could probably do with fewer passive aggressives.) However, it sounds as if you've tried that. The next line of approach would be the Boss of the lab, who may--you realize--consider you a prime meddler. (Of course you're actually being brave, but you'll probably have to wait for the annals of history to vindicate you, which may be posthumous, or at least post-this-post.) So explain to the big B that as a professional conservator, you feel responsible for the works of art in any department where you work, and that you feel it is your ethical responsibility to promote best known methods. If you are a PTC, you can always tell big B that s/he'll never get any program interns (hey, loss of free labor!) with the current approach, attitude and reputation of your colleagues. (Your old profs could even help back you up here, if you ask.) The penultimate line of defense is to educate the curator or owners why this approach is not--shall we say--"cutting edge," and be ready to provide back-up literature. (You could also suggest a team of outside consultants or "peer review" procedures as is often done regularly by university departments or regional centers, especially before seeking grants.) Then, well I'm afraid you'll just have to quit in a burst of passionate documentation to make your point. (However, this will probably not be very effective for the works of art, your colleagues or, dear "Nauseated," yourself. BUT it could keep you away from solvents, colleagues or even food for a while and you might regain your appetite.)

Dear Xylene:

A dealer for whom I have done a great deal of work has asked certain favors of me. No, Xylene, not that! What he asks is that I switch costs of treatments on the receipt, eg.: $30 for cleaning, lining, filling, inpainting, varnishing and whatever else it takes on a 30" x 40" oil on canvas by I. Smell Bigbucks; $3,500 for the superficial cleaning of an 8" x 10", U. N. Known; and some paintings not to appear at all. You must detect some hyperbole on my part, but you get the idea. The dealer/client claims that it shouldn't bother me since my income is unchanged so I'm square with the IRS. True! Still, I refuse to cooperate. Am I being too hard-nosed.

Balking T.Y.P.E. (for Take Your Painting Elsewhere)

P.S. Can you venture some guesses as to the rationale for the dealer's convoluted thinking.--B.T.

Dear Balking:

Money corrupts. (Luckily, we in art conservation can often stay quite pure.) Your dealer friend is one of those businesspersons Time magazine wrote about in the "Whatever Happened to Ethics?" issue. Xylene likes to slosh around in the thought that because we are trusted with our nation's patrimony behind closed doors, we are some of the last flame keepers for Honesty and Ethics. Don't do it. If you have had multiple dealings with this Python, why not try a direct approach about how you know your IRS records would still be square, etc., BUT you Could Not Live With Yourself, Hold Up Your Head in your Profession, misinform the public or collector who was to receive the receipt about the fairness of pricing in art conservation, or risk losing Mr./Ms. Python's respect (!) by agreeing to business practices somewhat other than above board. (Hey, you might even kindle some tiny spark within him/her buried lo these many years.) Why would this person ask such a thing? Let's guess. Perhaps to save face for past mis-estimations for conservation services? To unethically tie treatment cost to market value, but in reverse? (Maybe to encourage more I. Smell Bigbucks paintings to come in the door?) Are some paintings left out altogether to pretend they have never been treated--"original state" and all that? Forgive please, but Xylene doesn't want to try any harder to see things from Python's perspective. It twists my stopper.

Xylene the insomniac.

Dear Xylene:

I am a conservator of photographic materials. (Yes, one of those few still left!) I have several young students working with me (we've got to perpetuate the species!) and recently I've been asked to treat some 19th century pornographic photographs. Shall I refuse?


Dear Shocked:

No. Think of the possibilities for an AIC talk. And your "young students" have probably posed for worse, anyway. (And I thought you wanted to perpetuate your species.) But seriously, Shocked ( are you seriously shocked??), I mean, gee--I know conservators are supposed to be sensitive--well, you can always write a letter to the client of the sort Kodak writes to forensic anthropologists when they send their "during treatment" murder trial research pictures off to an unwary development lab: "I am sorry but the subject matter in these negatives is not appropriate to submit to our sensitive employees" and then recommend another lab. (I, for instance, could make time to do at least a condition check.)

Dirty Old Xylene (good for toning those hard-to-match losses)

Dear Xylene:

Please consider this cartoon.  [Cartoon] How is a body to deal with this problem. (It's a genuine problem.)

Harassed More

Dear Harassed More (and enjoying it less, I sense):

First, let's consider the cartoon. Hmm. Suggestive examination angle for an artwork. Hmmm. Proper professional dress on the job is of course important. Traditional thinking, of course, holds that "she asked for it, in a dress like that," but Xylene would like to defend the right to wear mini skirts and slightly unbuttoned fronts (for either gender, actually) without harassment as long as proper handling is not impeded. (Handling of the work of art--not the conservator.) A 1980 study of sexual harassment in the federal government revealed that 65% of female employees reported harassment by co-workers and 37% of these incidents involved either their immediate supervisor or other supervisory personnel1. Studies have found this behavior to be embarrassing, demeaning and/or intimidating2. Sexual harassment is a serious problem which affects primarily women, but also men of all ages, races, education, socioeconomic, and occupational groups3. The Equal Opportunity Commission provided the following guidelines on Sept. 23, 1980: "Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of Section 703 of Title VII. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."4 You can go to your local EEOC representatives--whose job it is to find and point out examples of infringements--if you feel your work is being hindered even by what others may consider compliments: "what a foxy labcoat," etc. This can be classified as creating a "hostile environment." (But be warned that "suggestive" clothing or language by the victim may be discussed in court as partial justification.) Employers may need reminders about the propriety of certain remarks and behavior. Posting of Title VII case studies with stiff fines against employers and corporations might be one deterrent. (Let me know if you need further help from my team of legal research assistants.) Sex discrimination against students, rather than employees, is actionable under another number, this one dating from 1972, called "Title IX"5. Employers should develop policies and procedures to handle sexual harassment complaints. Suggesting to your employer to take the time to write this letter may discourage infractions before they begin. (The very existence of the Title VII and Title IX as avenues of redress may startle potential offenders.) Tell your employer that you think the "preventative approach" is always the best way, especially in art conservation.

Clean Xylene

Dear Xylene:

I'm desperate. (Otherwise, let's face it, why would I write to you?) I am a recent graduate of a school, a "fledgling conservator," I guess you could say. My new boss drinks at lunch and then comes back to work on paintings. I feel this is unacceptable, but I am grateful to be hired. I don't want to risk my job, but I have never touched liquor in my life and have trouble accepting her conduct as appropriate professional behavior. And I worry about the works in her care. No one else in the lab wants to say anything.

Not High but Terribly Dry

Dear Not High (but maybe too dry):

Maybe if you joined her for lunch you'd loosen up and it might help your inpainting. (ho ho) What does she drink? And how much? As an inexperienced imbiber, you may be overreacting to one glass of cheap white wine--doctors say we'd have fewer heart attacks if we each allowed ourselves one glass of wine (red has more iron) a day. (And some Italian painting restorers believe your spit cleaning abilities are enhanced by wine at lunch--she may only be responsibly preparing for afternoon grime removal.) BUT if it's tee martoonies--sorry, Xylene felt obliged to run a small test before continuing--AND it's constant, you might do her a service to warn her (in person or with Art Hazard League clippings) about the synergistic effects of combining alcohol with solvent inhalation. No one else wants to say anything either? Listen guys, if there is a possibility of alcoholism, remember that is a treatable disease, and allowing it to go untreated is harmful to the person, her professional future and the works of art she treats. Ignoring is not responsible, and giving her small "rest leaves" is a head-in-the-sand approach. Many institutions have well thought out, pro-employee policies of a one time paid treatment for alcoholism (but treatment must be documented--sound familiar?) to help the person beat it and return to a normal, productive life personally and professionally. A direct and pro- active approach may be difficult, but think about it--maybe you can arrange a caring, open discussion among her colleagues. (I was at a salute for a retired professor from my college who made a point of thanking the person who had helped him "onto the wagon.") Xylene (P.S. to others: Does your lab or institution have a thoughtful alcoholism policy? There's another "preventative" notion. With our solvent inhalation potential, we may be a high risk group.) More inquiries welcome, (especially if quite different from the above!)



Xylene saved his/her harshest words for the editor, who underestimated Xylene's wiliness. The set of questions that appeared in Xylene's first column were not made-up, as I erroneously stated, but rather were asked of close-friend conservators. Xylene is an otherwise well respected conservator. Send your questions, comments, answers, or whatever-bugs-you to: Chris Stavroudis (for Xylene); 1272 N. Flores St.; Los Angeles, CA 90069. While questions will be forwarded to Xylene with only the pseudonym signature present (i.e. anonymously), the sender must identify themself to the Editor for legal reasons. -Ed.

  1. United States Merit System Protection Board Offices of Merit Review and Studies, Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Is It A Problem? (1981). Cited in Eric S. Mondschein and Loel Green, "An Update on Sexual Harassment in Employment and Education," Education Law Update 1987-88, p. 175. Hah, didn't know Xylene could footnote! [May be easy for you, but rough on us typesetters. -Ed.]
  2. Mondschein and Green, p. 175. This is not a subject to treat lightly.
  3. Ibid. I could go on for some time about this.
  4. Ibid. p. 176. Don't hesitate to Xerox this and post it at opportune locations.
  5. Ibid. p. 185. Just what are the requirements for an "A" in this course?

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