Salvador Viñas Brings His Philosophy to H-SC

April 22, 2013
Luke A. Schroeder '13

Vinas at lecturePeople often view certain objects of cultural heritage as having special value and want to conserve and endorse them. But what is the origin of such value? Where should a conservator look? In mid-April, Salvador Muñoz Viñas, a professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia in Spain, travelled to Hampden-Sydney to spend several days engaging philosophy majors with problems in the ethics of heritage conservation.

On Monday, April 15, as a key part of this visit, Muñoz Viñas delivered a lecture in Crawley Forum titled "Is It True that Truth Matters? The Problem of Authenticity in Heritage Conservation." Muñoz Viñas' talk focused on the concept of authenticity as it is used in the field and philosophy of art conservation. Should conservators pay heed to the authenticity of a work of art?  In other words, does authenticity matter? Muñoz Viñas attempted to answer these questions by analyzing how conservators and audiences regard and have regarded the concept.

Muñoz Viñas urged that conservators do not take authenticity into account when making most important decisions, nor should they. An examination of art and conservation history can tell us why. In some cases, conservators attempting to restore the authenticity of a work ultimately produce a work that appears markedly different from its pre-restoration state. For instance, conservators might take a beautiful house long encrusted with natural patina and make it look brand new or renovate a slashed painting by covering both the slash and other historical decay, and then label the results as "authentic." By contrast, when conservators cleaned the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, removing the influence of heavy soot, some people expressed outrage at what they believed was a loss of authenticity. These examples demonstrate the trouble with authenticity: people have no coherent standards for using the concept. Thus Muñoz Viñas judged that the concept of authenticity serves no inherent or objective purpose. Rather, critics and audiences have employed it to justify the validity of their expectations about artworks. It is people's values, beliefs, and expectations that matter for conservators and conservation ethics. As vague as it is, authenticity falls short as an ethical guideline. 

Moreover, as Muñoz Viñas claimed, the concept of authenticity seems intrinsically corrupt. How, he asked, can an artwork possibly be more authentic than it already is? The slashed painting is, he says, an authentically slashed painting. Likewise, the repaired painting is an authentically repaired slashed painting. With these considerations in hand, Muñoz Viñas concluded that the concept of authenticity serves no definite or objective purpose.  

In so doing, Muñoz Viñas rejected the view that conservation can follow strict objective guidelines that direct conservators to preserve and restore objects to their "authentic" conditions. Rather, conservators modify reality-heritage objects-to fit the needs and expectations of whatever audience has an appropriate relationship with those objects. Meeting these expectations, then, should serve as the most basic goal of conservation.

So what value should conservators follow? Muñoz Viñas did not address this question in much depth, but he did offer a way forward. He believes that conservators should seek to maximize the happiness or well-being of the public, both now and in the future. They have a duty not only to us right now, or us in our particular location, but to everyone around us, and everyone who comes after us. After all, we the public value cultural heritage as a link between past and present, present and future. The job of the conservator is to keep these connections alive.