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Is the longevity of art important?

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

We are living in a time when we worry about things having too much longevity, yet we generally don't apply this way of thinking to works of art.

When I work in acrylic paints, I do all I can to preserve the colours in the painting and ensure they last a long time (e.g. I use high-quality paints and seal them in with varnish at the end). However, acrylic paints are essentially plastic and every other type of plastic in the world is viewed as a problem because it does last...and it lasts too long. Yet, when a client buys a painting from me, the last thing I would like is for it to disintegrate within a few months of it being in it's new home (and I'm sure the client would be more than a little disappointed too).

Let's contrast that with our view of art made with natural materials. Some years ago, I attended a willow workshop to create a garden sculpture. I spent a most enjoyable day weaving willow in the artist's garden to create a large giraffe. If I remember correctly, we were told that the sculptures would last a few years, longer if they were kept indoors during bad weather. I don't recall feeling in any way annoyed that my sculpture that I had paid for would not last my lifetime - I was just pleased with the result and had enjoyed the process of creating it. We accept that natural materials will degrade and we don't worry about it.

In fact, humans are the only animals that make art to keep and continue to look at it; other animals have been shown to make forms of art but once it's completed and served it's purpose (such as impressing a mate), they have no interest in it [1].

When we are children, art is not about expensive materials. It is about drawing on scrap paper, making junk models, sculpting from play-doh, etc. Temporary creations, in other words. Painters progress from this into making 'proper art', which is what we generally think of as coming from the daunting displays found in art stores - of different shapes and sizes of brushes, vast ranges of colours of paint and quality canvases and frames. But art that involves recycling and reusing is better for our planet than art that involves going into a shop and buying is this really the right kind of progress? Do we need expensive materials to make art that is considered valuable? Or did someone see a way to make money and start creating and selling these materials and tools for 'proper' artists?

For me, making art feels best when we are starting with some sort of a mess and if we start by going into an art store and looking at rows and rows of neatly-ordered, brand-new paint, then we're not starting with a mess at all (for a fuller explanation of this see this post). So it feels like there is something less natural about this approach.

As our awareness of environmental damage has grown in recent times, I have seen many examples of ways in which the artistic community are moving to make more 'eco-friendly' art with more natural materials than before. I can't help but wonder if what we are now calling 'eco-friendly art' is really what was considered normal art some lifetimes ago.

Perhaps we are really just like other animals and the evidence of our creativity does not need to last; what's most important is going through the process.

As it turns out, my willow giraffe is still standing after nearly 9 years of being outdoors, although it has lost a lot of willow and is considerably thinner than it started. I am now wondering if I can reuse the iron frame to rebuild it one day, or perhaps make something entirely new...

[1] Dutton D. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2009.

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