Art museums, old paintings, and our knowledge of the past

History and Theory 40 (2):170–189 (2001)
Abstract
Art museums frequently remove old paintings from their original settings. In the process, the context of these works of art changes dramatically. Do museums then preserve works of art? To answer this question, I consider an imaginary painting, The Travels and Tribulations of Piero's Baptism of Christ, depicting the history of display of Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ. This example suggests that how Piero's painting is seen does depend upon its setting. According to the Intentionalist, such changes in context have no real influence upon the meaning of Piero's painting, and consequently museums can be said to preserve works of art. According to the Skeptic, if such changes are drastic enough, we can no longer identify the picture's original meaning, and museums thus fail to pre- serve works of art. Skepticism deserves attention, for such varied influential commenta- tors as Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Blanchot, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Martin Heidegger, Hans Sedlmayr, and Paul Valery hold this pessimistic view of muse- ums. I develop the debate between the Intentionalist and the Skeptic. Ultimately skepti- cism is indefensible, I argue, because it fails to take account of the continuities in the his- tory of art's display. But Intentionalism is also deficient because it is ahistorical. In pre- senting the history of Piero's painting, The Travels and Tribulations of Piero 's Baptism of Christ shows that we can re-identify the original significance of Piero's work and the rec- ognizable continuities that obtain through its changes. It thus makes sense to claim that at least in certain circumstances art museums can preserve works of art
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