James Beck, the art historian and longtime Columbia University professor, died at the age of 77 over the Memorial Day weekend. He was the art world’s professional irritant, best remembered for his protracted campaign during the 1980s to halt the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, a cause to which he rallied not only fellow Renaissance specialists but a roster of contemporary art stars as well.
I felt at the time, and still do, that Beck was flat-out wrong, that his stance ignored Michelangelo’s entrenched belief in buon fresco technique (which allowed for a bare minimum of a secco overpainting—the very thing that Beck claimed was being erased by the cleaning), and that his attitude toward the Italian restoration team was more than a little condescending. Beck lost that one but was never out of the game. He soon came back swinging over the restoration of Jacopo della Quercia’s Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (later conceded to be the disaster that Beck tried to prevent), Leonardo’s Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David, to name three of his more high-profile targets.
There are those who will remember Beck as a passionate advocate of unpopular causes, and just as many who will continue to regard him as a publicity-hungry hothead. These views are beside the point. He had the erudition, persuasiveness and guts to blow the whistle on our impulse to burnish our cultural heritage until it’s clean, shiny and odor-free. Refurbish a monument, so the thinking goes, and tourist dollars will follow—a concept no different from real estate development. Beck, however stridently, raised our awareness of how ruinous this path can be. We didn’t need him to be right; we just needed him to be there.