David Novros: Death, Ownership, and Public Art
Against the Text “Art is Immortal”

Author’s note: Originally delivered to a conference of restorers in Miami, 2003

All art is temporal. All art is lost.
Go to Egypt. Go look at the Sphinx.
It’s falling apart. He sits
on water in the desert and the water table shifts.
He has lost his toes to the sand—
blasts of the Saharan winds
of a mere few thousand years.
The Mamelukes shot up his face
because they were iconoclasts,
because they were musketeers.
The British stole his beard
because they were imperialist thieves.
It’s in the cellar of the British Museum,
where the Athenians lost their marbles.

David Novros, “Room”, 1975. One of three rooms, each 10 ́ × 20 ́, oil on canvas, Collection Menil Foundation, Houston, Texas.

And that City of Ideas
that Socrates once had in mind
has faded too, like the Parthenon
from car exhaust, and from
the filthiness of the Turks
who used it as a dump.
If that city ever was
for real in public works
and not just words he said:
I say as William Carlos Williams said,
things as the Sphinx is our thing,
a beast of a man made god,
stoned into art to guard the dead
from nothing, nothing and vanishing
toes first in the desert
sand-blasted off into nothing
by a few thousand years of air,
sand, take your pick, picker,
go to Egypt, go look
at the Sphinx while it lasts.
Art is not immortal.
Art is not mortal.
All art is ideas in things
All art is temporal. All art is lost.
The imperial desert is moving in
with water, sand and wind
to wear the godly native beast of man apart
back to the nothing which sculpted him.

And remember the Mamelukes, remember the Brits.
They were the iconoclasts of their own times,
primitive musketeers, primitive chiselers, This time
we can really blast the beast of man to bits.

Yes, but it’s one thing for nature to erode
an object and another thing for man
to destroy both objects and objectless
art. Art is only kept alive when it is valued and there is no permanence in
the criteria used to assess value.

What distinguishes our time, a time
in which “we can really blast the beast
of man to bits” is that we have come to
designate value in art thru market
economy criteria. Our contemporary myth
of art ownership denies an awareness of
death—both the collectors and the art
he purchases—allowing a system of
markets (galleries, auction houses,
museums, universities, publishers, etc.)
to determine that which is worth
saving and that which is expendable.
There have been better ways for art
to be used and valued. Hopefully,
art-capitalism will also pass.

Now, I’d like to stop speaking about
art and have it understood that my
interests in these remarks revolve around painting,
sculpture, and architecture.
When a painter steps outside this
world of markets, and begins to
confront the experience of making
work that isn’t validated as a
commodity, he becomes vulnerable and
that’s good. He must think about
not only what he is painting, but
also why. And, this thinking must
question all the conventions learned
in schools, art galleries, museums, etc.
(Painting is not entertainment—in spite
of the Guggenheim spin—Painting is not
style—in spite of the magazines—
and painting is not a good investment—
in spite of the spin from galleries and
auction houses. Painting is an ancient
and honorable art that deals very
well with internal discussions and their
visual externalization. It is the
most private and most public.)

One of the things that needs
questioning is the convention
of the “exhibition”—a degrading
word to describe an inferior means of
interacting with the arts. The “exhibition”
concept is actually another expression
of art-as-commodity, loot.
I think a good alternative, that is
becoming more and more difficult to
accomplish, can exist in making
painting that is in-place and can
be seen by the public at no cost.
But, even when one is able to do this
kind of work, the question of value
still exists. Now that the artist has
made something that escaped private
ownership with all of its monetary certainty
and existential ignorance, what is the
painting worth and to whom is it worth

The “public” that the artist has embraced
may or may not immediately validate his work
but since painting and publics both exist
in time, validation should be suspended in
favor of use. To deny use to the public
(public-as-patron, the public who will
die and the public who are not yet born)
is a form of demagoguery. Here are
some examples:

1. Egypt (defaced politicians)
2. Elgin marbles (imperialist thieves)
3. Byzantine (iconoclasts)
4. 15th Century Europe (Renaissance)
5. 15th Century Europe (New World)
6. World War II (vandalism)
7. Diego Rivera (revenge of the patron)
8. Serra (federal disgrace)
9. my work

                                               } past and present

10. Buddhas of Bamiyan

While the Germans were vandalizing
the great fresco cycles of Russia (as
surely as the Mongols), other Nazis,
of all nations, were looting the portable
treasures. Wealth + Portability = Survival
You restorers and conservators are supposed
to take care of these portable treasures
(and the historical work-in-place
that generates income from tourism.)
But what are Restorers and Conservators
to do with the painting that is not portable and
is not of monetary value? What is
their role in protecting art that has
been made with public patronage?
Will they help preserve art that has been
deemed inappropriate by politicians,
or work that never made it to the
re-sale market? Or work that eludes
the taste of one moment only to appear
indispensable to a later public?

I’m saying that, minimally,
restorers should not help destroy art.
This obvious stance ought to be observed
in regard to both physical objects and
work that has been made for a specific
physical context. The Removal of painting
and sculpture from its intended context
must be avoided in all circumstances except
those that threaten the physical
existence of the work. (It would be
better to stop Athens’s pollution than to
turn the Acropolis into a glass-covered museum.)
Cultural, religious, economic, or political considerations are
never sufficient to allow for the destruction
of art.

If restorers approach their work
with respect for the intentions of the artist,
if they undertake an honest historical
investigation (including, when possible,
direct communication with the person
who made the art)…if they can do these
things, restoration can be more than
mortuarial plastic surgery or, at worst,
official vandalism. We all know
examples of work destroyed in
the name of restoration, preservation,
progress, and protection—done at
the behest of collectors, institutions,
dealers, auction houses, politicians,
and preachers. Restorers should not
be complicitous. The public has every
right to have its art maintained as
lovingly as the supposedly deathless
objects that are collected by our
mortal neighbors.


Alan Dugan