Art and Artifact

Visit any art museum and you find that, up until the renaissance, most of the western art on display is actually functional. And that most of the non-western art is always displayed as being functional.* Yet even now, when western art has been decoupled from its function, functional western art still shows up in museums. The catch is that it always old when it shows up.

*Read my Art, Craft, and Function post for more context on this point.

I don’t think it’s possible to set a specific time value for when things become objects in and of themselves. It does seem though that we need time to let the context settle down.

Richard Misrach waited 20 years before displaying his photos of the Oakland Hills Fire. This kept his photos from being opportunistic ruin porn and instead added some historical context for us to reflect on what we were seeing yet also allowed us to add our own narratives to the story and abstract the images so they can describe other disasters.

Similarly, old photojournalism will often show up in museums as art since the photos are no longer burdened by a single specific narrative.

Which makes sense considering photography’s function. A lot of the appeal of Walker Evans now is the historical side of the photos and how they illustrate a time in American history. They’re no longer specific stories, they evoke the sense of a decade.

The transition of a photo from image to artifact is especially interesting given the hang-ups many people have about archival life. Museums happily display old prints and tintypes without explaining how they may have faded or tarnished over the years. That the objects and images have survived is sufficient. And this is fine. How an object ages is an important part of its impact. We don’t look at ancient sculpture fragments and think that they’re ruined because they’ve broken.* We appreciate what’s survived. If a calamity happens, that becomes part of the history of the object.**

*Something that artists like Mitoraj take full advantage of.

**For example, Cimabue’s crucifix which was “destroyed” by floods.

What we see in the museum is as much about what the object has survived and its specific life story as it is about what the object actually is and represents.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this will change as more and more art becomes technology-based and no longer degrades physically. We’re not really used to this idea yet we’re already seeing this phenomenon in movies where once-cutting-edge special effects end up severely dating the movie later. Watching King Kong, Jason and the Argonauts, or even Jurassic Park now forces us to see the technical evolution of the medium. I’m not sure we’ve adjusted to being able to view those as much more than technological time capsules.

I’m a bit worried that the focus on archival life in photography will result in a second round of technological hangups once prints begin to age. It’s much more interesting to focus on what the photos are of and what they represent from the past than just talking about the technicalities—no matter how interesting—of how they were made.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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