Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s rendition of the Immaculate Conception

You may be expecting me, a lover of art, to express outrage over the latest botched art restoration job making headlines in recent weeks: a piece of upsetting work apparently perpetrated by a Spanish furniture restorer against a privately-owned painting of the Immaculate Conception by Baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. According to reporting by the Guardian, the collector was charged €1,200 (~$1,350) to have the picture cleaned. What returned was a primitive attempt to reconstruct the Virgin Mary’s face, after it was clearly dissolved by a cleaning agent.

And sure, it is outrageous — being the latest installment of botched restoration in Spain, and calling to mind the 2016 conversion of Christ to Beast Jesus, or the 2018 accidental desecration of a statue of Saint George. It also leaves the international art conservation community calling for tighter regulation in an industry where an amateur mistake can lead to the destruction of irreplaceable art objects and history.

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And yes, okay, it absolutely boggles the mind that anyone with the resources to collect a piece of art like this would try to cut financial corners in its maintenance. There are all kinds of places to tighten one’s belt, financially, but it might have been a better option to do so by not cleaning the painting at all, rather than going for the lowball bidder. Not going for the cheapest option is a great rule of thumb that applies to art restoration, plastic surgery, and incidentally, buying cheese. Sometimes those choices are tragically irreversible.

But let’s also remember that even restoration under the absolute best of circumstances can sometimes produce truly jarring results. And everyone renders the Virgin Mary as a beauty surrounded in heavenly light. This restoration is a bold retake that puts her in a whole new context, suggesting that perhaps God was into her inner beauty.

Hey, maybe the takeaway here is that we shouldn’t sell historic and national treasures into the private domain. Perhaps the valuation of art has placed a crass dollar value on things that are actually priceless and shouldn’t be sold at any cost. How can we really enforce regulation in such matters, when rich are people are notorious for doing whatever the hell they want regardless of the letter of the law, and bringing their resources to bear in protecting themselves from any real consequences of their behavior? Even, as in this case, when flouting the rules comes at the personal cost of losing the very things, they have worked to hoard.

Perhaps, as we learn through our work on bigger social issues, to convert our outrage into radical action that restructures systems to serve the greater good rather than cater to the whims and comforts of the ultrarich, we can stop having fresh outcry at each new violation of our collective art history. Instead, we can place these objects in public trusts that hold them sacred (which, of course, includes returning looted antiquities to their countries of origin). Can I get an amen?

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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