Are The Aesthetics Of Decay And The Aesthetics Of Preservation Compatible?

January 3, 2013

If decay is a beautiful thing, why are we working so hard to preserve all this archival material?

A facetious statement, perhaps, but an exaggeration that underscores the fact that aesthetics guide many of the decisions we make as archivists and preservationists. We may claim it is for research, or integrity, or, to use the European term, patrimony, but we have to admit that at the base of our decision-making and the actions we take is an aesthetic judgement of value, quality, and beauty. This fact tracks back through the history of preservation in the west at least into the 19th century, such as was expressed with the scrape / anti-scrape conflict that pitted restoration to an idealized original state against maintaining the existing state of a building and repairing it enough to remain standing as the most authentic preservation of cultural heritage.

Why really does this matter, however? We have things correct now with the way we preserve things, or at least we have identified the ideal we strive to attain.

No. We don’t. And we’ll never be close. We’ll never be close because aesthetic values are temporally and culturally — and even individually — bound. The choices we make are destined to be reassessed and found wanting by future generations — just as we have done — until a subsequent future generation reassesses the reassessment and deems our work worthy — just as we have done. It is the burden of culture, the burden of the past, the burden of progeny.

During the Bush II presidency the refrain was “History will judge us as correct”. They were right. At some point, to some degree, it will. And then it won’t. And then will. And then won’t. And then most people will forget why it even mattered.


I think about this topic whenever I read things like Dave Kehr’s New York Times review of the Blu-ray release of Bill Morrison’s Decasia. The typical refrain that gets me, and that is oft-repeated by commenters and social media-sharers, is something along the lines of an I told you so Schadenfreude that film is the über-medium and digital is a false prophet.

This attitude seems odd in the context of a review of a work made up of clips from severely decayed film (that also happens to be releasing on a digital format). It also seems odd considering the many missteps that have occurred with film as a physical medium which have led to untold problems with preserving it.

But then again, it’s not odd, because much of Kehr’s review is predicated on a belief that because film decays in a way that may still be presentable, and because that decay is beautifully melancholy, film is far superior to digital formats that (according to him) cannot be viewed once damaged or degraded. An aesthetic judgement, to be sure, that is not really tied to the original cinematic works or their context, as well as one that ignores those who document and find beauty in the artefacting and decay of magnetic media and digital content, which, even if it’s not your bag, is still probably 1000x more pleasing than 90 minutes of pink, color-faded acetate.

I point this out not to say that Kehr is wrong — History will do that for me — but to understand or acknowledge how our personal biases influence us even in matters we believe are born out of logic or a studied lack of self-interest, whereas these approaches themselves are a part of aestheticized systems of thought steeped in the murk of history and ancient religions.

That said, okay, I now have to admit that Kehr is wrong. He is wrong in continuing the fetishization of decay and its inextricable link to archives. To me, this is on par with the dusty archive trope, the lost until a heroic researcher discovered it trope, and the temporal dissonance that older things are more well made and longer-lasting but anything over 30 years old is ready to crumble to dust if you try to do anything with it.

(Okay, that last is just a personal affront to the wounded ego of an aging soul.)

But maybe there’s something in that personal affront, something about the conflict of the decaying body housing the strengthening mind, about the degrading reel of film holding content that does not fade except in our memory. Even if its essence does not change, everything becomes something else over time, whether by nature or by our hand.

— Joshua Ranger