The following is an exploration of the explanatory preservation theory in light of Riegl, and a discussion of a fundamental dilemma in Applied Ethics:
In Riegl, we find ourselves in the soothing gears of a Hegelian logic, whereby the conflict of thesis and antithesis are ultimately reconciled in a responsively evolved new thesis, in this instance Riegl’s description of deliberate commemorative values. The commemorative value acknowledges the importance of the historical value, or its ephemeral platonic dream of authenticity, but also appreciates age-value, that long process of decay or aesthetic patina which is the meat of a monuments “existence” without solely favouring either the historical or age value. Much like Hegel’s ethics, the commemorative value normatively dances between the two extremes of age-value and historical-value, leaving the monument to age gracefully yet intervening before structural, or recognisable, collapse. In modern historic conservation terms we would call it a reserved restoration and surgically precise preservation. Reigl’s notion of commemorative value is based on the idea of history forever unfurling, or in his words “becoming”, in the present is a utopian dream of immortality, whereby those who have passed, and what they have done, remain with us. This reminds any reader of Hegel of the unification of the human project with what Hegel terms the world historical spirit, Geist or God, which is the end of history. Reigl defines history as that which has passed and is gone forever, the very definition of a story – historia. If history assumes a constant state of “becoming”, and thus never ends, it would in fact be the end of history. Perhaps, in part, it is the power of this utopian dream of immortality that connects us to history that impels us to preserve those relics of the past that we most connect with.
What is particularly intriguing about this concept of deliberative commemorative value is in its resiliency against a value of specific time period. If the monuments history is constantly in a state of becoming it like the Hegelian dialectic is ever evolving and adapting to the new thesis that confronts it. The idea that this heritage value is Borg-like in its ability to assimilate those new changes that confront it could however ultimately reduce it to an irrecognisable form. For instance, if the accumulation of gypsum, carbon, and soot is accepted on a stone monument as age-value, then taken to an extreme its value would remain even if this gradually caused the complete disintegration of the monument and there was no stone left at all. However under such a framework, an intervention could be made at any arbitrary point, for any justification, to retain such a monument’s historical value. Values are input as they are needed, and in case of stakeholder consultations they are often a reflection of those with power.
In this scenario, like the idealist dream of Hegelian logic itself, the self-reinforcing system of thought is self-defeating like logic, logos, itself. We do not live in a world of Kantian-like moral dilemmas, and a healthy pragmatism is needed. Jumping into a theoretical framework that embraces the confrontation of the question of values and authenticity will ultimately be made vulnerable to the question of relativity.
Perhaps instead of thinking of heritage as a thing to value we could consider it more as a practise, praxis. In this more Aristotelian sense of Heritage it could be imagined that Virtue, arête, could rule the day. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics the notion that Prudence, phronesis, is developed as the coordinator of all the Virtues, in that it directs a person to act in the most virtuous way in a given situation. For example, discretion (usually labelled cowardice) can be the better part of valour in face of futility, but other times bravery requires a steadfast stance. In this sliding scale, practising the Virtue of Bravery can be running from an enemy or confronting them. In turn, the practise of the Virtue of Preservation would be a walking of the line between decay and intervention – magnanimous preservation could then be defined by those making the most Prudent contextual decisions.
However, the same criticism of relativism can be levelled against action based on virtue. Experience, intelligence, and perception would make the scale of possible actions wider than someone with little of the aforementioned abilities. Those with a wider scale of possible action are more likely to make virtuous action as their capacity for reflection and consideration would be greater, and thus the demand for their virtuous performance could be considered greater than someone with a more limited capacity. In turn, the desire to action is ultimately found in one value or another, also equally susceptible criticisms of relativity. Ultimately, preservation requires needs a loose and easy framework that can accommodate the variety of intervention types required for each case. In turn, this necessary flexibility will always leave it susceptible to criticism as there is never a right answer. Instead there is naught but a variety of right actions in a sea of less right or wrong actions.