Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Have you heard of Inherent vice? Maybe the name reminds you of Miami Vice, the late great TV crime drama. Well, inherent vice isn’t about criminal behavior. It refers to the fundamental instability of some materials. Materials with inherent vice are self-destructive, as opposed to deterioration caused by outside forces. Surprisingly, inherent vice can occur for both modern and historical materials! If you are an artist, you can exploit inherent vice by intentionally using a material where the ephemeral quality lends meaning to your artwork. Alternately, if you intend for your art to last, educate yourself about your materials’ longevity to avoid those with inherent vice.
Below are a few examples of inherent vice from art conservation and in the wider world.
In the Joseph Beuys sculpture, the lemon rots and has to be replaced periodically with a fresh lemon. Additionally, the lemon’s citric acid is corrosive. This is an issue because the two-pronged plug is inserted directly into the lemon. For the version of this work shown at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, silicone tubing is used to protect the metal prongs, and the prongs are regularly cleaned.
Joseph Beuys, Capri-Batterie (Capri Battery), 1985. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Some of the most dramatic and well-known examples of inherent vice in visual art are the latex sculptures of Eva Hesse. Hesse’s latex-based works are famous for their rapid deterioration, evidenced by changing colors and embrittlement. Some of her sculptures became so brittle that they were completely undisplayable until conservators undertook major interventions to provide structural support.
Within this broad category there are myriad examples of inherent vice. One you may have personally witnessed is the yellowing of ABS plastic computer and game console parts from the 1980s-2000s. This issue is particularly linked to fire retardants reacting to ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, heat and oxygen.
Nintendo game consoles. Photo: Tomas Schrantz, via https://www.flickr.com/photos/redbeardmathpirate/5629952502 Posted April 9, 2011.
Avid sneaker-heads are all too familiar with the inherent vice of the foamed plastics used in their shoes. Click the link in the caption to see more examples.
Photo: @badboyben on Instagram, via https://www.instagram.com/p/CTYjF6ovpMC/ Posted September 4, 2021.
This is a detail of a paper mache and cotton sculpture painted over with acrylic paints. Acrylic paints are particularly sensitive to temperature fluctuations. Cracks and paint loss occurred while the artwork was in attic storage with a fluctuating climate.
Unknown artist, Zelda (detail), 1973 or earlier. Private collection. Photo: Jen Munch, 2016.
Acrylic paint has numerous known inherent vice issues, including yellowing, becoming sticky and separation of the different components. One important issue for artists to know about is Support Induced Discoloration (SID). Have you ever painted a wood board or article of furniture and later discovered a brown stain in the shape of a knot or the wood grain below? That is an example of SID. A close artist friend was devastated to see several meticulously painted artworks ruined by SID. There is no cure for SID, though it can be prevented by sealing the substrate before priming. See the excellent article at https://justpaint.org/blocking-support-induced-discoloration/.
Here is another can of worms: light and audio-visual components used by artists have their own lifespan, and they could be replaced once the equipment stops functioning properly or stops functioning altogether.
However, one replacement part may not match the rest of the artwork, due to the aging of the original materials. Or, the exact same materials may no longer be available by the time replacement is needed. Take the four versions of this neon artwork by Bruce Nauman, for example, in the Panza Collection of the Guggenheim Museum. The original, 1970, version of the work stopped functioning and so two copies were made in 2005 and 2006. However, the copies couldn’t perfectly replicate the original because the new red tubing was a different diameter and used a red coating instead of a red glass, so the end result looked different. In 2013, the fabricator was able to repair the original 1970 version. They also found some old stock of the correct red glass tubing, so they made a fourth version. Why so many versions? The three ‘new’ ones are what museums call ‘exhibition copies,’ which are used for display while the original is usually kept in storage.
Bruce Nauman, None Sing Neon Sign, 1970. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Panza Collection. Photo: Jen Munch, 2019.
Is functional obsolescence a type of inherent vice? I say yes, but you are welcome to disagree.
Wood pulp paper such as newsprint becomes brittle and brown quickly due to its acid content. Many artists sketch on newsprint paper pads, particularly during life drawing sessions. For artworks that are meant to last, it is a best practice to move to a higher-quality paper such as those made of cotton or linen rag, or a wood pulp paper that has the lignin removed (labeled "acid free" or "lignin free").
Incidentally, you will find that books and art on paper predating the mid-19th Century are in better condition than later ones made with wood pulp paper. That's because pre-19th Century papers were made of linen or other rag fibers.
From the 19th Century through the present, numerous painters and restorers have erroneously claimed that the Old Master painters used the best and most long-lasting materials and techniques. The Old Masters' materials did not universally have superior aging qualities. The claim that they did is an example of survivor bias-- the artworks that did not stand the test of time are no longer here to refute the claim.
As it ages, the blue pigment called smalt turns gray to brown in oil paint. Below is an example of aged and discolored smalt on a late 15th-early 16th Century Flemish oil painting. The smalt is present where traces of blue are visible and in the surrounding grey areas.
Smalt is made of ground cobalt-colored glass, and the deterioration is the same inherent vice known as "glass disease" for glass artifacts. The problems with smalt mean that it is a poor choice for long-term use. This is why you will not see tubes of smalt blue for sale at the art supply store. Why did the Old Masters use smalt? It was an inexpensive alternative to the highly costly but more stable blue pigment called ultramarine.
Paul Bril, St. John Preaching in the Wilderness (detail), late 15th-early 16th Century. Collection: Gannon University, Erie PA. Photo: Jen Munch, 2017.
Other traditional pigments such as the red pigment vermillion (cinnabar) and lead white can also change color over time- both of these pigments can turn black. Dye-based pigments such as those in the category of red lakes fade quickly.
The Old Masters did not have all the answers. Do not blindly follow those who say that they do. Followers of the influential early 20th Century art professor and restorer Jacques Maroger, for example, learned this the hard way. There is no fountain of youth for paintings.
The bottom line:
Intent is of utmost importance in deciding what to do about inherent vice. If the artist or maker intended for the materials to degrade naturally, the conservator’s intervention may be entirely extraneous. Take, for example, the earthworks of Andy Goldsworthy. His leaf-based works are meant to rot away in nature, not to be held in stasis by a museum in perpetuity.
However, if the degradation was unintentional, as in the many aforementioned cases, conservators are frequently tasked with preventing future deterioration or minimizing unsightly damage.
What can you do to minimize or prevent damage due to inherent vice? Our number one recommendation for art owners is to control the environment that your artworks are stored and displayed in. Would you like to learn more? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Preventive Conservation.
If you’re an artist and you want help choosing materials for your work, you are welcome to get in touch.
“Inherent Vice: The Replica and Its Implications in Modern Sculpture” Papers presented at the 2007 conference of the same name, in Tate Papers, Issue 8, Autumn 2007
“Modern and Contemporary Art: New Conservation Challenges, Conflicts and Considerations” by Thomas J. S. Learner in Conservation Perspectives, the GCI Newsletter, Fall 2009, p. 5-8
Modern Art: Who Cares? edited by Ysbrand Hummelen and Dionne Sille (1999), Amsterdam: ICN.
Saving the Twentieth Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials, edited by David Grattan (1991), Ottawa: CCI.