Science and Art

Europe is another world.

The continent has been gripped by a roiling controversy over how to clean Michelangelo’s David. Old-school restorationists favor the cautious application of badger-hair brushes and cotton swabs. The modernists propose methods reliant on chemicals and high-tech ingenuity.

You instantly sense that the parties to this argument are talking past each other. Maybe it’s partly a case of each group of restorationists having hammers that make everything look, to them, like a nail. If you possess a badger-hair brush, you are naturally on the alert for things to brush with badger hair. Likewise, if you own an infra-red laser, you may be on the prowl for things to zap with it.

It may also be that the two sides weigh risks and benefits differently. If cleanliness were the only issue, then maybe the modernists would have the decisive arguments. But there may also be the feeling that Michelangelo’s masterpiece has suffered enough physical depredations, and some might fear that novel methods could cause irreparable harm, in unforeseen ways, to something priceless.

In the end, it is hard to dispel the impression that fundamentally different worldviews are clashing. Romantics will naturally gravitate to the caress of the badger-hair brush. Tough-minded technophiles may tend to see such an attitude as irrationally sentimental. Both sides to this controversy can claim some expertise. But the modalities of expertise at issue seem incommensurable. How should such a dispute be resolved?

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