Warning: this one took me down a rabbit hole, now I'm dragging you with me. t
I was in the office the other day, about to make a copy, when I noticed the glass on the copier had streaks of something. I had to get it off or my copy would have marks where the streaks were. I used my fingernail to scratch it off. When that didn’t work, I wet my finger with spit. Of course, it worked.
As a mother, I’m no stranger to using spit as a cleaning agent. I didn’t think twice about using spit to clean the glass. But what about spit makes it so awesome?
The biology of saliva is more complicated that it feels. Check out the article in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine if you are interested in the science explanation. Spit is mostly water with electrolytes, mucus, and enzymes. One of the enzymes, amylase, breaks down starches. In your mouth, it is the start of digestion. On everything else, it is a mild agent used to clean everything from sticky cheeks to dirty paintings and statues to the glass on my copy machine.
The idea of using spit to clean fine art fascinated me. I mean, it is exactly what Ampersand is about. Arts and science. YouTube has several videos about the cleaning process. Now, this should be boring. After all, we are watching a guy clean a painting. Instead, its fascinating. Our host is Julian Baumgartner of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration and he tells us a lot about paintings but does not share the science of his “solvents”. In my mind, one of them is spit. Check out his art cleaning demo here.
One of the interesting aspects of the art cleaning is that not only is the normal grime of life at issue (oils, tobacco, pollution) but the very varnishes put on to preserve the painting had degraded to the point of lessening the painting. I wonder, when the artists or prior owners applied these varnishes, how long did they expect the painting to last? Ten years? Twenty? Did some really expect their work to be around hundreds of years later? And, would they have applied them knowing the properties of the varnish would not stand over time?
In my world of civil engineering, we put life expediencies on a sewer pipe of 50-75 years. Buildings are somewhat longer. Mechanical systems shorter. Obviously, there are structures across the globe that are older than this. Effort has to be invested regularly to combat the signs of aging. Crack sealing. Tuck pointing. Roof replacement. Equipment replacement. Regular maintenance does more than keep something looking good, it keeps it standing up. Without it, gravity, sunlight, biology and weather do what they do best, tearing things apart and breaking them down. Left unchecked, there is a point beyond which it is a better use of money to tear a structure down and start over again.
Maybe art conservation is just part of this same cycle. The investment someone made to preserve the painting years ago has done its duty. Now it has to be replaced with the next version. It's not a travesty, it's just what comes next.
I started out curious about what spit could clean. I ended up talking about infrastructure. Apples and oranges? Well, both are made by masters of their crafts. Both take skill and time others take for granted. Both require care and investment to make them last. Both can be cleaned with spit, under the right conditions, of course.
Fine art and retaining walls, two sides of the same coin. #Ampersand