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Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA

Abstract

The aim of this article is to theorize how materials can play an active, constitutive, and causally effective role in the production and sustenance of cultural forms and meanings. It does so through an empirical exploration of the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). The article describes the museum as an “objectification machine” that endeavors to transform and to stabilize artworks as meaningful “objects” that can be exhibited, classified, and circulated. The article explains how the extent to which the museum succeeds in this process of stabilization ultimately depends on the material properties of artworks and, more specially, on whether these behave as “docile” or “unruly” objects. Drawing on different empirical examples, the article explores how docile and unruly objects shape organizational dynamics within the museum and, through them, the wider processes of institutional and cultural reproduction. The article uses this empirical example to highlight the importance of developing a new “material sensibility” that restores heuristic dignity to the material within cultural sociology.

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Notes

  1. Only recently, cultural sociologists within the strong program and the cognitive traditions have begun to acknowledge the constitutive roles that materials can play in the shaping of meaning (Alexander et al. 2012; Alexander 2008b) or in cognitive practices (e.g., Danna-Lynch 2010; Harvey 2010; Ignatow 2007).

  2. Empirical data were collected during 4 months (January-April, 2011) of participant observation at MoMA’s conservation department where I worked as an intern and through 34 semi-structured interviews with museum staff members conducted between 2010 and 2013.

  3. Most museums’ mission statements describe three main functions: to preserve, to display, and to educate (Anderson and Adams 2000). It should be noted, though, that education and display are necessarily dependent on the preservation of the artworks. Without artworks, there is nothing to display or teach about.

  4. The controversy surrounding Expanded Expansion and other works by Hesse was one of the main themes of the 2008 conference The Object in Transition: a Cross-Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern Art at the Getty (see also Keats 2011; Michaels 2003).

  5. The very same physical properties that make latex unruly within a museum are what make this material especially docile in the production of medical gloves or condoms, where disposability and replace ability are valued over stability and uniqueness.

  6. Indeed, many mid-size and small museums do not have their own conservation department on-site. Subcontracted individual conservators or labs are the ones responsible for conservation in these museums.

  7. Like most major museums, MoMA uses The Museum Systems (TMS).

  8. For example, in the case of an oil painting, the canvas is assigned a unique number (e.g., 300.456), while the other components are assigned a suffix identifying their function within the constituency, for example, FR, for main frames (300.456.FR) and TR for the travel frames (300.456.TR).

  9. One of the most evident examples of how museums architectures shape narratives is the Guggenheim in New York, where the spiral ramp forces a specific linearity on exhibition narratives and where the tilted walls makes for difficult display of most artworks, including oil paintings.

  10. You can see the installation complex process of this painting here: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/10/27/installing-twombly-at-moma/.

  11. For an overview of Paik’s oeuvre see (Lee and Rennert 2011).

  12. After finishing his studies at the University of Tokyo in 1956, Paik travelled to the International Summer Course in New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, to study piano and music history. It was during this time that Paik met John Cage, whose avant-garde experiments with randomness and chance in music profoundly shaped Paik’s development as a visual artist. After leaving Germany, Paik and Cage developed a long-standing friendship that resulted in various artistic collaborations and intellectual exchanges. Paik devoted several artworks to John Cage, including, for example, “Hommage à John Cage” (1959–60), “Robot K-456” (1964), “John Cage Robot II” (1995), or Untitled (1993).

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this project was provided by the European Research Council through a Marie Curie Grant (PIOF-GA-2009-254783). I have been immensely fortunate to benefit from the intellectual generosity of many colleagues and friends including Howard Becker, Gemma Mangione, Terence McDonnell, Harvey Molotch, Chandra Mukerji, Kathleen Oberlin, Álvaro Santana Acuña, Elizabeth Silva, Christo Sims, and Glenn Wharton. I would also like to thank the Theory and Society reviewers of this article for their extremely helpful, constructive, and insightful comments.

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Domínguez Rubio, F. Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA. Theor Soc 43, 617–645 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-014-9233-4

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Keywords

  • Museums
  • Materiality
  • Docile objects
  • Unruly objects
  • Cultural sociology