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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Preserving the unpreservable: docile and unruly objects at MoMA

  • Author(s): Dominguez Rubio, Fernando
  • et al.

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 “objecti- fication 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 reproduc- tion. 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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