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Conservation as a basic task of the museum rests on the recognition of artworks. However, within the domain of contemporary art, the recognition process is often demanding and controversial, demonstrating a performative and reflexive effect. As a crucial action through which Conservation defines itself by defining the artwork’s values, recognition is the moment when the neglected ideological facet of the museum’s mission comes to light.

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  • 1  As everyone knows, the object does not coincide with the work from the exhibition of the Society o (...)

1Everyone knows about Duchamp’s Large Glass (also known as La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, 1915-1923), how it got accidentally and conspicuously cracked; its alteration was happily welcomed by the artist, thus turning the work into an impressive example of how, in contemporary art, what seems degradation at first, on second thoughts may prove to be an aesthetic value. Not so well-known, for now, is the case of Fountain (1917), another work by Duchamp: the porcelain urinal - readymade by definition - exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris1 that, in 2006, was hammered by Pierre Pinoncelli, a self-styled Dadaist. Besides the legal consequences, the event set off a lively debate in the French media - across Aesthetics, Politics and Security - both on Pinoncelli’s and Duchamp’s artistic intention. Perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of the story is that the Court charged Pinoncelli not simply with vandalism, but with the «parasitisme de la gloire», forcing him to pay 200.000 Euros as compensation for «moral damages», plus around 17.000 Euros for actual restoration of the piece (not to mention three months’ imprisonment) – a verdict that set a precedent. Pinoncelli (a repeat offender, having already urinated in the urinal in 1993, when Fountain was on display in Nîmes) motivated his gesture as a Duchampian completion of a Duchamp’s work; a sort of performance that has «restitué sa vie» (Troche and Dousson 2008: 266) and given «valeur ajoutée» to Fountain (269); such pretexts are clearly borrowed from the discourse of the museum. He claimed:

  • 2  Indeed, Gamboni (1997) and Heinich (1998) have already considered Pinoncelli as a remarkable case (...)

2Without pleading in favour of Pinoncelli, to simply liquidate this episode as the misdeed of a mythomaniac in search of fame would be just as reducing.2 The overestimation of the damage attributed to him is a warning sign that a raw nerve has been touched: the institutions wanted to inflict an exemplary conviction. Curiously enough, for the proceedings the artwork was assessed at 2,8 million Euros. Something is not quite right here. The words of the judge himself state that it was no ordinary case of vandalism but, rather something very different. And the judgment says more on the judge than on the offender. Indeed, by considering Pinoncelli simply a provocateur with no artistic substance, guilty of lèse-majesté, he becomes nothing more than a random performer of a script conceived by others. Any evidence brought in to attest the artistic inauthenticity of Pinoncelli’s gesture frees him from the moral responsibility of that action because he can’t be accountable for something so much bigger than himself. Perhaps, the so-called «Pinoncelli effect» should be re-examined starting from the way it has been heavily stigmatized. It might appear then as the result of a grand mechanism of glorification, which places the glory together with its parasites.

Vitality in the cemetery?

3In modern times there is a long history of antipathy of artists for the museum which has often been accused of being the cemetery of art, a place where the vitality of the artwork (and of the artist) is humiliated, mortified and mummified. Nowadays, ironically, the museum itself has taken on this polemic vision, eager to look for the new, the real, the living thing (Groys 2008). One way through which the conservator gets acquainted with this new attitude is the criticism against the scientific freeze model: the traditional epistemological approach that considers the object as inserted into a predefined frame of symbolic values where a quantifiable truth can be recovered and frozen for the benefit of posterity. On the contrary, in line with Pinoncelli, the stated goal of the open-minded conservator is to free the vitality of the contemporary artwork, preventing the museum from turning into a giant freezer. For instance, Jill Sterrett, director of Collections and Conservation of SFMoMA, claims that, although experts normally tend to delineate the meaning of artworks, nonetheless in the contemporary art domain there is an «instinct» for slowing down the process of symbolic definition (Learner and Levin 2009: 20). Apparently, the only way to cope with the untameable vitality of the contemporary artwork would be to get rid of the freeze model and embrace the postmodern paradigm of change, according to which reality is imagined as an incessant heraclitean flux where the variation is not necessarily a phenomenon to be stopped, but to accommodate with enthusiasm.

  • 3  To indicate an object as «variable» is only possible when it has already been symbolically process (...)

4All in all, this new paradigm does not call into question the mission of a cultural and historical representation: the devoir de mémoire (Jeudy 2008) still ties the museum to the fundamental task of collecting and transmitting the traces of the past. With respect to this devoir, both the opposite thesis of freeze and change are two homologous propositions aiming to contain the haphazardness of transmission. The paradigm shift is a tactical revolution ultimately expressing a point of view which is only possible within the museum; since that is the place where all acknowledged identities and taxonomies are, even though multiple and variable, and it is also the place where any new thing can and must be appreciated against the background of an established tradition.3

5In order to explain the urgency of a paradigm shift, experts appeal to the argument of the contemporary artwork’s unstable character. Of course, the aesthetical statute of the contemporary artworks challenges the museum, pushing it to adjust its strategies over and over again; on the other hand, it is the museum itself that contributes to bringing about such a problematic statute. From the Sixties, the Neo-Avant-garde artists have been retrieving the fundamental achievements of the modernist Avant-garde, mostly with the twofold purpose of contesting and developing them (Foster 1994); in this way a radical process of aestheticization of «everything as such» has been accomplished (Carboni 2007), which suppressed any predetermined difference between artistic and worldly objects.

6However, if the artwork looks like an everyday object, that is the moment when the legitimacy and protection of the museum are most needed. Radical and iconoclast Avant-garde movements, while struggling to tear down the barrier between art and life, have cleared the way for the postmodern conception of the museum, now seen as an elastic receptacle of a liquid reality, ceaselessly updating its own criteria of judgement. A crucial function of the museum today is then to posit a difference of statute of the object on the grounds of its symbolic relevance. «The museum [...] also functions as a place where difference beyond difference, between artwork and mere thing, can be produced or staged» (Groys 2002: 5).


  • 4  Today, some experts seem to prefer the adjective proactive instead of preventive, because it would (...)

7This makes every call for the liberation of the vitality, at the very least, ambiguous: there’s no way to simply accommodate and support the artwork’s vitality without, at the same time, controlling, regulating or inscribing that very same vitality into utility systems. Moreover, such control is, now more than ever, preventive or even proactive.4 In fact, the museum is not just a neutral space where, by bringing together a certain amount of objects from the past, a more or less comprehensive representation of the art history is given, but rather a memory order apparatus, which affects future artistic production by showing the artists what not to do if they aspire to be regarded as truly innovative and thus remarkable. Therefore, the contemporary «artwork is collected before it is produced» (Groys 2002: 4). The contemporary art museum is an area of perpetual adaptation to new restraints. Somehow, the museum is responsible for preparing today the problems that it is bound to face tomorrow; since it fosters the creation of something which is always diverse from what has already been collected, therefore, paradoxically, it has the novelty and relevance of the artwork relying on the object’s resistance to “musealization”. In this way, the premises for a new order of memory are set.

  • 5  For an introduction to the matter of values in conservation see Avrami (2009); see also Holden (20 (...)

8In today’s public and private collectors’ arena - consisting of a multitude of objects that are localized and managed by authors, dealers, critics and officials, marked by massive movements of assets and social antagonisms - conservation practices ratify the admission of the object within the heritage domain through the performing - not only passively describing - recognition of its artistic statute. Above all, on a technical level the conservator guarantees the validity of values conveyed by the object, even being ready to regenerate them whenever required.5 Indeed, although he/she is not the one in charge of the conversion of the object into a museum piece, nor does he/she decide on its inclusion in the heritage, anyway he/she finds him/herself an agent of these processes. The conservator is engaged in a great effort to institutionalize something that is, in all probability, born extra/anti-institution as well as extra/anti-museum (see, e. g., Warthon and Molotch 2009).

9No surprises. Ever since their beginning, conservation and restoration activities have been connected to the creation of a great narrative, concerning the control of the symbolic capital: this ideological task, depending on collectors’ tastes and interests and inspired by prominent aesthetic trends, dictated the end and conditioned the means of the conservation throughout the ages. Even in its current meaning, as a discipline which no longer serves devotional, propagandist or celebrative purposes, conservation remains deeply rooted in the collectors’ sphere, giving rise to a mentality that overtly intertwines artistic judgement with commercial assessment. Actually, the use of such words as«property» or «heritage», means articulating acultural discoursein economic terms, not even veiled. And, despite all the morally enlightened academic emphasis about the conservator’s mission of stewardship as opposed to that of possession, in the contemporary museum’s discourse it’s inevitable to soon be entangled in issues of value. Inside the Trojan horse of the stewardship, the cumbersome notion of possession comes back even stronger, at the very moment in which it was supposed to have been defenestrated; it returns with all the unease that the artistic creation evokes in the collector: how to permanently possess something that wasn’t meant to be permanent?

10The point is that within a hyper-capitalist system the object’s symbolic and market values are confused and mixed up; such promiscuity immediately calls for a technical, neutral support for the solidity of values as a whole: the museum, institutional keeper of the memory. As a matter of fact, besides contemporary art, the cornerstone sustaining the entire structure of the cultural capital is the common belief of the explicit singularity of its statute. Without this belief, the heritage would just look like a cluster of pecuniary values among many others: a catastrophic event, leading straight to the dissolutionof the social contract. The museum acts as areferee, whose judgment is supposed to remain unrelated to market and antagonisms; it offers redemption: it endows the object with an aura certifying its symbolic consistency, releasing it from the distribution network.


11Unlike the commodity, indeed, the contemporary artwork appears a very strange thing at first glance, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, but its analysis brings out that it is an extremely obvious, trivial thing. At first, Fountain may well appear provocative, iconoclast, bizarre and so forth, but at a closer look, it is nothing more than a useless pissoir. Consequences of the reversibility of the values. The glorification is nothing more than a purification or elevation procedure of a trivial thing. Just like in the free market uniqueness determines the value of commodities, in the artistic domain there is the authenticity criterion in force. It is not a chance if, when the museum acquires the object, at the same time it needs to stress its authenticity: this is a fundamental step in order to give an indubitable significance to all practices (e. g., cataloguing, exhibiting, documenting, preserving, and so forth), devoted to an otherwise indiscernible object from everyday life. The introduction of the authenticity notion and its pivotal role in the museum discourse is obviously a sign of the recession of the symbolic order and of the relativism of judgments: etymologically-speaking, authenticity is something that, in itself, has the power to overcome doubt, but contrary to the popular prejudice that it is an intrinsic quality, authenticity is rather a requisite that has to be demonstrated each time, something that the age of technical reproducibility can’t do without. Due to the fluctuation of values in a globalized market, the notion of authenticity is a pretence meant to cope with the impossible possession of the real thing. Therefore, any question on authenticity is articulated on purpose to solve certain situations and does not, in itself, contain all the answers, just the acceptable ones. Options spring from a mere formal freedom of choice, that doesn’t allow any decision thought outside the limits of the mandate, prescribed by the memory apparatus. From the moment the artwork is acquired, it must be preserved.


12Moreover, so much ado about authenticity makes it clear that the reception of the work by the (contemporary art) museum is not just a matter of neutral technical procedures, but rather an illusory staging, a mise-en-scène. As the Pinoncelli case proves, glorification is always accompanied by a set of irrational feelings; enshrining the artwork, simultaneously casts a shadow of suspect and anxiety over the object. Here the argument of ethical responsibility comes into play. Since the machine patrimoniale requires trust and belief - «instinct», some may say - in order to operate, the keeper’s trustworthiness lies in his unconditioned dedication to a higher mission and in the explicit undertaking of the moral burden that such a mission implies. Not only is  conservation a mission with a noble cause whose righteousness shouldn’t be questioned, but it is also essential to assume that everyone believes in the values it is protecting. The very first kind of acknowledgment in conservation is the self-reflective one; the conservator acknowledges his/her own mandate.

13Once, assuming the role of a missionary, that is to protect and preserve the symbolic riches of societies, the conservator would ensure an bulwark against the menace of a disintegration of values caused by the excesses modern, industrial life (Jeudy 2008). In such a context, however, the conservator was still the one who was defending a heritage structured according to a steady, clear and balanced symbolic order which connoted the objects regardless of the museum: the aura of a Gothic altar piece did not depend on the museum in the first place; indeed, as the museum secularizes the piece, taking it out of the reality, its symbolic charge often gets weaker - even if it obtains new meanings. Hence, here the acknowledgment is a corroboration of value for the object, an attempt to prevent the devaluation - in other words, an operation to reinforce the truth.

  • 6  It is not really the physical instability that challenges the conservators, since the object’s con (...)

14On the contrary, the contemporary artistic scenario is, by definition, constantly changing through infinite, uncontrollable and unpredictable ways; thus the historical representation expected from the museum must be rewritten again and again, possibly anticipating the future in a proactive manner. Then, recognition is an invention and a celebration of an emerging difference, that is, something new compared with the already-collected one. Once identified, the new product can be codified (translated into signs) and connected to a network of social practices. The theoretical point here is not so much in the artwork’s instability, but rather in the ability of the apparatus to adjust itself to accommodate the work.6 The network of practices can’t be rigid, but has to maintain a flexibility such that the museum is able to receive what was previously evoked, no matter how unusual. Such flexibility is undoubtedly a prerogative of the contemporary art museum, since the modernist avant-garde wanted to attack or mock an apparatus whose stability was taken for granted. The conservator is the person who is asked to get into full contact with the artwork, in order to find a way of joining the object’s instability and the multiple meanings with the flexibility of the institutional practices. In the process, as some scholar remarked, the museum redefines its own identity due to the artworks’ resistance to the conservation activity (Van Saaze 2013).

15Therefore, the museum carries out an endless battle for recognition on several fronts and through many strategies. This is how the political facet of the conservation comes into sight. Caring for the heritage falls into an arena where many different groups are confronting each other to affirm their points of view (economic, ethnic, gender...), striving for recognition of their interests. It isa formof antagonism,inherentlyviolent; and yet such violence is usually sweetened and seen as a tolerant exchange of divergent opinions. On the contrary, if political, social and economic factors shape the architecture of contemporary art museums (Zaera Polo 2008) which become a powerful medium of elitism and exclusion, what kind of forces may be at play inside?

  • 7 In this perspective, the biological metaphor - the recurrent image through which the conservation r (...)

16Focusing on the acknowledgement of different interests that people may have for an object brings to the foreground the social and political conditions whereby objects are appreciated, collected and eventually conserved; this is a bold overturning of perspective that designates a new orientation in the theory of conservation which is based on the notions of inter-subjectivity, pluralism and horizontality in the decision-making process (Muñoz Viñas 2005). Yet, this new approach basically leaves a whole sphere unexplored: the Pandora’s box of ideological implications that it opens up. In fact, through the inter-subjective negotiation, the social agents try to manage their real conditions of existence by setting up an imaginary relationship with them.7 The representation of such an imaginary relationship is nothing more than ideology (Althusser 1970). The very same idea of the conservation as a negotiation of particular interests is the first - constitutive, therefore unnoticed - point of an ideological distortion. Today, experts seem uncaring about a survey of the ideological mechanisms that regulate conservation practices; perhaps because it would be considered as off the topic, misleading for the conservators’ agenda - or maybe, because it requires skills which are conventionally not associated with the professional field; that is the same. Anyway, to disregard ideology is a form of participation in the ideology already. No way out. If the conservator feels the urgency of claiming the ethic relevance of his/her action it is due to the fact that, being in a field of promiscuous interests and uncertain values, the first thing to preserve is his/her trustworthiness. However, a genuine ethical position may be an empty pose if it does not take into consideration its own conditions of existence. From the conservators’ standpoint there is no hypocrisy in introducing themselves as ethical agents: an immediate effect of the ideology is a spontaneous love of the agents for the task that is assigned to them. However, the more the discussion claims to be pragmatic, neutral and non-ideological, the more it is immersed in pure ideology. In order to be fully effective, the ideological distortion must be denied: in seeking an ethical foundation, it is crucial to presume this quest as obvious and natural. When professing the ethics of its mission at every turn, the apparatus is indeed blurring its own ideological imprint  towards the outside.

  • 8 The mechanisms of miscognition have nothing to do with prohibition; they pertain to a constant inci (...)

17In other words, conservation is as much a matter of recognition as of misrecognition; that is, it has to disavow the imaginary way through which the conservator experiences his/her relationship with his/her real conditions of existence exactly. It is via this imaginary relationship that the conservation can act reflexively, giving itself consciousness, motivation and conduct. Therefore, in this context, recognition is an ideological injunction: the reflexive and performative gesture through which the symbolic order is reproduced as the subject finds position in it. The conservator perceives him/herself as being hailed by the (Great Other of) heritage to serve the cause of its transmission and by doing so, he/she retrospectively sets the apparent reason for an ethical activity. This explains the circularity of enunciations regarding recognition. Consequently, it is now possible to define the museum conservation practice – expanding on Brandi’s definition – as the ideological moment of misrecognition of the interpellation made by the institutional apparatus, in view of its transmission to the future.8


  • 9  As Žižek (2006) claims, the overt rule of law is always sustained by an obscene supplementary elem (...)

18Back to Pinoncelli, as soon as he transgressed the museum’s rules and profaned the work, an alarm sounded causing the intervention of – in succession – the museum staff, the police and finally the judge. On account of this, one might naively conclude that it is the security force (or, as Althusser would put it, the Repressive State Apparatus) which maintains the distinction between what is art and what is not. It is not surprising, then, that Pinoncelli jumped at the opportunity to play this card: «[…] l’action sur l’urinoir, qui n’attaque pas Duchamp, mais l’institution muséale qui cherche à tout prix àsacraliser cet objet» (Troche and Dousson 2008: 61). But it would be a mistake to see Pinoncelli as the hero who reveals the real state of things hidden behind the great illusion generated by the memory apparatus. Taking the formal message ascribed in Fountain literally, Pinoncelli triggered a short-circuit in the ideological mechanism - even before the Pompidou display – through which the distortion and ambivalence of the museum mandate neatly appeared. Sooner or later, something like the Pinoncelli effect was bound to occur, because every ideological formation, in addition to generating the set of ethical rules, generates a particular more or less expected way of breaking those rules. Any glory comes with its own parasites, its own obscene though indispensable supplement.9

19It must be clear: there’s no perception of reality without distortion and there’s no truer level of reality, waiting to be saved from the spell of evil controllers. Glorification is not the plot of a «clique», nor the whim of a bureaucrat, but rather the name for a phenomenon regarding the founding of the social contract. The fierce, wasteful struggle that all Western countries carry out against the risk of a devaluation of their symbolic capital tells of the importance of what is at stake: the credibility of an entire system of values and thus of the cohesion of society. Glorification is a salient aspect of the struggle and all the related issues are due to the fact that, being based on a constellation of irrational feelings, it is by nature exposed to aberrations and these aberrations are easily misunderstood. If the mask should fall, the consequence would be an outburst of raw cynicism, so that hammering a urinal will cost a fortune.

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1  As everyone knows, the object does not coincide with the work from the exhibition of the Society of Independant Artists held in 1917 in New York. It is a multiple from a series of eight pieces made in 1964 by Galerie Schwarz of Milan with Duchamp’s permission, purchased by the Centre Pompidou in 1986. The Fountain file on line describes the work as «[…] l’objet le plus provocateur de l’histoire de l’art du XXe siècle, le symbole même de la subversion avant-gardiste. […] l’étendard de l’iconoclasme moderne». No mention of the Pinoncelli incident is made; see

2  Indeed, Gamboni (1997) and Heinich (1998) have already considered Pinoncelli as a remarkable case study.

3  To indicate an object as «variable» is only possible when it has already been symbolically processed, even though, unconsciously by means of a given conceptual framework. The difference always stands out on a background that is tradition.

4  Today, some experts seem to prefer the adjective proactive instead of preventive, because it would adequately express how deep and timely the conservator’s action should be. Yet they tend to gloss over the aggressive and disturbing undertones that the term implies. Avowedly proactive rather than preventive were those measures that the Pentagon planned in the war on global terrorism.

5  For an introduction to the matter of values in conservation see Avrami (2009); see also Holden (2004).

6  It is not really the physical instability that challenges the conservators, since the object’s contingency and precariousness can often be conditions for its spectral indestructibility, as Žižek would say. By taking on the material dimension of the object, the museum allows it to survive indefinitely.

7 In this perspective, the biological metaphor - the recurrent image through which the conservation represents its objects - is consistent with a socially oriented analysis, since the works appear as living entities acting at the intersection of different practices.

8 The mechanisms of miscognition have nothing to do with prohibition; they pertain to a constant inciting towards the truth: as Foucault would put it, miscognition always stems from a fundamental relationship with the truth.

9  As Žižek (2006) claims, the overt rule of law is always sustained by an obscene supplementary element that transgresses the conscious element.

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Electronic reference

Paolo Martore, “Parasites of the Glory”CeROArt [Online], 9 | 2014, Online since 22 January 2014, connection on 22 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paolo Martore

Paolo Martore, Ph.D., from Rome, Italy. Independent researcher, interested in Conservation Theory for Contemporary Art.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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