The National Museum-UFRJ fire destroyed almost the entire collection of 20 million items. Photo: Tânia Rego/Agência Brasil

[This is the second text in a series of seven, prepared by Christian Dunker, Professor in Psychoanalysis and Clinical Psychopathology at the Institute of Psychology at USP, which we are publishing weekly. up the title "The Education of the Look and the Reading of Images –  Ethical Challenges for MuseumsIn the first text, we address Curation as conflicting symbolic systems


I intend to show how mediation practices invite the encounter with the work as a reconstructive reading experience. This process can be understood as an ethical experience of recognition, involving aesthetic form and social contradiction. The ethical function of discourse, concentrated on the notion of letter, determines modes of relationship with the work that are also models of intersubjective relationship with the other. I present this theme based on seven ethical challenges for contemporary museums.

2. Aesthetic Form and Social Contradiction


Ulpiano T. Bezerra de Meneses *, in his conference on “Museums and the ambiguities of memory: traumatic memory"[1] argues that museums must problematize memory. He not only remembers, but takes a position on what are our ways of remembering and forgetting, they are grammars of forgetting and remembrance that, even if the place of a courtroom is not identified, produce this effect on the public, which for that very reason, generically , feels judged since his ignorance. It reminds us of the vicissitudes and connotations of the verb “to forget”: repressive erasure (power stifles memory, as in dictatorships), prescriptive forgetting (due to pressure from society), the forgetting that is constitutive of the formation of a new identity ( when gains outweigh losses, as with immigrants); structural amnesia (derived from social hierarchies); forgetting as annulment (by saturation); oblivion as planned obsolescence (typical of the capitalist consumer system); oblivion as humiliated silence (that of shameful or embarrassing events). All of them connotations of immediate clinical connotation.

The opulence of the São Cristóvão Palace, which housed the UFRJ National Museum, destroyed in a fire in early September 2018.

That is why mediation is not harmonious conciliation, but work, itself contingent and transient, of giving form and unity to what cannot yet be recognized. The State and the market have grammars of recognition for their interests. There is here a first division between institutional and community grammars of recognition. There is also a second partition that is inherent to the path of recognition experiences, a path that involves a subject in a specific relationship with the other, according to a certain end according to a certain set of means. In recognition is not at stake only what is recognised, for example, that author or that work, but also as, that is, in what series, in what place, or in what frame an image is placed. The relationship between what is said and how it is said defines what I am calling here, albeit vaguely, aesthetically. Lacan has a synthetic statement about the psychoanalyst's doing that says the following:

“What is said is forgotten behind what is understood, in what is heard.”

It is a way of emphasizing this operation of forgetting what is being said, what is being shown, depending on the “context” in which it is said. And the context includes the agent and the recipient of the aesthetic form. The context is the museum, but also its audience, the concrete people who visit it, with their particular stories. With this I want to summarize that aesthetic mediation has to bring together the relationship between the ways of saying, representing, acting, installing, with the people who produce or buy them, who perform or look at them.

Thinking of critics like Hal Foster and Didi-Huberman, we could say that this crossing point is close to what Lacan called the Real. It is the intersection that never ceases to happen between aesthetic form and social contradiction.

Luzia, the oldest fossil found in the Americas, was one of the most important objects that the National Museum housed. The skull was lost in the fire.

This crossing point would serve as a kind of possible thread for a given curatorial policy. Here I found a second point of convergence between my psychoanalytic research and certain reformulations of museological thinking. This is because social contradiction is always presented according to a specific matrix, which is that of suffering. Social contradictions are not just abstract representations of disembodied historical processes, but they inhabit bodies. Each body that suffers creates with itself specific affections, its own ways of enunciating, denouncing or asking for a certain experience, until then lived as suffering, to be recognized. This often comes close to the political function of art, as a mode of expression and demand for recognition for certain experiences that until then remained indeterminate, silent or invisible. Therefore, giving visibility to what remained invisible, putting social antagonism in an aesthetic form, thus expressing suffering in a very specific way, is always the beginning of a political and psychic process and transformation.

The Kherima mummy was consumed by fire. It was a mummy of what lived between the 1st and 3rd century AD

I believe it is in this direction that Freud said that poets and artists walk ahead of psychoanalysts, in the sense that there is a politics of suffering and that art research always advances, providing vocabularies, expressive and narrative forms for the malaise. hitherto unnamed, the unformed malaise, the formless malaise.

"informed states of mind” this is Lévi-Strauss' expression to designate what the shaman cures in a given community. He gives form, offers words, creates means for the formless to take on form. That is why shamanism always involves a form of reading (letters that the shaman can decipher) and a particular form of body (in which the shaman transforms himself to perform the cure).

That is why we can say that the second museological act is the act of choice, it is the act that synchronizes social demands that cry out for recognition and the history of forms, the debate of languages, the competition between expressive grammars (according to the aesthetic or poetic conception keep in mind).

Just like the psychoanalyst who keeps his listening equi-floating, open, suspended from prejudice and who tries to separate himself from himself and his prejudices, but who, precisely, is captured by a moment of discontinuity and attentional cut, the museum experience begins with the letting oneself be affected and continues through the point of capture, through choice, through the call of the work.

The fire destroyed almost the entire collection of 20 million items. Photo: Tânia Rego/Agência Brasil

Returning to the 33rd Bienal. We could contrast the series by the Paraguayan artist Feliciano Centurion, composed of objects such as darned pillows with sayings, such as “divine light of the soul"and "Reveal me your message” with the work of transparency, in which a book, whose title is “how to print shadows” or a set of jug and glass is represented by metallic edges indicating that they outline the form, but leave its filling empty. Both evoke intimacy, both resort to signifiers and letters, but the first plays with the preservation of the image, brutally separating it from the context and the second with the subtraction of compositional elements.

The social contradiction given by a world with no place for intimacy, ironically colonized by messages, subtitles and user manuals is articulated according to two different strategies with the aesthetic form: in the first there is a displacement of the image frame, in the second there is a subtraction of the fill and color, remaining and highlighting the shape.


  • Ulpiano Toledo Bezerra de Meneses. Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo.


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