#curationism: how curating took over the art world and everything else

My proposed curation of #curationism was making its own point, with much of the Twitter action curated only into Trash as the epitome of performing value. So straight to the serious stuff.

Curationism, by Canadian art critic David Balzer (@davidkbalzer), came out in Canada in September 2014 (review), hitting the streets in the UK on 20 April with David on tour. Suspect some of the people who buy the book will be disappointed – it’s an academic monograph dressed up as popular non-fiction, albeit without footnotes.

The book (Pluto | Amazon) comes in at a slight 144 pages. David seeks to explore the crossover between art curators, particularly in their celebrity guise as seen from the late 1990s, and popular (over)usage of the term, which has led to the “curational impulse” becoming a dominant way of thinking and being, an “expression-cum-assurance of value and an attempt to make affiiliations with, and to court, various audiences and consumers”.

The book takes for granted that readers have a grasp of the conventional definition of curation as “an act of selecting, organizing and presenting items in the vein of an arbiter-editor”, although the first part, ‘Value’, presents a curator’s chronology, from the Roman pro/curator (in charge of public works, often an honorific position) and the curate cum parish functionary (and his egg), and onwards. These usages involve caring for something as well as taking an interest in it, they “suggest dependence and responsiveness rather than direct action and agency”, as does the curator within the context of a museum or collection, where it is the objects which are the focus. The curator retains a “twist of autonomy through the vital concept of connisseurship: a display of taste or expertise that lends stylized independence to the act of caring for and assembling”.

The second part of the book, ‘Work’, addresses the ‘hyper-professionalization’ of the art world as well as popular expressions of labour, exploring curation’s close alliance with capitalism and its cultures. The phenomenon of the autonomous curator emerged in the 1960s in tandem with the conceptual art movement. The idea of art became more important than actual object, and hence curators were needed to advocate the work – seen in connection with land art, installations and performance art, all of which are hard to exhibit in a ‘normal’ way. The curator makes it real, performing its value; not celebrating, but rather selling a product, part of the capitalist system in art world. This role was absorbed by institutions in the 1990s, leading to a style of curation which is “more fleeting, and even paradoxical”, the curator as auteur and cultural go-between, hyper conscious of what s/he is doing. The pop cultural curator is similarly obsessed with authorship and hyper-aware of audience, most concerned with expressing status and position in a world where real objects eg books are falling by the wayside and we are unsure of how to make value in our lives and are hence very conscious of our choices.

A further issue explored is that of the avant garde, in which “‘new’ and ‘original’ are paramount and successive, like a string of dictators, each making their elders obsolete and re-arranging their country”.

For excerpts see Amazon, the Globe and Mail (plus review) and the sample (on Issuu, grr) from Pluto’s fansite. Bookomi’s 3 things that define a curator (and The Daily Mash) is ideal for those with limited attention spans. Interviews aplenty: Vancouver’s Sad Mag & Contemporary Art Gallery | Monocle’s Arts Review & Culture | R4’s Today prog (at 2:51:55) | BBC News with @WillGompertzBBC | ABC Radio’s Books and Arts.

The Spectator had a deeply serious review, with Jonathan Meades weighing in with:

Curators have moved from the passive to the active. From being receptive to what is actually made to being controlling. From accepting random expressions of individual creativity that belong to no ‘school’ to proposing taxonomies and ordering up ‘site-specific’ works: where creation ends and curation begins is moot…That taste is of course avant garde — the thoroughly conventionalised, institutionalised art of the establishment.

Have we reached peak curator? Usage is now over-ripe and pumped up, and the notion is beginnning to exhaust itself, spawning subspecies such as cultural producers, experience designers, storytellers…perhaps vacating the space for the return of our conventional curator as cultural distiller or gatekeeper in a world of overload – which is where I came in, back in 2011.

Finally, some tweets from David’s London tour:

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