(Pluto Press, April 2015)
The theological allusion in the title of David Balzer’s new book is apposite, because the eclectic cultural cut-and-paste that connects everything from the layout of an Urban Outfitters store to the ‘digital curation’ of Spotify, Netflix et al is the aesthetic lodestar of the contemporary moment – a scrapbook religion for a secular age. In a world saturated with cultural production, selective culling is not merely an option but an ethical necessity; the attention economy has begotten a cognitive economy, and it is worth millions.
Balzer, a Toronto-based art critic, has written a thought-provoking account of how we got to this point. Like any sensible genealogy, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World And Everything Else begins with etymology. The curatore of Ancient Rome was a bureaucrat charged with running a department of public works. The term’s religious association can be traced to a 6th-century papal treatise on the role of the clergy, which stipulated that parish priests were responsible for the curing of souls. In the modern era, the gallery or museum curator would combine elements of both. Balzer’s study is, in essence, a dissection of the uncomfortable duality at the heart of this hybrid role: part administrative functionary and part spiritual guru, the art curator embodies the tensions and contradictions of art’s complex political economy. As a bridge between the creative endeavour of the studio and the hard-headed world of pounds and pence, he or she “must understand the avant-garde aesthetically and commercially, combining the two to turn something that is new and thus vulnerable into something that is nothing short of invincible.”
The museum curator of the 18th and 19th centuries was a staid, officious, civil servant-type figure. Napoleonic museums were an explicitly propagandist affair, exhibiting the spoils of war for public admiration; the British followed the French lead after Waterloo. The social convulsions of the 20th century forced a sea change in the relationship between people and art, forcing the curator out into the light. When, in 1909, Marinetti challenged museums to become as exciting as the automobile, the art world duly responded. The 20th-century revolution in curatorial practice went hand in hand with developments in the commercial sphere, drawing heavily on the logic and aesthetic of consumer culture and emergent currents in industrial and interior design. Retail displays changed forever: gone was the cluttered jumble of 19th-century department stores, to be supplanted by a minimalist formalism exemplified in Alfred Barr’s seminal Useful Objects shows of the late 1930s, which showcased everyday items in sleek, streamlined spaces.
If the modernist turn provided the impulse for a reconfiguration of exhibition design, it was a move away from formalism that would truly pull the curator to centre-stage. The rise of conceptualism in the 1960s and ’70s shrouded the art world in a fog of abstraction; enter the now-indispensable pedagogic wisdom of the curator, joining the dots for an increasingly flummoxed public. The art-world boom of the 1980s would complete the curator’s meteoric rise: artistic output in that decade eclipsed that of the ’60s and ’70s combined; cultural consumerism surged, alongside culture writing. “The curator’s new position,” writes Balzer, “entailed duties of ringleader, translator, mediator, diplomat, gatekeeper. It was a full-time job, and a completely new one.”
It wouldn’t last. Squeezed by recession and Reaganite and Thatcherite funding cuts, galleries and museums turned to audience courting to make ends meet. Avant-garde boldness was eschewed in favour of new, audience-friendly installations that engaged with 1990s intellectual preoccupations: shows themed around identity politics, controversy and the emergent current of ‘relational aesthetics’ – the latter having gone on to become a cornerstone of the 21st-century art scene, with its garishly technicolor interactive shows caustically dismissed by Balzer as “a kind of Disney World for grown-ups, this self-consciously curated, installation-and performance-oriented art… providing fodder for countless social-media selfies and blog posts.”
A far cry from that ’80s and ’90s heyday, today’s curator would seem to be little more than a glorified project manager, handling an administrative and logistical remit while gallery directors take care of the creative side of things. Increasingly, high-profile commercial galleries are choosing to omit the ‘curated by’ credit from their promotional materials altogether. Artists themselves have learnt the work of curation. Thus we see the continued professionalisation of the practice – reflected in the proliferation of boutique curatorial studies MFA programmes – contributing to its own inexorable obsolescence, so that today “the exhibition maker is more or less superfluous, a dinosaur of the conceptualist era.” All of this at a time when, outside the art world, curatorial practice is flourishing as never before. From quotidian social media narcissism to cutting-edge app design; from algorithm-led content farming to content-aggregation journalism like the Huffington Post, curation – of one sort or another – is everywhere in 2015.
Though not by any means a Luddite, Balzer articulates a healthy scepticism about digital culture’s much-vaunted emancipatory promise. He quotes self-styled internet evangelist Jesse Hirsch, who maintains that digital curation is merely the latest manifestation of capitalist consumer culture: “On the internet you don’t have to buy it, so it’s easier, but it’s still consumer identity as curation.” In a similar vein, Balzer takes issue with the voluntarist utopianism that enables the art world, and other creative industries, to make abundant use of unpaid labour. That vocational ethos – dubbed ‘Do What You Love’ by New York journalist Miya Tokumitsu – might connote a certain DIY spirit of anti-corporate idealism, but it can also function as a convenient fig-leaf for exploitation, echoing in its anti-materialist sentiment the kind of Big Society rhetoric that has sustained the austerity drive to substitute workfare schemes, flaky internships and dubious ‘apprenticeships’ for secure, paid jobs.
Curationism is an exercise in gentle probing rather than strident polemic. Balzer’s prose is erudite and understatedly persuasive, his conclusions sobering and sensible. He makes the case for the nurturing of a ‘genuine curiosity’ that transcends modish vagaries: “I insist: you are more than what you like. You are more, even, than how you like.” Yes, it is significant and noteworthy that the way we cultivate our cultural identities has changed a lot; but let’s not get carried away.