Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Revolution Will Not Be Curated

The era of the curator has begun,” declared the prominent art critic Michael Brenson in 1998. The figures who assembled artworks into galleries, he reasoned, were now “as essential” to exhibits as the artists themselves. Curators were a species of universal genius who “must be at once aestheticians, diplomats, economists, critics, historians, politicians, audience developers, and promoters,” Brenson wrote. “They must be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders, business executives, and heads of state.” And what a curator “welcomes or excludes” is what makes all the difference.

Whatever else we might think of this assertion, it was certainly prescient. Today the era of the curator is in full flower. The contemporary literature about the heroic organizer of exhibitions is large and enthusiastic, with adulatory new installments added all the time. In 2006, a prominent art writer saw a generation of bold young curators “armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything.” In 2012, the New York Times marveled at the growing number of “programs in curating studies” and at how certain curators established themselves as “star names” in the art world. Brightest among these stars, without a doubt, is one Hans Ulrich Obrist, a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the author of Ways of Curating and A Brief History of Curating, and the closest thing there is to an art-world superstar these days, his every taste-quirk fawned over by the press. (...)

And, of course, “curating” describes something that websites are supposed to do. It is the new and more benign word for what a short while ago was called “aggregating,” or what a less pretentious person might call “editing” or “sifting.” The web is a vast, chaotic, onrushing thing, the idea goes, and “curators” promise to sort it all out for us, welcoming and excluding as they see fit. That’s why what goes on at Pinterest and Tumblr and Instagram and Digg is often called “curating.” Above all, curating is what takes place at Facebook, where busily sifting “news curators” used to choose stories to be included in the hotly desirable “trending” category. (...)

What is a curator, and why is it the admired cultural position of the moment? Why is this the word that springs to our tongues today when once we would have said “DJ,” or “blogger,” or “expert,” or just “snob”? And why is it persistently associated with liberals?

Consider the most basic aspect of the word as we use it today. A curator is an arbiter, someone who distinguishes between what is good and what is bad. Curators tell us what to welcome and what to exclude, what to keep and what to toss. They make judgments. They define what is legitimate and what is not.

But curators don’t make these judgments subjectively or out of the blue, as would chefs or gourmands or other sorts of fussy people. No, curators are professional arbiters of taste and judgment, handing down their verdicts on news stories or pot roasts from a position of dignity and certified authority.

The word is deeply associated with academic achievement. Gallery curators are often people with advanced degrees, and “curation” and its variants are sometimes used to describe certain kinds of university officials. The highest officers of the University of Missouri, for example, are called curators, and at Bennington College, even prospective students are encouraged to think of themselves as curators—curators, that is, of their applications to associate with this illustrious institution. As Bennington’s magazine puts it, they are invited to “curate their submissions and engage in the admissions process as a learning experience.”

It’s all about social status, in other words, and the eternal desire of Americans to claw their way upward by means of some fancy-sounding euphemism. Back in the 1980s, English professor Paul Fussell set down a list of occupations that had contrived to class themselves up by adopting longer names that sounded more professional. “In many universities,” he wrote,
what used to be the bursar is now the disbursement officer, just the way what used to be an undertaker (already sufficient as a euphemism, one would think) is now a funeral director, an advance of two whole syllables. . . . Selling is raised to retailing or marketing, or even better, to merchandising, an act that exactly doubles its syllables, while sales manager in its turn is doubled by being raised to Vice-President, Merchandising. The person on the telephone who used to provide Information now gives . . . Directory Assistance, which is two syllables grander.
And so experts of every kind have in our time been promoted to curators, which is not just a longer word but one that carries grand professional implications.

Curatolatry also imparts a certain smiling friendliness to expertise. Long ago, a “curator” was a medical worker of some indeterminate sort—someone charged with curing, basically. And even today we can see that curators do what they do not because they are greedy or snobbish but because they want to nurture the public. This is especially important as scandals ripple through profession after profession: accounting, appraising, investment banking, medicine, and so on. A curator would never use monopoly power to gouge users of some prescription medicine, for example. They care about us too much. They are not dictators; they are explainers, to mention another occupation that is much in vogue nowadays. They just want to help you to learn and understand. They are authority figures, yes, but they are lovable and benevolent ones.

And they are infinitely adaptable. Curatorial authority can be counted on to fine-tune your taste in food, your news consumption—even, in all likelihood, your ideological worldview. And with every sphere of American experience so promiscuously aestheticized, the curatorial reflex can be understood as something that a benevolent class of tastemakers and enlightened celebrities is selflessly undertaking for your own good. That’s why, for example, self-appointed celebrity pundits such as Lena Dunham and Alec Baldwin claim improbable perches in the protest culture of liberalism—and why Meryl Streep, who laid into Trump on the press’s behalf at the Golden Globe awards, has acquired the status of a twenty-first-century Edward R. Murrow.

by Thomas Frank, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: Lindsay Ballant