How Curating Took Over the World: David Balzer’s Game-Changing “Curationism”

Bill Burns flies curatorial pleas over Miami's South Beach during Art Basel 2013.
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No doubt you’ve noticed it: from museums to film festivals, boutiques to restaurants, and basically everywhere on the internet, people are curating. Once the exclusive title of professional museum staff, it seems that everyone has become a curator, whether or not they’re aware of it.

The knee-jerk response to this phenomenon, whether from actual museum professionals or snarky bloggers, tends to be straight-up dismissal: this flurry of so-called curators is an epidemic of pretension. In his new book, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, David Balzer (associate editor at Canadian Art magazine and, it should be said, a contributing editor to MOMUS) takes a different tack: he makes a convincing case for the idea that the proliferation of curation can actually tell us something important about the state of contemporary culture.

Balzer argues that, since the mid-1990s, we’ve been living in the curationist moment. As power-curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev told him in 2012, “The curator is the most emblematic worker of the cognitive age.” Institutions and businesses have increasingly relied on credentialed experts to do work that amounts to selecting, organizing, and managing things in a way that is both a form of expression and assurance of value, with the aim of forging a greater connection with audiences and consumers. Once curating became more visible, however, it didn’t take long for those same audiences and consumers to seek their own spectators by cultivating and organizing things themselves.

Curationism is among the first salvos in a new series from Coach House Books called “Exploded Views,” billed as publications “longer than a typical magazine article but shorter than a full-length book” by notable journalists and critics. That this series describes itself as “curated” attests to the timeliness of Balzer’s missive. The nature of the series also accords with the author’s choice of tone. His book, he explains, is intended for a general audience and so, unlike much art writing, it “does not employ what has become known as critical theory.” In fact, Balzer goes so far as to argue that the “mismanagement of theory” is typical of the curationist moment. In particular, he observes a pattern in art-critical writing of demystifying some element of art or society only to re-mystify it again with jargon and the theorist’s own aura of authority. It’s a “not-so-covert method,” Balzer says, “to instate, canonize, and brand.”

When warning that “excessive fretting over attribution and precedent is paralyzing to dynamic intellectual thought,” Balzer turns out to be as good as his word. Over a footnote-free 137 pages, he confidently navigates hundreds of years of history and an impressive diversity of cultural phenomena with insight and style. The book is a kind of intellectual travelogue that epitomizes the educated-but-accessible style to which Balzer seems to aspire. For those who have followed his writing for Canadian Art, The Believer, Modern Painters, The Globe and Mail and elsewhere, this will likely come as no surprise – Balzer is certainly one of the country’s best generalist critics, an increasingly endangered breed.

This readability does come at a cost: some trained art historians might flinch at the author’s occasionally glib or offhand characterizations of complex movements and moments. His account of conceptualism is particularly sparse – a shame, given the extent to which curatorial techniques became central to art following conceptual art’s spawning of installation as a genre and strategy (a reference to Marcel Broodthaers, for example, would have greatly enriched Balzer’s section on this period). Generally, though, he’s marvelous at extracting the relevant information, his argument soaring like a graceful bird over territory pock-marked by the ravages of trench warfare between rival academics.

So, what does Balzer actually say? The book’s first section (of two, labeled “Value” and “Work,” following a prologue that looks at the curious, exemplary figure of superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist) comprises a kind of capsule history of art as we know it, told from the perspective of exhibitions and exhibition-making. Balzer ranges from the origins of the term “curator” in the Latin cura (shared root of both care and curiosity) to the amateur-connoisseur patrons of seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosity and the eventual emergence of the public museum and its caretakers following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s subsequent looting of Europe’s art treasures.

As Balzer notes, however, the presentation of objects as a creative act in itself only emerges in the modern period. Naturally, Marcel Duchamp’s readymade casts a long shadow over twentieth-century art history, but Balzer contends that it was Alfred H. Barr, the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who truly understood the allure of a properly re-contextualized object. The mutual influence of MoMA and American retail strategies, Balzer observes, tells us much about the avant-garde’s often contradictory role in creating value.

Moving into the 1960s and ‘70s, Balzer describes how the “Seussian litany of art movements” that accompanied Modernism’s implosion in the conceptual turn necessitated a reimagining of the role of the curator as artists embraced multidisciplinarity, taking up the duties of writers, critics, and curators themselves, while charismatic figures like Harald Szeemann, Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub, and Walter Hopps emerged to make sense of an artworld that was becoming more dispersed and diversified. The 1980s, by contrast, saw an oligarchy of powerful dealers, gallerists, and critics setting the scene.

The 1990s, however, are the central decade in Balzer’s story, as the contemporary curator emerged in the form we know today. Museums were under attack from both the Left and Right: public art-funding was slashed by conservative governments while radical artists made work critiquing the exclusions and elitism of art institutions. The response was a new focus on attracting audiences via marketing, branding, blockbuster shows, and new “destination” buildings designed by “starchitects” (see Frank Gehry’s AGO “transformation”). In addition, audience courting was central to the decade’s major artistic preoccupations – identity politics, controversy and provocation (as with the Young British Artists), relational aesthetics, and the proliferation of biennials – and, as Balzer notes, in all of these trends, the curator occupies a privileged role as advocate and organizer.

After the ascent and legitimation of curatorial practice, however, the trend now seems to be reversing: professional curators are being complemented or supplanted by dilettantes, celebrities, and crowdsourcing, while exhibitions (like those organized by some bank collections) and lay-environments (like retail marketing “experiences”) look curated, but employ no curators at all.

If curators are out of a job, then, is it because everyone started doing it for themselves? In his section on “Work,” Balzer explores what these developments mean for professionalization in the arts and for work in general. He looks, for example, at how the Master of Fine arts degree, once a rarity, is now an imperative for any career-minded artist. He casts a skeptical eye, however, on curatorial-training programs, which often emphasize “blue-sky” curricula that can ignore the unglamorous and bureaucratic practical aspects of the jobs of gallery and museum professionals. More troubling than the deficiencies of education programs in the arts, however, are the job opportunities (or lack thereof).

Balzer describes a new feudalism emerging in all sectors of cultural work that should be familiar to many: a select few figures from older generations (who often arrived to their career status from eclectic or unskilled backgrounds before “credentialization” was the norm) maintain prime positions, “leaving scant vacancies, which, due to low pay and the education and internships now necessary to secure them, are accessible only to the very wealthy.”

The erosion of paid cultural work can, in part, be traced to the effects of digital networks: social media makes us all curators, and it’s work we do for free. For some, like those working in retail, fashion, public relations, or slaving away in the demoralizing fields of “content farming” (that has usurped so much online journalism), selecting, organizing, and arranging is a real day job, albeit one that’s often part-time, precarious, and freelance. As Balzer notes, there are plenty of links between “unpaid digital curation and surveillance and outsourcing.” He asks us to consider the work that made our digital data available: who uploaded that file? Who compiled that blog? I would go further and ask: Who staffs the Amazon shelves from which this book appeals to you? Who made the computer (or phone) you ordered the book from? And if you post a quote from the book to Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, who owns the platform on which that content is shared, and how are they profiting from your promotion? In the sharing economy, even the critical news-sites mimic the Buzzfeed content-farmer tone: for example, “4 Ways Amazon’s Ruthless Practices Are Crushing Local Economies.”

At the Montreal launch event for Curationism, Balzer referred to a fictional book that Rashida Jones writes in the rom-com Celeste and Jesse Forever called Shitegeist. At a point during the writing of his book, Balzer confessed, he began to worry that it was turning into Shitegeist, a screed against the dystopia to which the spirit of our age seems to be hastening. But that isn’t the book he wanted to write, and it’s not what Curationism is. Balzer ends his text on a note of confidence that curationism’s moment may be about to pass. Normcore, for example (at least as it was originally articulated in art collective K-Hole’s “Youth Mode” trend report), showed signs of a fresh impulse fed-up with the mass obsession regarding anxiously displaying the signs of one’s own distinction, even if that impulse was almost instantly reinterpreted as a simple anti-fashion move that could immediately be recouped in terms of exactly that: fashion.

Moreover, Balzer ties the self-aestheticizing, find-and-display culture of curationism into the do-what-you-love ethos that excuses low pay and nonexistent job security in the name of “rewarding work.” It’s a justification that has allowed businesses, institutions, and governments to put a happy face on the evaporation of stable, well-paying jobs, especially for young people, and Balzer observes a growing tide of resistance against it.

For his own part, Balzer expresses a nostalgic fondness for the museum as, paradoxically enough, a sanctuary against the compulsive, attention-deficit hoarding and superficial participation that curationism’s late manifestation entails. As a closing note, I have to say this sounds a bit off to me. Though I too share Balzer’s love of quiet museums and an uncrowded headspace, the option of taking “time out” for contemplation is really no protest against curationism. Indeed, as Balzer himself points out in this book’s account of Japan’s Naoshima Islands and their conversion into art-tourism destinations, contemplative lulls can be merely a refueling pit-stop for those who live the most highly-curated of luxury lifestyles.

Ultimately, it’s Balzer’s recourse to matters of personal attitude that irks me most, given that his otherwise excellent book is so good at drawing out how apparently innocuous individual activities like curating a Pinterest account actually tie into larger social currents with major impact. In Balzer’s preface, he recounts asking Christov-Bakargiev about her thoughts on the ubiquity of curation. Her first response was that Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude had already said it all. While this could be taken as a typical curator’s reflexive reach for the authority of a theorist, Virno’s insights into the nature of post-Fordist capitalism could in fact add further ballast to Balzer’s own thoughts on the connection between curationism and unpaid digital labor. The rise of curation is only one manifestation of a culture and economic system predicated on a network model, in which the ability to make connections is the key to success. French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello expended 600 pages on this very topic in their magisterial study, The New Spirit of Capitalism (translated into English in 2007).

Making this leap from the personal scale to the bigger picture doesn’t, strictly speaking, require the assistance of certified philosophers and capital-T Thinkers, and the point of a book like Curationism is precisely not to get bogged down with references to weighty tomes. On the other hand, there’s no reason why writing for a general audience can’t be as illuminating on the subject of theory as Balzer is on the activities of artists and curators (as just one example, Carl Wilson’s celebrated book on Celine Dion doubles as an excellent primer on aesthetic theory from Immanuel Kant to Pierre Bourdieu). While Balzer is certainly right to be skeptical of the frequent abuse of theory (and the pieties that attend it) in art writing, I concluded that he cedes the field too hastily. As a result, the last glance in his book is inward when it could be outward, towards an even more exploded view.

 

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