The New Curation

The New Curation
Polemic for Art Monthly

The recent debate about curation in Art Monthly is to be welcomed: especially articles by Paul O’Neill and Alex Coles addressing the paucity of historical knowledge in what we might call the New Curation. The claims of contemporary curation seem to be couched in terms of technical competence, formal innovation and a critical (or political) effectiveness, backed up by the axiomatic belief that curation can provide a critical challenge to, or displacement of, the normative procedures for the production of meaning in art. Such an idea of curation not only assumes the death of the artist, qua author, but also that curation can fill the vacant authority itself – Paul O’Neill notes how so many of the new curators like to have their name above those of the artists, in bigger letters. In short, a putative radicalism is claimed for working at the point of art’s mediation and distribution. The pointing out of historical precedence should alert us to both the political naiveté and the historical ignorance of such a project. It is little wonder that both contributors to Art Monthly call for an urgent engagement with criticism. 

However, there is a certain political defeatism in taking curation on its own terms. Another history, so far neglected in the pages of Art Monthly (as elsewhere) is, in broad and simple terms, the conceptualist attempt (in the wake of minimalist installation) to cause trouble for curation in particular and the institutions and structures for the distribution and consumption of art in general. For some, the demise of the artist qua author did not go to legitimate the job of curation in generating meaning but rather to situate the artist as a producer (within sets of social, economic and cultural relationships). For a politicised faction of conceptual art, the curator was the enemy: a bureaucratic manager complicit in the process of the institutionalisation, normalisation and recuperation of artistic production: someone whose job was to come between art and its projected community. From such a point of view, the curator occupied an irredeemable structural relation to capital: entrenching and reproducing division, whilst claiming to alleviate it. It follows that some attempts by artists to trespass upon the territory of curation were desperate but necessary attempts to refuse managerial relations between art’s production and consumption. This was to take on the irredeemable work as one’s own; to dirty one’s hands. For others, of course, this trespass was an entrepreneurial opportunity to manage one’s own career. Without this sense of political refusal, the artist-curator looks like a venal self-publicist. 

The rise of the new curation can be read as a belated response from the managerial class to these challenges to its erstwhile authority: an authority that had largely been taken for granted, which is to say not thought to be in need of defence or even articulation. What this entailed in practice, was to make curation more professional. This meant, amongst other things, acquiring its own theoretical, discursive jargon and technical self-image. It wasn’t long before this professional self-image was entrenched in the teaching of degree courses in curation. We might wonder that they were not there before. But such a thought goes to confirm the extent to which the new curation is an accommodation to contemporary capitalism – in a sense, it is merely catching up. It is not hard to see parallels between the curators promotion of spectator ‘empowerment’ and the corporate promotion of consumer ‘choice.’ The spectator of the new curation is a consumer, whose choice boils down to whether to consume or to refuse to consume. What is consumed is largely beside the point. Such a notion of spectator empowerment and its corresponding curation, sits comfortably with governmental mandates on inclusivity and accessibility. All this is technical and bureaucratic.

The new curation comes proclaiming its discursive openness and critical intent. As Alex Coles points out, this does not extend to analysing the critical tools deployed, let alone making any kind of critiques of itself. Rather, it tends to critique the idea that art’s production is a primary site of meaning and that the place of consumption is a secondary site. What passes for some kind of critique of traditional notions of authorship is, in fact, a re-entrenchment of the managerial role of the curator. The putative empowerment of the spectator is nothing but an inflated emphasis on the mediating position of distribution: it rests on the same model of isolated producer and solitary consumer, with the professional mediator making the objects of the former available to the latter. The form and content of this mediation may be different but the structural model remains the same. The problematising of display just goes to reinforce these divisions and not to impugn them: it pushes the artist further away. This is not to say that this mediation is not real – i.e. that it does not have real effects. It is to say that it is a misrepresentation and mystification of its own position and interests. 

What the legitimation of curation propagates is the division between artists, qua producers, and viewers, qua consumers. This is to engender a de-totalising split in art – to make unthinkable and impractical the conversational (dialogical) unity of artist and viewer: to rule out the discursive collaboration in the generation and transformation of meaning. Instead, what the new curation offers is a limited and trivial idea of the destablisation of meaning. Nothing is at stake and no-one (let alone the curators themselves) is implicated in a system of co-option. 

In as much as the new curation claims anything, its claim to some kind of political (democratic) redistribution of power and interests amounts to no more than the aestheticisation of politics. The only adequate response remains (pace Benjamin) the politicisation of aesthetics. And this includes the analysis and criticism of art’s modes of distribution, display and consumption. It is also to realize there is no escape from, nor virtue in, the market.