As words commonly used to write about the visual arts become increasingly useful to advertisers, ‘to curate’ is becoming the synonym du jour for ‘to choose’. For David Balzer however, this shift in language reflects a shift in behaviour. ‘Now that we “curate” even lunch, what happens to the role of the connoisseur in contemporary culture?’ Curationism asks. The answer, in a word, is relegation. Whereas connoisseurs know the best Rembrandts, wines and restaurants, curators promote an object to high status through their mere engagement with it, imbuing it with a new-found quality through their act of choosing. In the art world, this has resulted in superstar curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist, who tour the world making items desirable via their selection alone. In the real world, claims Balzer, ‘curating’ is the best way to look at a whole range of enterprises.
He identifies the famous Impressionist art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel as the first to do this, imparting monetary value to the avant-garde through the assurance his taste gave some 140 years ago. This is a fair, if a historical, portrayal. Balzer has a tendency to assume the world was always as it is now, right down to talking about everything — even art, especially art — in terms of free market economics.
As a result, Curationism is increasingly persuasive as it nears the present. The best sections concern the rise of conceptual art from the 1950s onwards, the rise of international high finance, and the merging of the two, causing art to respond to its newfound mainstream-fame-yet-exclusivity by critiquing the money spent on it and the museums that expensively house it. The art produced by this union tended not to be user-friendly, so curators began to be vital as translators who could explain difficult or conceptually abstract work to an increasingly diverse audience. A crucial part of the job is still ‘outreach’.
Having become indispensable, curators gained more and more control over the way artworks were shown and to whom. Balzer identifies that this has led to the once-unthinkable situation of an exhibition organiser using artists’ work as raw materials to make their own argument — a big moment in the ascendance of the curator. Now figures like Obrist exist, promoting the sort of artists they like, paranoiacally insistent that what they do is ‘work’ and sparking a proliferation of Master’s and PhD programmes in curating — topics on which Curationism is excellent.
In Balzer’s simplest formulation, curators are ‘imparters of value’. Their selling point is a unique sensibility that can like almost anything in a distinct, signature way; it is no longer what curators like that matters, but the way in which they like it. As in conceptual art, the object becomes secondary to the meaning it can have, and whoever can ascribe their meaning to it most convincingly takes the prize.
By seizing on this phrase ‘imparter of value’, Balzer can move from the specific case of the art world and the job title ‘curator’ to seeing ‘curationism’ as the impulse behind a range of activities — from crafting online personae on Facebook or Grindr to choosing what to have for lunch in Subway and Chipotle. Creative control makes our food more valuable to ourselves and ourselves more valuable to the strangers that browse us.
As an observation this seems true, but as an argument it overreaches. Though the common thread running through a range of contemporary activities is certainly ‘imparting value through choice’, the amount of activities and synonyms Balzer’s ‘curate’ is made to engulf renders curationism too broad and vague to be an effective model. If you curate a playlist or a Facebook profile and you also curate a show in a gallery, then you also curate a prize calf by selecting the cow and the bull to achieve a certain effect. Yet in its provocative eclecticism, Curationism is itself evidence of the trend it doesn’t quite manage to define. As Balzer ranges through Chipotle and Twitter and Kanye West, gliding over the specific conditions of each on the way to his personal conclusion, while imparting value by how he selects them, he is behaving exactly like a curator.
So are the publishers, in their decision to include pop-cultural items to turn a good, well-researched book about the art world into a general-interest prospect (increasing ‘outreach’). As a result, Curationism never sufficiently escapes curationism to write about it clearly. Balzer is overambitious with his diagnosis — but a symptom does emerge.