Curationism by David Balzer
by Shauna Jean Doherty
David Balzer’s Curationism (2014) offers a historical account of exhibition-making and makers since the 16th century – a trajectory, the author proposes, that has landed the Western world in this “curationist moment.” His text documents an “acceleration of the curatorial impulse” since the 1990s, wherein curating as both a phrase and an activity now extends beyond the art world into the lives of the general consuming public. The phenomenon of “curationism,” a term coined by the author, refers to the popularization of the term “curating,” which draws on the pedigree and expertise of the once-exclusive and professional position of the curator to imbue democratized acts of cultural activity with an air of selectiveness and tastemaking.
The influx of information and cultural commodities circulating in the digital world has led to the pervasive activity of “unpaid digital curation,” which is often motivated by a desire to distinguish oneself as a discerning consumer expertly wading through the chaos of the Internet. In doing so, content is parsed out as a means of self-expression, manifesting itself on an individual level through iTunes playlists, Tumblr accounts and social media identities.
The author exhibits a palpable cynicism, which is lodged against professional and popular iterations of curation in equal parts. He articulates a fervent skepticism both of the privileged position of the curator in the art world and the debased popularization of curation in mass culture. The authority of the institutional curator, graduate programs dedicated to the practice of curation, and critical theory are all dismissively dealt with and categorized primarily as privileged activities of the bourgeois. Equally, however, Balzer discusses the trivializing use of the term in relation to capitalist consumption, where retail displays and online photo albums are superficially imbued with the aura of curating to increase their cultural currency.
To illustrate how it is that we have arrived at this moment, Balzer uses the text’s introduction to describe the emergence of the star curator. This description is then followed by an account of the etymology of the term “curator” and a discussion of 19th- and 20th century avant-gardes in the first section, “Value.” In the second and final section, “Work,” the author describes the contemporary art world’s obsession with the curator and the way in which the veneer of curation has come to inform all cultural activity. Together, these elements – discussed with strategic brevity – constitute Curationism, a self-professed “biography of the curator, the curated, the curatorial and curation – a story of our times,” ultimately an ambitious rhetorical pursuit given that the text is only 137 pages long.
In this “curationist moment,” the star curator reigns. Hans Ulrich Obrist epitomizes this trend and is portrayed as an eccentric, megalomaniacal workaholic. Obrist is also cited as a major contributor to the contemporary conception of curator as “an employed, salaried entity”1 and is described as “the typification of the curationtionist moment”2. Throughout the text, Balzer repeatedly questions the legitimacy of curatorial work executed by marquee-name cultural practitioners like Obrist. After dedicating most of his introduction to star curators like Obrist and his frenzied labour in the arts, Balzer backtracks and poses some hyperbolic questions. For instance, “What exactly do they do? Are they distant mandarins who force-feed us super-theoretical art? Hyper-professionalized agents – electively business consultants – working for high-powered international cultural organizations?”3 Such questioning informs the portrait of the curator that emerges, one that over-emphasizes the star curator as the domi-nant form of curating in the art world.
Balzer’s commodification of the celebrity identity of the curator facilitates a discussion of the relationship between cultural production and capitalism. All forms of curation, whether popular or professional, are according to the author, related to the avant-garde’s fetishization of the new – a quality he says has been commodified for most of history, latched onto by institutions and curators for its marketability. However, the author’s rapid summation of avant-garde history results in some unfortunate omissions. For example, Balzer describes the avant-garde as “formal-experimentation-for-the-sake-of-formal-experimentation”4, disavowing the distinctly political intentions of radical artists like Édouard Manet, the Italian Futurists and the Dadaists, who were all responding to the political contexts in which their works were produced (the alienation of French society; the poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy of early 20th-century Italy; and the horrors of technology following World War I, respectively). In fact, much of the text is predicated on Balzer’s truncated history of the avant-garde, which facilitates broad under-interrogated claims, including the argument that the fixation of curators on the new has single-handedly ended the possibility of the avant-garde in the 21st-century.
Only in the second section of the text does the author acknowledge the real-world demands of curatorial labour, an abrupt change in tone given that the majority of the book is dedicated to the description (and critique) of internationally renowned and egregiously paid curators like Obrist and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. At this point in the text, Balzer cites Vancouver-based curator Karen Love’s free online curatorial toolkit, which offers a step-by-step account of the less glamourous logistical dimensions of executing an exhibition independently. Here, the author proposes that – due to funding pressures and logistical challenges – the independent curator may be “nearing extinction”5, a point that appears contradictory given the perva-siveness of “curating” in the wider culture and the central position of the star curator in the art world.
Near the book’s end, Balzer cites an article written by independent curator Vanessa Castro titled, “People who definitely shouldn’t have the title ‘curator’ in their Twitter bios,” offering one of the text’s only examples of an art world practitioner being directly critical of the metastasized form the term curator has taken in contemporary discourse. Balzer responds to Castro’s objection by noting that the job of curating is too difficult to define for her criticism to stand, undermining the detailed accounts of curatorial work offered in Curationism.
In closing, Balzer sardonically asks, “How much curatorial work did you do today?”6, and provides a verbose list of activities related to cultural consumption and personal presentation. This cynical provocation satisfies the author’s opening claim that “This book is not anti-art world or anti-curator. It is strongly critical, but also merely an account…of curation’s close alliance with capitalism and its cultures.”7 In the end, Balzer succeeds in observing the popular traction the term curating has garnered, though his description of the impact the democratization of the term has had on non-star professional curators could offer a more nuanced interpretation of this cultural phenomenon.