appreciation of the tension between the predicate, "to curate," and
the subject, "the curator," is essential to understanding the
convergence of creation, criticism, and administration in the graphic arts of
our time. Curators were ideally
positioned to step to the fore when the idea-versus-object dichotomy began to
collapse in the work of Duchamp. The
roots of activist curating can be found in Western Classical culture. The prevalence of conceptual art at the end
of the twentieth century, combined with the explicit denigration of physical
craft by artists, created a void into which activist curators moved. The curator's role as educator and referee in
artistic style wars needs to be reexamined in light of contemporary analyses of
the nature of power. Our understanding
of the nexus of art-making, criticism, and curating is profoundly compromised
by our skill in suppressing the many pious fictions upon which these activities
art education, Bourdieu, conceptual art, criticism,
curate, curator, Denon, flâneur, Großausstellung,
Hegel, idea-versus-object, Kant, Kuh, the Louvre, medieval icon, Montaigne, museum, Pascal, power, Rancière,
Reynolds, Szeemann, "Wack!"
the beleaguered museum curator. Mired in administration, fighting scholarly
turf wars, courting egomaniacal benefactors and collectors, and attempting to
infuse critical heft into the next blockbuster show, how does she find time to
respond to the reconstitution of her profession as an art form open to every
gifted flâneur with a knack for designing brochures?
appreciation of the tension between the predicate, "to curate," and
the subject, "the curator," is essential to understanding the
convergence of creation, criticism, and administration in the graphic and
conceptual arts of our time. An allergic response to the verbal form is now
quite common. Contrary
to the implications of current usage, the traditional curator did not curate.
For a traditional, custodial curator such as the late Katherine Kuh, the predicate form implied a cavalierly
stipulative, frankly creative role that incited "freelance novices to
claim a professionalism sadly lacking, not unlike a first-year intern posing as
an experienced surgeon."
"freelance novice" is an easy target and, in most cases, a straw
man. The dilettante who's given an
opportunity to curate is the product
of a profound shift in the definition not only of the curator but of the artist
and the critic. A far worthier target of
Kuh's professional jealousy would have been her learned near-contemporary,
Harald Szeemann, a champion of conceptual art, director of Documenta and two
Venice Biennales, and an art star in his own right, "who took the art
outsiders and made them insiders, making the uncollectible collectible and
placing value on thought."
Like Kuh, Szeemann was largely
self-invented, a polymath who defined the role of curator by integrating his
personal mix of talents into the museum culture of his time. By 1970 that museum culture was itself
undergoing an evolution, a movement away from the brick-and-mortar institution
toward a notion of the virtual museum:
an ideology of the presentation of works, a new consensus grounded in the
history of the grand edifice on the boulevard but freed from its physical
constraints, if not its social context.
In this respect Szeemann's career, following on the heels of Kuh's
tenure at Chicago by roughly a generation, did not represent a wholesale
rejection of the key components of her definition of the curator. It was in
many respects a reaction to changing circumstances, a tactical reordering of priorities, a
recalibration of the relative weights of the critical, scholarly,
administrative, and educational elements of the curator's mission.
the curator has traditionally occupied the strategic ground where the theory of
the critic meets the praxis of the art maker, the curator was ideally
positioned to step to the fore when the idea-versus-object dichotomy began to
collapse in the work of Duchamp. The ground had been well prepared; the roots
of Szeemann's activist curating can be found in Western culture going back to
the pre-Socratics. The custodial model
of curating and the activist model of curating are not clearly opposed. The
fortunes of each point of view wax and wane as the focus of Western culture
oscillates between word/idea and object/act. The history of this
oscillation in the West is at least as complex and rich in paradox as the
polemical history of iconoclasm. In
order to understand the evolution of curating in the twentieth century, we need to review the history of strained relations between art
makers and art philosophers. My primary focus in this article will be on the
evolution of curating in the last two
hundred years, but I shall begin much earlier. A brief survey of the roots of
activist curating yields unexpected fruit: there have been several provocative analogs
to the aesthetic ferment of our own time in the more distant history of Western
art, particularly in the theological art controversies of the early
institutional Christian church.
2. The Roots of Activist Curating
curator plays priest to the critic's theologian. This may be a truism but, as in the case of
so many apparently banal metaphors, the entailments are far from trivial and
often overlooked. Whether the
entailments of this particular cliché are overlooked willfully is not the
issue. The entailments of the priestly metaphor need to be examined for the
simple reason that they have a great deal to teach us about the unending
discourse of crisis that gives so much of contemporary art-writing and art-making
the whiff of a hoax. I hope to shed some
light on these entailments.
roles of priest and critic are highly fungible in practice. The curator and the critic may be one and the
same. The crucial point is that positing theories about the meaning of a body
of artifacts can, and often does, precede the instantiation of those theories
into collections and their manifestation as exhibitions. In order to understand the professional
habitus of the contemporary activist curator, we need to consider the long and
complex history of the tension in Western art between the idea and the object, between the verbal and nonverbal act.
of what is loosely described as the progress of Western civilization can be
understood as the successive reinforcement over millennia of the dominance of
the extrinsic, linguistic, and abstract over the intrinsic, gestural, and
embodied. It's the story of an
unresolved, and never quite equal, contest between the priorities of the
viewer, idealized as an impartial judge or referee, and those of the maker, viewed
somewhat more skeptically as a partisan, engaged player. To call this tension a "debate"
would be quite misleading since most of the talking is done by the side that likes
to talk. "The work speaks for
itself" is drowned in a sea of guffaws born of received wisdom. This received wisdom, far from being a
knee-jerk reaction, has incontestably profound cultural roots; it constitutes a
tradition so strong that one takes the part of the nonverbal artist only at
real peril of being laughed out of the culture profession.
Baedeker of Western epistemology would take us too far afield from the topic of
art-making. I intend to discuss the relationship of
thought to art-making as opposed to art in general. Let us concede for the moment that the
meaning of art per se is wholly within
the domain of philosophy. Unfortunately,
we can't begin to address the issues raised by contemporary activist curating without
considering its origins in the history of art-speech. I make no claim that any
curator living or dead has ever consciously heeded any explicit philosophical mandate
or cultural precedent in the course of mounting a show or building a
collection, but I do claim that such considerations form part of the common ground
upon which all curators build their careers. Some of the components of this
ground also serve the activist curator quite nicely in his or her quest to
become an artist.
notion that the fundamental act of creation is verbal is as old as Western
civilization. Eight hundred years before the Evangelist wrote, "In the
beginning was the Word," Egyptian cosmogony already held that the
utterance of a name was of its own accord an act of creation. Hebraic and Islamic theologies extended the
preference for the word to an outright prohibition of the graven image. While Plato's philosophy of ideal forms didn't
go so far as to prohibit the graven image, it did relegate the imitation of
nature to the lowly role of an imitation
of an imitation. Aristotle, freed of
Plato's doctrine of forms, tilted the philosophical scales back somewhat in
favor of the dignity of the act of representing nature qua nature. Toward the end of the Classic period,
Plotinus shifted the focus of the debate again, with great consequences for the
social role of the graven image during the Christian Middle Ages. Rather than seeing art as simply an imitation
of nature or of an ideal, he maintained that art stood "at the point where
things turn around and go back, where things return to the starting point on
the path to the One and begin the move toward reintegration." This late pagan view, which imagines art less
as a thing than as a methodology for attaining spiritual growth, provided a
foundation for the aesthetics of the medieval icon. More to the Modernist point, when Plotinus
urged his readers "to fall down no longer in bewildered delight before
some one embodied form" but rather "to be led, under a system of
mental discipline, to physical beauty everywhere and made to discern the One
Principle underlying all, a Principle apart from the material forms," he
pointed the way, however dimly, to Allan Kaprow.
assertion that the ultimate fate of the art object was to be sublated into a
higher abstraction favors thought, or more precisely, thought about perception,
over unmediated sensory pleasure.
Heraclitus set the tone for this argument almost a millennium earlier when he
maintained that perception unaided by thought cannot free man from the limits
of his individuality. Plato reinforced the bias for a non-aesthetic
reading of the image by making a case for the similarity of painting and
writing. Thus, through an affinity of dispositions,
the expert writer became the expert viewer. This had profound implications for
the culture of the medieval icon from Byzantium to Italy. The icon conforms at least as much to
literary genres as it does to pictorial ones. As for the pictorial genres themselves, they had
been reduced to a stock of archetypes subject less to the caprice of the
painter than to the control of the theologian. Just as the contemporary curator might be
viewed as a priest, the medieval priest might be viewed as a curator. According to the fourth-century theologian
Gregory of Nyssa, the beauty of an image derives entirely from the qualities of
the abstraction which it attempts to embody, but when "the higher begins
to follow the lower in opposition to the proper order of things, then the
deformity of matter abandoned by nature reveals itself . . . and that
formlessness also destroys the beauty of nature, which, for its part, received
its beauty from the spirit." Whether an icon was deemed to be the true
image of a saint was determined by church authorities on the basis of its
assumed provenance, miraculous history, and the political exigencies of
competition among rival monasteries. It
was not a commentary on the skill of the painter or the quality of the graphic composition
per se. In a passage clearly intended
to resonate with those who remain wary of the explicit or implicit denigration
of draftsmanship and painterly craft in much late twentieth-century art, Hans
Belting observed that:
In principle, anything could be
consecrated, a fact that would deny any higher status to images; if they
depended on being consecrated, they relinquished their power to the
consecrating institution. The priest
would then not only be more important than the painters but also be the true
authors of the holiness of the images.
than literally smashing icons, iconoclasts in the West have more often
preferred to domesticate them under layers of ecclesiastically vetted interpretation. At the dawn of the modern era, Martin Luther
reached a compromise between the Calvinist prohibition of the devotional image
and the Roman Catholic tactic of consecrating and thus fetishizing certain
images. He excluded devotional biblical
paintings from his churches but permitted them to be used in private, with the
understanding that explanatory scriptural mottoes be added to the images in
order to keep them firmly embedded in their correct theological context. Today, in the curiously private public space
of the contemporary museum show, we're at home with the remote descendents of
Luther's mottoes: signage—all of that
carefully selected information and circumscribed critique posted by the curator
at strategic spots to help keep our interpretations from becoming too
modern era adds a new wrinkle to the idea-versus-thing tension implicit in
Western culture. An interesting
oscillation begins to manifest itself, often in the same writer, between two
subtly intertwined biases. On the one
hand, thought is assumed to be difficult because it attempts to engage
transcendent universals directly. On the
other hand, thought is assumed to be transcendent and ennobling because it is
so difficult. The fact that persons engaged in the making of objects are
usually oblivious to the charm of this paradoxical feedback loop is taken as
proof that they are operating outside of it, i.e., at a lower level. Even for an embodied work as abstract as a
lyric poem, one pole of the difficulty/transcendence oscillation would
stipulate that it's more difficult to analyze the work than to have executed it
in the first place. As Montaigne observed:
Here is a wonder: we have many
more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry. It is easier to create it than to understand
was a passing note in Montaigne crystallized in Pascal into an attitude which
would hold sway at least through the Enlightenment: a preference for the universal man over the
lowly worker, whose efforts are channeled into a narrow craft:
Universal men are not called poets
or mathematicians, etc. But they are all
these things and judges of them too.
was neither naïve nor ironic. In view of the impossibility of acquiring
anything like universal technical competence over the course of a lifetime, one
is forced to interpret Pascal's description of the universal man as either the
promulgation of a transcendental ideal or a pragmatic exhortation for
developing a unified field theory of criticism that somehow marginalizes the
exigencies of acquiring craft.
the very preposterousness of Pascal's recommendation as one of the central
premises of his critique of judgment:
The reflective Judgment, which is
obliged to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal, requires on
that account a principle that it cannot borrow from experience, because its
function is to establish the unity of all empirical principles under higher
ones, and hence to establish the possibility of their systematic subordination.
and interpreting do remain distinct in Kant "as a practical faculty does
from a theoretical, as Technic does from Theory (as mensuration from
geometry.") In fact Kant goes so far as to admonish us
not to associate the quality of beauty with ideas as such:
To speak thus of an intellectual beauty cannot in general be
permissible; for otherwise the word beauty would lose all determinate
significance or the intellectual satisfaction all superiority over the
sensible. We should rather call a demonstration of such properties
beautiful, because through it the Understanding as the faculty of concepts, and
the Imagination as the faculty of presenting them, feel themselves strengthened
has set a trap for the art maker: the price of restricting the notion of beauty
to its manifestation in nature and art is that art must then concede the
ultimate superiority of intellectual satisfaction over the merely beautiful. Although Kant's vocabulary and mode of
argument are new, it turns out that he shares his fundamental premise with the
early Church Fathers that the expert viewer's gaze is superior to the expert
craftsman's hand a priori.
generation before Kant, this delicate balance between the perspectives of
talker and maker had already been articulated in less philosophical but no less
penetrating terms by the portraitist and teacher Joshua Reynolds. In an address
to the Royal Academy of Art, which he helped found in 1769, Reynolds urged
apprentice painters to copy the conceptions of the great masters rather than
Instead of treading in their
footsteps, endeavor only to keep the same road. Labour to invent on their general
principles and way of thinking. Possess yourself with their spirit.
he went so far as to characterize painting as a liberal art, Reynolds
cautioned his students against an excess of reading that would end up
distracting them from the practical side of their profession. He maintained a
fine distinction between the complexity of an idea that informed a work and the
complexity of its description:
It has been the fate of arts to be
enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language,
as if it was thought necessary that even the
terms should correspond to the idea
entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.
Kant and Reynolds demonstrated a keen appreciation for the complexity of the
praxis-versus-theory tension inherent to Western art but, not surprisingly,
each man ended up in a rhetorical straddle whose nuance, if not literal argument,
subtly favored his chosen profession.
sensitivity to the problem of understanding history, abetted by his utter incomprehension
and impatience with the art of his time, led him to make a revolutionary move
which resonates today perhaps more forcefully than it did in his own lifetime to define the maker-versus-interpreter conflict out of existence:
[T]he conditions of our present
time are not favourable to art. It is
not, as might be supposed, merely that the practising artist himself is
infected by the loud voice of reflection all around him and by the opinions and
judgments on art that have become customary everywhere, so that he is misled
into introducing more thoughts into his work; the point is that our whole
spiritual culture is of such a kind that he himself stands within the world of
reflection and its relations, and could not by any act of will and decision
abstract himself from it . . . .
In all these respects art, considered
in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and
life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and
occupying its higher place . . . . The philosophy of art is therefore a greater
need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full
satisfaction. Art invites us to
intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again,
but for knowing philosophically what art is.
even this Hegelian revolution was something of a consolidation, although Hegel
himself seemed oblivious to the fact that he was merely reinforcing a precedent,
that of the medieval church's sublation of art into theology. The fact that Hegel sublated art into what he
termed ‘science’ rather than ‘religion’ shouldn't distract us from the
historical continuity of his position. It should also not blind us to the
fervent case that Hegel made for art, even as he tried to sublate it out of
existence. Whether the Hegelian argument is complex or merely inconsistent can
be left for the close reader to decide. In the course of praising the visual
arts for their ability to heal the breach between the universal and the
here-and-now, Hegel denigrated that very same here-and-now as "merely
external, sensuous, and transient." The implications of his position for the
practice of art only become apparent much later in Hegel's argument against
craft. Manner, which "extends to
the execution of the work of art, the handling of the brush, the laying on of
the paint, the blending of colours, etc.," was for Hegel
the worst thing to which the artist
can submit because in it he indulges simply in
his own restricted and personal whims. But art as such cancels the mere accidentality of the topic as well as of its
external appearance and therefore demands
of the artist that he shall extinguish in himself the accidental particular characteristics of his own subjective
came close to conflating the profound union of brain and hand that constitutes
the artist's mind with a mere accident of the moment. His notion of mind was
clearly Cartesian, which we are apt to overlook since it so closely resembles
our own. The absurd implications of
Cartesian absolutism are only now beginning to be explored by philosophers and
cognitive psychologists. Suffice it to say that Hegel failed to take
into account the implications of the contemporaneous work of Delacroix, Goya,
Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Beethoven, and Kleist for his theory. His position
resonated, despite its provincialism, by dint of its audacity: Stop making art, but do keep talking about it,
and call that more highly evolved activity . . . what? art? philosophy? something else?
naturally expects philosophers to answer "philosophy" and artists
"art," but conspicuous counterexamples come to mind immediately: Schopenhauer,
Nietzsche, and Vattimo among the philosophers; Duchamp and Cage among the
artists. The culture of
mid-nineteenth-century France supplied a third way, a provocative something else: a stylish synthesis of Kantian aesthetics and
Hegel's challenge to raise commentary to an art form. We know this synthesis
today as flânerie, the art of the hip urban commentator. Constantin Guys, the Parisian caricaturist
and archetypal flâneur immortalized by Baudelaire in his "Painter of
Modern Life," was no
more a self-conscious neo-Kantian than he was a student of Hegel, but he worked
in a society that was characterized by its response to Kant and Hegel. We tend to think of the flâneur as a creature
of the boulevards, but he was equally the child of the museum. The flâneur was the first species of
self-appointed curator. The origins of this peculiarly French story are worth
the dawn of the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie in France, from the waning days
of the ancient régime to the occasion of Napoleon's second wedding in 1810, the
Louvre evolved from an essentially private collection to a public institution
with a didactic mission no less political than aesthetic. Precedents for the
Louvre existed in Chrétien de Mechel's Imperial Gallery for the Hapsburgs in
Vienna as well as in the first public art gallery in Paris and the exhibition
of royal paintings that had been installed at the Luxembourg palace in 1750. Whereas
the ideal of the Baroque Kunstkammer
in the earlier part of the century had been to dazzle the eye of the
aristocratic guest with the magnificence of a noble patron's collection, the
Imperial Gallery and the Luxembourg were arranged to tell a more subtle
political story, that of the evolution of the fine art of painting.
When Charles-Claude de Flahaut, the Comte
d'Angiviller, was commissioned by Louis XVI in 1769 to create a new exhibition
space at the Louvre for the royal collection, the political program was
broadened to enlist the support of a rising bourgeoisie for the regime whose
legitimacy was beginning to crumble. When Dominique
Vivant Denon resumed the project of
reconfiguring the Louvre under Napoleon in 1802, the legitimizing function of
the museum had grown to encompass the average citizen. Not only did the role of
France as Europe's leading military and cultural power have to be constantly, and
one hoped, suavely, affirmed, but the
citizen himself had to be legitimized as a worthy successor to the landed
aristocrat as a pillar of the state. The
publication of Johann Winckelmann's History
of Ancient Art in 1764 may well have served as a blueprint for the courses
of aesthetic education envisioned by the generation of d'Angiviller and Vivant
Denon, but there can be no doubt that the curator as a creature of the museum
was born of a conflict of interest.
a visual history of Western art entailed radical changes in the manner of presenting
work, changes that evolved quickly from the status of expedients to norms. Uniform top-lighting for works was introduced
at considerable expense in the plans of d'Angiviller for Louis XVI's Louvre. The nascent profession of curating normalized
the practice of taking visual art out of its functional context, framing it,
and displaying it within a visual cordon
sanitaire. A generation later Hegel ratified this curatorial move by
denigrating the mundane uses of painting as mere decoration. When the
individual work loses its individual social function, it can only be justified
if it helps to tell the story of painting as a collective endeavor. In addition to consolidating the
redefinition of the monarchial palace as a public educational institution, it
could be argued that this "new fascination for exploring the course of art
history replaced the old-style appreciation of the single work of art."
those not lucky enough to see the Louvre's collection in person, the museum's
catalogs of monochrome engravings reinforced the illusion of historical inevitability
conjured up by the collection's physical layout, since, as Belting points out, the
reproductions "made different works of art appear more alike than they
actually were." The
museum represents Western culture's most ambitious physical demonstration of
the Kantian injunction to exercise the faculty of judgment. Aside from its
philosophical and political aptness in the wake of French Revolution, this move
had the convenient economic effect of helping to validate the market for contemporary
artists' output. Now that art was being freed from the caprice of private
aristocratic taste and the dictates of theologs, a canon of the best work of
the past needed to be established, subject to those norms of social scientific
inquiry worthy of an industry. The continuous struggle to redefine this canon
was waged by scholars in the name of historical accuracy, and by artists for
the purpose of opening a fissure wide enough to sneak their work in. With the
advent of the bourgeois museum and the rationalization of art collecting, it
became impossible not to engage in this debate, to the extent that the debate
itself competed successfully for the artist's time with the mundane task of
making objects. The merging of the Kantian and the Hegelian played out in the
figure of the Parisian flâneur, who saw all of society as a virtual museum
whose primary value lay in the quality of observation that it inspired in the
sensitive maven of the streets:
In the flâneur's perceptive
vision, what appeared incoherent and meaningless gained focus and visibility.
He brought alive and invested with significance the fleeting, everyday
occurrences of the city that ordinary people failed to notice. The flâneur's expert knowledge of the city
involved, however, more complex skills than systematic and dispassionate
observation. It was accompanied, by all accounts, with a discriminating taste
that allowed him to differentiate genuine quality from charlatanism in the
goods and commodities that he observed in shop windows. In other words, he
brought to the task of urban flânerie not simply the classifying skill of the
natural scientist, but also the inner sensibility and moral compass of the
spirit of flânerie dates back at least as far as Petronius and Martial and continues
to inform the work of such diverse artists as Laurie Anderson, Hans Haacke, and
Krzysztof Wodiczko, but it lives on most conspicuously in the projects of
activist curators. Although much has been made about the provisional nature of
the Western concept of an individual work
of art, the
Modernist and Postmodernist gazes remain firmly rooted in the museum, occasionally
as a foil for rebellion, but more often as the only viable template for synthesizing
the interpretative context necessary to understand an arbitrarily specified
object or event as art. We carry the
museum within us.
Mary Gluck observes, the flâneur exposes the epic possibilities of the banal. Two emblematic events in the tense period
leading up to the Great War pointed to a serious realignment in art's
relationship to the banal. The
exhibition of Marcel Duchamp's first readymade, Bicycle Wheel (1913), brought flânerie out of the street into the
museum. A year earlier, the
carnivalesque brouhaha that attended the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre
had already demonstrated the extent to which the banalization of the contents
of the museum had advanced in the popular imagination:
[I]n the 1912 Mardi Gras procession,
the stolen Mona Lisa took to the skies in an aeroplane. Postcards showed her calling out of a train
window that she wanted to return to the Louvre.
signing of an altered postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa in 1919 as a
readymade can best be understood as a gesture of affirmation: the public grant
of an artist's imprimatur to the flâneur's canny recognition of an unnoticed
shift in the sensibility of the streets.
are three major consequences of preferring the interpretation of the beautiful
to the act of embodying the beautiful in an object or performance. First, it explicitly denigrates less
mediated, more ecstatic responses to art.
Second, it tends to underestimate the difficulty of a specific craft's
technical problems, as well as the potential of those problems to inspire
works. Third, it becomes increasingly difficult, as verbalization builds upon
on verbalization, to resist a dangerous and intellectually dishonest tendency
to argue from the specifics of one art form while applying conclusions across
the board to all of those activities which we now know as "art," be
they mimetic, non-mimetic, concerned with the making of flat objects,
three-dimensional objects, the telling of stories, or the staging of
When Arthur Danto and
Donald Kuspit write about the end of a certain Euro-American tradition of
painting and sculpture and refer to it as the "end of art," they are
continuing the same rhetorical game that the Socratic philosophers kicked off
when they synthesized an ontology of aesthetics from selective observations
about sculpture, drama, and music without paying heed to the profoundly
different materials and procedures of those activities. A general theory of beauty was deemed more
important than a specific knowledge of craft, even when the specific details of
a craft were used to build the general theory.
As Kant remarked, "it is not the object of sense, but the use which
the Judgment naturally makes of certain objects on behalf of this latter
feeling, that is absolutely great." Gianni Vattimo noted that Kant's point of view
holds that "what is pleasing in aesthetic experience is neither the object
nor the individual's subjectivity, but rather its very communicability." The curator works within the fertile,
contested ground where the object, the individual's subjectivity, the artisan's
mastery of materials, and the issue of communicability intersect.
3. The Habitus of the Contemporary Curator
sheer garrulousness of Western aesthetics notwithstanding, one needs to remember
that the polemics of art existed as sort of disembodied reaction to the mute,
overwhelming force of a prevailing physical culture of the craft of making things,
a physical culture that answered primarily to the exigencies of technic and
only tangentially to those of theory. The
curator stands equally rooted in the culture of the object and the culture of
the word. Contradictions are inevitable
in such a straddling act, and these contradictions shape the habitus of both
the custodial and the activist curator.
Indeed, it is the individual curator's response to a small set of key
problems stemming from the maker-viewer gap that will lead him or her to adopt
a more custodial attitude in one show and a more activist posture in another. Not surprisingly, activist curating turns out
to be at least as intricately bound to history as custodial curating. The act
of redefining a curator as a creator first and cultural custodian only by
implication is still a project undertaken within the context of the layperson's
precisely opposite expectation. No one is more sensitively attuned to the
potential for contradiction, misunderstanding, and dissimulation in this regard
than the activist curator, the more so since the dangers go largely unnoticed
by the general public.
if the praxis-theory dialectic weren't enough of a challenge for curators in
their role as educators, the very nature of the theories to be embodied in
shows is actually much more unstable than a typical glossy catalogue essay
would have one believe. There is a clear difference between the difficulty of
demonstrating the value of a previously established canon, on the one hand, and
the difficulty of making a case for the museum quality of new works, on the
other, to say nothing of making a case for new ideas about the very nature of
the project of art. The nature of the
power wielded by a curator in a given show and, hence, the complexion of that
curator's educational function, varies with the type of theory being
imparted. I shall return to the
paradoxical nature of well-intentioned teaching later in this essay.
modern curator, whether of a custodial or activist bent, is typically an expert
in many fields: history, conservation, administration, and the production of
shows, to cite but the obvious.
Conversely, a large segment of the art-making community, following the lead
of three generations of art thinkers, from Duchamp through Cage to Warhol and
Allan Kaprow, has embraced the notion that skill in any narrow tradition of art-making
is irrelevant and possibly an obstacle to the realization of ideational
art. This partial consensus, abetted by
the trend after 1945 to train painters in universities, made for
strange bedfellows. Who can top the
irony of Clement Greenberg, pope of abstract expressionist rigor, anticipating
the position of Arthur Danto, fetishizer of ersatz Brillo boxes?
[W]hat is the ultimate source of
value or quality in art? . . . [T]he
worked-out answer appears to be: not skill, training, or anything else having
to do with execution or performance, but conception alone. Culture or taste may
be a necessary condition of conception, but conception alone is decisive.
last thirty years of the twentieth century were distinguished by a cacophony of
cross disciplinary theorizing, whose primary characteristic, aside from a
persistent millenarianism, was its enthusiastic preference for rhetorical collage
and mixed metaphor over linear argument: Derrida punning his way into
epistemological dilemmas; Deleuze and Guattari playing fast and loose with
mathematics; and just about everybody applying vaguely understood principles of
textual deconstruction to apples and oranges.
At least anecdotally, "it appeared as if the cultural energies that
had fueled the art movements of the 1960s were flowing during the 1970s into
the body of theory, leaving the artistic enterprise high and dry." It was no accident that the influence of
Harald Szeemann's Großausstellungen
spectacularly from the 1970s onward.
nature abhors a vacuum and the thinker abhors a deficit of intelligent debate,
it turns out that the audience for the plastic arts abhors a deficit of craft. In
a moment of desperation, a perceived deficit of physical craft may be compensated
for by well-argued essays in lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogs. If the
artist refuses to dazzle the viewer with a deft technique that overcomes the expected
limitations of an unforgiving medium, then it's left to the curator, as the
organizer of Kantian demonstrations of the sublime, to step into the breach and
address the deficit of wonderment. Is
this possible without becoming, in the vernacular sense of the word, an artist? What are the implications of proxying for the
artist while maintaining the posture of referee in the art game? As Canetti observed, the cultural critic aspires
to emulate the medicine man, who undergoes a ritual death to his culture in
order to return as a more acute observer of it. To the extent that the curator wishes to get his
or her hands dirty as an artist, this possibility of floating above the fray as
a disinterested observer is comparably reduced.
modern curator is torn between the contradictory injunctions of the
Enlightenment to make demonstrations of the beautiful, on the one hand, and to
acknowledge the sublation of art into philosophy, on the other. The curator of contemporary art who wishes to
soar freely above the roiling ocean of contending egos that constitutes the
international art market finds him- or herself instead becalmed in a sea of new
work that denies, often without a shred of irony, the very concept of the work.
In denying the work, an artist denies "the qualities that
characterized painting and sculpture—autonomy, form, authorship and
originality." The curator who acquiesces in the derogation
of these qualities by the artist is confronted with a stark choice: either supply these qualities in the
conception and execution of programmatic Großausstellungen, and thus become an artist; or accept their
absence as the fait accompli attending a radical redefinition of the
curator into an archivist or anthropologist of exceedingly narrow range.
create physical manifestations of analytic theories formulated primarily by
critics. And late twentieth-century
criticism, by insisting on the superior creative nature of interpretation relative
to the largely de-skilled output of contemporary plastic and conceptual
artists, has made it difficult, if not impossible, for curators to resist the
urge to redefine themselves as artists in their own right. In her 1979 survey
of the expanded horizon of sculpture, Rosalind Krauss stated the strong
position of modern criticism succinctly: "For,
within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a
given medium—sculpture―but rather in relation to the logical operations on a
set of cultural terms, for which any medium—photography, books, lines on walls,
mirrors, or sculpture itself―might be used."
Danto takes this position even further by arguing that the commentator is the
only person in our culture who can quote with integrity, "In saying that all forms are ours,
then, I want to distinguish between their use and their mention."
other words, the art critic is free to roam the history of Western art,
mentioning precedents at will, seeking illustrations and analytical conceits
wherever they can be found, but the art maker cheapens him- or herself by quoting
stylistically. Since it's impossible to
sustain a tradition of art-making without referring to historical precedents and
equally impossible to participate in the Postmodern aesthetic without referring
to other work done in our time, the field of creation in the arts is left to
the critic and the critic's proxies. Curators who ally
themselves with this position cut themselves off from dialogue with the makers
of concrete art.
post-Hegelian program for sublated art, like any ideology, wills its own
blindness. In his analysis of modern European fiction, Karl Heinz Bohrer shows how
the self-understanding of creative writers was never more acute than in the
century following Hegel. The same could
be said for plastic artists in the century between Delacroix and Picasso. Not only was art not the handmaiden of the unified field theorizing of art
philosophers but, beginning with Duchamp and continuing with increasing persuasiveness
through the twentieth century, it could be said that art successfully
challenged philosophy as a mediator of meaning.
As Bohrer concluded, "philosophy lost relevance while art gained
significance." In the society of the spectacle, who in the
end can distinguish with confidence between the Aufhebung of art into philosophy and its reversal: the Niederholung of philosophy into art? The question is too abstract for even the
most talented curator to demonstrate in an exhibition; nevertheless, the impossibility of its resolution lurks
behind every practical decision that's made in the course of mounting any show
of contemporary art. Staying the course
in such tricky waters requires irrational optimism. The effort of will required
to maintain such optimism is not unlike that required of an artist. Indeed, very little separates Nietzsche's
Ur-critic, his theoretical man, from his
No longer the artist, [man] has himself become a work of art: the productive power of the whole universe is now
manifest in his transport, to the glorious satisfaction of the primordial One.
hopes that educator-curators will see themselves more as teachers than as
Nietzschean works of art incarnate, but a paradox lurks even in the modesty of
a teacher. The scholarly educator may seem humbler than the self-aggrandizing artist,
but it's important to remember that pedagogy is also grounded in power: the
power to divide intelligence into a lower order (the empirical world of the
child, the student, and the laborer) and a higher order (the rational,
categorizing, system-building world of the adult, the teacher, and the
administrator). The skill of the teacher that allows him or her to transmit
knowledge by adapting it to the partially formed intellectual capacities of the
student is taken as sufficient proof of the superiority of the knowledge and
attitudes being imparted. The fact that the
atmosphere of the classroom robs much of the material taught there of its
savor, except for the teacher's pets who've already bought into its culture of
enforced stultification, doesn't discourage the committed educator.
master teacher may be highly self-critical, but he is also proud enough of his
calling to reject caricatures of the pedagogue cramming students' heads full of
received wisdom. As Jacques Rancière points out in his study of educational experiments
in nineteenth-century France, the well-intentioned master teacher confirms students'
sense of their inferiority in the very act of transmitting knowledge. The teacher is:
. . . all the more efficacious
because he is knowledgeable, enlightened, and of good faith. The more he knows,
the more evident to him is the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance
of the ignorant ones. The more he is enlightened, the more evident he finds the
difference between groping blindly and searching methodically, the more he will
insist on substituting the spirit for the letter, the clarity of explications,
for the authority of the book.
number one of the master teacher is that the student shouldn't presume to read
the book without the teacher's guidance. Rancière, in a stunning,
counter-intuitive move, sees this as ideological conditioning rather than the
encouragement of critical thought. Insofar as the lay audience thinks of the
museum, the large commercial gallery, or the art fair as a giant classroom, the
curator has to invent tactics for resisting a tendency toward the enforced
stultification of the work on exhibit. To
the extent that the curator succeeds in coming up with innovative solutions to
the problem of seducing the viewer into an appreciation of one or another art theory
du jour, the curator makes common
cause with the teacher who succeeds in detoxifying the power structure of the
school. Pedagogy is never pure, even for the pure of heart. This applies equally to a curator operating
in the most apparently non-interventionist, custodial manner. This is, in fact, the crux of Rancière's
rather cruel point.
leaving the subject of the curator as educator, we need to consider how it
merges with the role of modern flâneur.
The activist curator is not only an organizer of illustrative
exhibitions; he or she is, like the nineteenth-century flâneur, an active
recontextualizer of human artifacts into interpretative frameworks. The
authority to recontextualize has many sources, but as Gluck points out in her
study of Parisian flânerie, “Behind the impeccably groomed and anonymous public
façade of the flâneur, there lay concealed the private face of the professional
man of letters.” There's always been more than a whiff of
slumming in the flâneur's relationship to his sources on the street. Can the curator who is immersed in the art of
the time escape a similar dilemma? Does
the dispassion that allows you to recontextualize the tussles of rival gangs
hopelessly taint your street cred?
and methodological paradoxes notwithstanding, the curator remains a figure of
considerable power, one of the principal actors, along with critics and
collectors, in the continual process of redefining the canon of art. The curator may not imagine him- or herself
to be powerful any more than the Williamsburg gallerist imagines he or she is part
of The Academy; like most powerful people of good will, the curator is
uncomfortable with the consequences of calling the plays in a zero-sum game. For
every painter whose work is validated in a retrospective show, another artist's
oeuvre will be tossed onto the invisible rubbish heap of failed vanity
projects. Ever the astute observer,
Canetti identified a strong undertow of Schadenfreude
in the project of maintaining an artistic canon. The person who pronounces a painting to be
"bad" wants this statement to sound objective, but has trouble
resisting the implication, made clear in the thinly disguised pleasure with
which the verdict is delivered, that "bad" work is done by
In what does this pleasure
consist? It consists in relegating
something to an inferior group, while presupposing a higher group to which we
ourselves belong. We exalt ourselves by
degree of anonymity under which curators work may be a source of career
frustration, but it's also a source of power.
The curator who is not also a practicing critic typically works silently
in the bowels of a great institution. No
one really knows how curators go about their business. As Canetti observed, "secrecy lies at
the very core of power." The artist awaits the next big exhibition's realignment
of the art universe, and his or her relative conjunction or disjunction with it. A verdict is delivered, perhaps provisional,
but nonetheless a judgment, while the curator returns to the hidden precincts
where the next essay in canon formation will be conceived. The artist appears helpless in the face of such
a dynamic, but social dialogue is seldom so simple. As Canetti emphasized at
the very beginning of his critique of power, "There is nothing that man
fears more than the touch of the unknown." In other words, I can create your power over
me simply by willfully keeping myself in the dark, by failing to ask you what
you do, for fear . . . for fear of what? of being touched? of discovering that you the curator know more
about my profession than I the artist?
Whatever the answer, it should be clear that curatorial power need not spring
from a power trip on the part of curators.
But it may. As the activist
curator approaches the status of an auteur of exhibitions, to what extent can he
or she remain immune to conflicts of interest?
One expects Darwinian struggles among emerging artists, but the
erudition and relative anonymity of curators has tended to shield them from
scrutiny on this score. If such
struggles were waged solely on the level of aesthetics, they would be complex
enough, but it's quite clear that they're also bound to economics and the
construction of social hierarchies. By
virtue of his or her role as recontextualizer of the canon, the curator influences
the development of art on two distinctly unaesthetic planes: in its role as an
alternative asset class for highly capitalized investors, and in its function
as a marker of social rank. The
intersection of these two planes can be seen in Bernard Berenson's discreet
relationship with the art dealer Joseph Duveen, where Berenson helped to close
sales by furnishing expert corroboration of the canonic status of previously
obscure paintings. The service provided by Berenson was scarcely different from
the corporate credit-worthiness rankings issued today by Moody's. In both cases,
well-researched, supposedly disinterested advice was offered for the related
purposes of bolstering the confidence of a skittish buyer and stabilizing the
overall workings of a market that continually needed to prove to skeptics that
it could be, and indeed was, rational.
Of course, this analogy upsets the
sensibilities of the pure aestheticians among us: critics, curators, artists,
collectors, and casual viewers alike. We act as if art-making and
interpretation sprang from a zone of pure contemplation unpolluted by the
culture of buying, selling, and jockeying for status. The commonly held, naïve,
and hence inexpressible attitude runs something like this: Art work may be
sullied in the exchange economy, but at least its conception ought to remain immaculate. No one really believes in the Immaculate
Conception anymore, but a world religion still revolves around it. Warhol put a dent in the consensus with his
ingenious conflation of Duchamp and the ad agency, but in spite of his abiding
attraction for the anti-establishment critical establishment, he remains for
many art makers today a footnote, at best, the exception who proved the rule. Hip
postures notwithstanding, our culture of pervasive irony still clings to just
enough of the foundation myths of Romanticism to remain in a state of queasy
denial about the socially-constructed, non-artistic foundation of art
recontextualizing power of museum culture is still strong enough that it absorbs
virtually all of the overt political and social commentary that artists presume
to introduce. Explicit politics are detoxified within the cordon sanitaire of aesthetic discourse. One might question this assertion with any
number of fair counter-examples: What about feminist art? What about gay agit-prop? What about Socialist Realism? The answer is that all of the overt
political agendas of such work, sincere as they might be, are embedded in a
more profound political context that subverts their surface content. "Political"
work is political, just not in the
way it was intended. The more overtly "political" the show, the more
ironically, and definitively, will the dynamics of depoliticized recontextualization be
Consider Wack!, the recent retrospective exhibition of feminist art organized
by Cornelia Butler for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The show spans four decades and includes
hundreds of works by over a hundred artists. It includes pieces executed in a
stupefying variety of techniques:
painting, sculpture, photomontage, collage, essays, litanies, music,
body art, videos, verbal documentation of performances, and installations. The technical level of execution ranges from
the simply or purposefully crude to a technically brilliant mastery of
traditional idioms. It's impossible in a three-hour circuit of the many galleries
that comprise the exhibition to pay more than cursory attention to the political
message of each piece. Meanwhile, the
viewer is overwhelmed with the task of readjusting her mode of perception to
fit the requirements of each piece's mode of execution: Should
I be looking here at painterly qualities?
Should I be ignoring the visual appearance altogether in favor of a
literal or implied verbal script? Should
I take the elements of this collage as documentation, elements of an extended
metaphor, or noise? Does the artist
assume that I will read these two thousand words of densely packed pencil
script? Was the roughness of this
documented performance a withering comment on the slickness of other
performances or merely an indication that painters often underestimate the
difficulty of shaping time?
One assumes that Butler conceived
the exhibition as more than a series of semi-opaque moments. One assumes that
the political content was supposed to do more than corroborate received opinion. For
this to happen, the viewer must supply a
subtle and supple integrative conceit, a notion of art open enough to encompass
radically different modes of execution while remaining sufficiently well-bounded
to unite all of this effort under a rubric that will elevate it above
poster-making and blogging. It is the
artists and curators who've decided to consecrate the work in the show as art,
but it is the viewer who picks up the tab, metaphysically speaking. Meanwhile it's the artist and curator who
stand to benefit professionally from the success of any show that tacitly or
explicitly acknowledges the primacy of the gallery system. It follows that there are two overt, readily
acknowledged, and contradictory political aspects to the Wack! show: its explicit feminist critique of society on the one
hand; and its radically compromised expectation, necessary for any professional,
that the viewer will bestow a
sympathetic reading on what's essentially a careerist enterprise, granting it a
transcendental authority that could only proceed from the very same ideology of
Western art that many of the works in the show attempt to subvert.
Wack! show is not unique in this
regard. I cite it here because it is an outstanding
exhibition, a well-conceived presentation of powerful work. Its quality helps
to conceal its true socio-political content, which it shares with the
ministrations of all priesthoods, and which I would describe roughly as
follows: It is acknowledged, though not
often discussed in polite company until the third drink, that the arts are
defined by the same Darwinian savagery as any another profession. It is also
acknowledged that the aspiration of art to beauty and truth is a pious fiction,
but in the best possible sense of the word.
Finally, and crucially, it's acknowledged that these two characteristics
of art are seriously and permanently at odds with one another. The fundamental politics of art revolve around
the struggle to suppress this tension, to render it invisible, to declare it
unproductive. This is meta-politics of the highest order: the struggle to suppress an acute understanding of a struggle. Freud would be comfortable in these
precincts. The struggle to suppress or suspend an understanding of the
competing motivations for art-making is fundamental, because it assumes a priori that the pollution of
aesthetics by social pressure would be bad for art, when in fact it's not even
clear that they've ever been distinct.
practical ramifications of this submerged debate are enormous and varied. The art world has been in a state of denial
over its internal contradictions for so long that it's developed the capacity
to deny just about anything and support any contradiction. Practice makes perfect.
Donald Kuspit cites Marcel Duchamp as an art-philosophical godfather, and then
denigrates him as a charlatan in his next book. Arthur Danto publishes theories of the end of
Western art while continuing to review it, ultimately issuing jesuitical
explanations of how the end of Western art doesn't necessarily imply the end of
art-making by artists in the West. The New York art world listened carefully
when Jean Baudrillard accused the entire Euro-American art profession of
perpetrating a massive fraud:
It is necessary to distinguish
clearly between . . . the moment of heroic simulacrum, so to speak, when art
experiences and expresses its own disappearance, and the moment when it has to
manage this disappearance as a sort of negative heritage. The first moment is original, it only happens
once, even if it lasted for decades from the 19th to the 20th centuries, but it
is no longer original, and I think we are involved in this second moment, in
this surpassed disappearance, in this surpassed simulation, surpassed in the
sense of an irreversible coma.
then proceeded to act as if absolutely nothing had been said—no offense taken! Into this fray steps the curator, who has to
decide before each new show which aspect of art's schizoid denial of its
manifest contradictions to avoid this time.
No matter how the curator decides, he or she can expect to be excoriated
as a meddler, dismissed as naïve, or both. Robert Storr's attempt in the 2007
Venice Biennale to reopen debate on the theory-versus-praxis tension implicit
in contemporary art encountered just this type of facile rejection.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu built his career on successively more
nuanced analyses of the function of the high arts as an enabling mechanism for the
maintenance of class distinctions. Writing as a politically engaged sociologist,
he saw the growth of the importance of the curator as a consequence of increasingly frequent and elaborate celebrations of art, which "all
combine to favour the establishment of an unprecedented relationship between
the body of interpreters and the work of art, analogous to that found in the
great esoteric traditions." In a
clear reference to activist curators, he added that "one has to be blind
not to see that discourse about a work is not a mere accompaniment, intended to
assist its perception and appreciation, but a stage in the production of the
work, of its meaning and value."
Bourdieu could usually see connections across disciplines, one boundary proved
to be insuperable, even for him.
Bourdieu talked about economics, politics, sociology, and education on
their own terms, and he related the arts to all of them, but he stopped short
of doing art the reciprocal favor of talking about art qua art. Had he done so, he
could have proceeded to the final stage implied by his analysis. After
examining the internal evolutionary dynamics of art on its own terms, in
contradistinction to the internal dynamics of socially constructed value and
class tension on their own terms, he could have explored how these nominally
separate systems interpenetrate each other, modify their respective
evolutionary trends in unexpected ways, and generally thicken each others'
plots. Bourdieu is the mirror image of the artist,
critic, or curator who knows damn well that the plastic arts are a dynamic
confluence of visual aesthetics, craft, literary aesthetics, philosophy,
trendspotting, proselytizing, and social climbing, but who persists in
bracketing off the polluting social elements.
For Bourdieu the social scientist, the polluting element that had to be
bracketed—treated in his analysis as if it were a black box, if not a Brillo
box—was art. Art's revenge was that, in
the years since Bourdieu's death, the paradigm of art curating has invaded
every nook and cranny of postindustrial society. Clearly, the issues raised by the
bureaucratization of the aesthetics of what used to be known as the visual arts
still await a definitive study. The
multitasking curator in the regime of incorporated aesthetics navigates a
social matrix unknown to the Enlightenment philosopher of art.
Michael J. Kowalski
Kowalski's essays on musical aesthetics, political philosophy, and financial
theory have appeared in Perspectives of New Music, Critical Review,
and Cybernetics and Human Knowing.
Published April 21, 2010.
Curating Subjects, ed. Paul
O'Neill (London: Open Editions, 2007), pp. 12-13. O'Neill responds to the suggestion that we
may have already seen enough books on curating with the counterproposal that
what we really need is a more heterogeneous approach to the subject. I attempt to rise to that challenge in this
Katherine Kuh (1904-1994) joined the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and was
named its first curator of modern painting and sculpture in 1954, a position
she held until leaving the museum in 1959.
After leaving the Art Institute she wrote criticism for the Saturday Review.
Katherine Kuh, My Love Affair with Modern
Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator, edited and completed by
Avis Berman (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006), p. 42.
Norman Rosenthal, "A Force of Nature: Magnanimous and Unflinching, Harald
Szeemann Broke the Mold of the Curator, and Helped Shape the Art World as We
Know It," Art + Auction, May, 2005, pp. 64-66 ; ref. on p. 66.
For example, the Memphite Theology, a stone tablet dating from around 700 B.C.,
includes the following passage:
"Now the Ennead of Atum came into being from his seed and by his
fingers; but the Ennead (of Ptah) is the teeth and the lips in this mouth which
uttered the name of everything and (thus) Shū and Tefnūt came forth from
it." See Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A.
Frankfort, John A. Wilson, and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man
(Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 64-68.
This summary draws heavily upon Alain Besançon's excellent treatment of the
philosophical critique of the image. See
Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An
Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 25-62.
Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. by
Stephen MacKenna (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1992), Ennead I, Tractate
3, p. 43.
Closer to our time, Benjamin Lee Whorf constructed the positivist case for
Plotinus's philosophical position. See
especially his essay, "Language, Mind, and Reality," in Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected
Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. by John B. Carroll (Cambridge, MA: The
MIT Press, 1956).
See Ernst Cassirer, The Logic of the
Cultural Sciences: Five Studies, trans. by S.G. Lofts (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2000), pp. 4-5.
Plato, Phaedrus 275d.
Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A
History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. by Edmund Jephcott
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p.153.
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man,
161c-164a. Cited in Besançon,
p.100. Besançon proceeds to draw an
analogy between Gregory's aversion to the lowly materials of the artist and
Dada's rhetorical dismissal of the value of craft. My own argument follows from Besançon's.
Belting, Likeness and Presence, p. 7.
Belting, Likeness and Presence, pp.
Michel de Montaigne, "Of Cato the Younger," in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. by Donald M. Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 171.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. by
A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1995), §587, p. 199.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment,
trans. by J.H. Bernard (Amherst, NY: Prometheus
Books, 2000), p.17.
Joshua Reynolds, Seven Discourses on Art (Gloucester, England: Dodo Press, 2009), p. 13.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics:
Lectures on Fine Art, trans. by T. M. Knox (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975),
For excellent discussions of how motor experience is fundamental not only to
our logical categories but also to any non-absurd concept of mind, see Mark
Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily
Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987),
and W. Teed Rockwell, Neither Brain nor
Ghost: A Nondualist Alternative to the Mind-Brain Identity Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007).
Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern
Life and Other Essays, trans. by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press,
This summary draws heavily on Andrew McClellan's excellent study, Inventing the Louvre (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1999).
Hans Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece,
trans. by Helen Atkins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 37.
Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece,
p. 38. Could the modern website be
imposing a comparably false sense of equivalence among the artifacts of our
And thus was the avant garde born. The
ramifications of the complex embedding of the system of aesthetic validation
within a broader context of social validation are explored in Michael
Thompson's brilliant and unjustly overlooked study, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1979). The fact that Peter Bürger's ponderously argued
theories of avant garde literature, which appeared in English five years after
the publication of Thompson's essay, should have become a canonic text for art
critics, while the deft and humorous argument of Rubbish Theory was largely ignored, says a great deal about North
American writers' knee jerk obeisance to Continental theory. I do not exempt myself from the charge.
Mary Gluck, Popular Bohemia: Modernism
and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2005), pp. 75-76.
Hans Belting's critique of the notion of the work in the plastic arts is complemented by Lydia Goehr's ontology of the musical
work. See Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1992).
While the function of the museum as a public institution and its relationship
to the art of our time undergoes radical reevaluation in Europe and North
America, it's worth noting that the original program of the Louvre as an
educational institution and strategy for creating political consciousness
through art lives on in the developing world.
For an exposition of the role of art institutions in creating national
cultural consciousness, see Néstor Garcia Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity,
trans. by Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. López (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1995).
Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece,
See Donald Kuspit, The End of Art
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); also see Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and
the Pale of History, Bollingen Series XXXV: 44 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1997).
For an excellent analysis of the tension between the ontology of beauty and the
technic of art from the Socratics through Kant and Hegel to Heidegger and
Gadamer, see Gianni Vattimo, Art's Claim
to Truth, ed. by Santiago Zabala and trans. by Luca D'Isanto (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2008). Vattimo concludes his vigorous case for the
truth value of the art object with the stirring declaration that "art
wishes to defend its own truth appeal in radical opposition to the truth of
science and philosophy." But even
Vattimo, one of art's most ardent friends among professional philosophers,
can't bring himself to cross the last frontier, where the nonverbal gesture
might be equal to or even privileged above the word. In the end he reminds us
unequivocally that "the being of man coincides with his belonging to the
world of language." See Vattimo,
pp. 162 and 148. To my knowledge no
philosopher or critic has ever demonstrated how this fatal unwillingness
doesn't compromise otherwise generous intentions toward art.
As Kaprow observed,
"The university training that most artists receive today gives them
reasons to doubt art and the means to both destroy it and re-create it. Experimentation is a philosophical affair . .
." See Allan Kaprow, Essays
on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. by Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2003), p. 76.
Clement Greenberg, "After Abstract Expressionism," Encounter, Dec.,1962, reprinted in
Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol.
4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969,
ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 132.
Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide:
Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1986), p. 184.
Blockbuster shows which are provocatively and eccentrically organized around a
central theme, a sort of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of the art
While Szeemann was blurring the boundary between exhibition designer and artist
from the curator's side, the Belgian poet and filmmaker Marcel Broodthaers was
blurring it from the artist's side in a series of works based upon the idea of
a fictional museum (1968-1972). For both
Szeemann and Broodthaers, the exhibition space was the canvas. Broodthaers's work was featured in the
legendary super-exhibition documenta 5
(1972) in Kassel, which was directed by Szeemann.
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power,
trans. by Carol Stewart (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), p. 291.
Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece,
Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," October 8 (Spring, 1979), reprinted in
Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic:
Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 46.
Danto, After the End of Art, p. 206.
Karl Heinz Bohrer, Suddenness: On the Moment of Aesthetic Appearance,
trans. by Ruth Crowley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 97.
 In its hour of triumph
over artmaking, philosophy has not so much replaced art as it has collapsed
into it. Rather than art becoming
philosophy, much philosophizing has degenerated into maladroit prose
poetry. A good example would be Jean
Baudrillard's Delphic interviews.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy,
in The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy
of Morals, trans. by Francis Golffing
(New York: Anchor Books, 1956), p. 92.
Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant
Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. by Kristin
Ross (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 7.
It's worth pointing out that Butler is listed in the show's catalogue as the
"organizer," not the "curator" of the show. See Wack!
Art and The Feminist Revolution (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary
Art, and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
The Wack! show is one of the best
examples of a show whose content requires the viewer to test his or her faculty
for creating a private, ad hoc mental museum. A different set of dilemmas
arises when activist curators mount aggressively themed exhibitions utilizing a
narrower and more traditional range of pieces. In a frankly thematic show such
as Cézanne and Beyond at the
Philadelphia Museum (February 26, 2009 - May 31, 2009), the viewer is required,
although this is never admitted, to weigh the relative benefits of assuming a
passive attitude, temporarily suspending any major disagreement with the
curators' notion of influence and affinity, or a hostile and active attitude
that calls for a constant expenditure of subconscious energy in an effort to
suppress any awareness of the curators' program. This is, of course, an
experience familiar to all but the most casual of museum-goers. The tension
varies with the subtleness and quality of the thematic intervention.
business of defining the broader social context within which art functions is
preposterous enough within one's own time and culture without extending the
exercise to times and places for which there are no living witnesses. This
isn't an argument against writing history, but it does strike me as an adequate
reason to refrain from putting the art culture of past centuries on the
psycho-social-analytic couch in a way that I might indeed find useful with the
art culture of my own time. All of my references to the historical sources of
activist curating should be interpreted in this light. I actually have little interest in imagining how things were back then. I'm interested primarily in how our notion of
how things might have been affects
our current self-critique.
See Kuspit, Redeeming Art, p. 280:
"Like Duchamp, who distinguished between what he called the pole of the
object and the pole of the viewer, I give the viewer almost complete
leeway. As Duchamp said, the viewer
creates the object as art."
See Kuspit, The End of Art, p.
45: "Duchamp was an envious
spoiler, spoiling whatever he touched out of envy . . . Perhaps his greatest
achievement is the discrediting and undermining of the aesthetic. It is a
triumph of destructiveness that has corrupted twentieth century
Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art:
Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. by Ames
Hodges (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), p. 107.
Negative reactions to Storr's motto for the Biennale,
"Think with the Senses—Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present
Tense," were revealingly overwrought.
See Jessica Morgan, "Categorical Imperatives," Artforum, September, 2007.
Bourdieu's large sociological study, Distinction,
appeared in France in 1979. The essays
collected in The Field of Cultural
Production, which explore the theme of professional habitus, appeared
originally in the 1980s. Pascalian Meditations, which includes
Bourdieu's critique of scholarship and its relationship to the production of
belief, appeared in France in 1997.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural
Production, ed. Randal Johnson, various translators (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1993), p. 110.
The primary attraction of Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory is that it does begin to explore the ramifications
of merging different analytical conceits drawn from different professional
biases into new and sometimes shocking hybrids.
See Thompson, pp. 13-33, on kitsch and collectibles, and pp. 103-130, on
art and economics.