After centuries of slaving away in the shadowy alcoves of museums, libraries, and archives, curators are finally having their 15 minutes in the spotlight — or so says David Balzer, author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (published by Coach House Books and Pluto Press). As is generally the case with fame, however, it comes with a price, and hopefully it’s not as high as your soul.
Through historical analysis and social observation, Curationism tracks the genesis of the curator. More importantly, it looks at why curating has now transcended art. The book has been favorably received since hitting shelves and even heralded as “game-changing” by Momus. These accolades are well deserved — Balzer does a lot with little space (the book is a scant 144 pages). Unlike most self-reflexive accounts of the art world, Curationism is accessible and easy to read. The lucid, concise prose is intentionally free of art jargon and heady, meandering sentences, since the author intended the book for a “general, non-art world and non-academic audience.”
The everyman inclination of Curationism also underscores its liberal leaning; while notably and purposely free of overt critical theory, leftist philosophies clearly inform its pages. Balzer states in his introduction that the book “is strongly critical, but also merely an account, an acknowledgement, of curation’s close alliance with capitalism and its cultures.” It is simply structured, with just two sections — “Value” and “Work” — that further indebt it to a Marxist modus.
Appropriately, the real value of the book lies in its chapter of the same name, which traces the development of the word “curate” from its inception to present. Balzer begins his etymology with the Latin root, cura, meaning “care.” By the Middle Ages, the noun “curate” described parish priests who were charged with “the cure of souls” to ensure their entrance into heaven. The author notes that, even in this early incarnation of the word, “the curator is someone who insists on value, and who makes it, whether or not it actually exists.”
For Balzer, modern capitalism transformed the word, and the role, into what we know them as today. The curator, as imparter of intangible value, became the authority on not only the care of artworks, but also on their going rate at market. The author deftly surveys a dense century in Western art history that spans the rise of the avant-garde to the proliferation of deconstructivist movements. He makes sure to name all the important forces driving and defining curatorial endeavors within this timeframe — Duchamp, the Museum of Modern Art, Conceptualism, Harald Szeemann, etc. — but doesn’t bog the reader down with historical specifics and political nuances.
Balzer then points to the end of the millennium as a time of crucial shift in the use of the word “curate,” writing:
It is not, however, as simple as to say that the curator made a swift ascent, especially not professionally. In the wake of conceptualism, a variety of non-exhibition, non-artist entities ascended. They would, come the 1990s, coalesce into the curator’s role, birthing the curationist moment.
The book’s second and final chapter, “Work,” brings the reader up to present day, but Balzer sacrifices the clarity of historical objectivity for subjective apprehension. Of particular concern for the author are the numerous curatorial studies programs cropping up at universities the world over. It’s an ECON-101 supply-and-demand problem — too many curators, too few jobs. Yet, while these pricey programs further professionalize the curator’s role, the word itself is being democratized. According to Balzer, we’ve all become curators thanks to technology. For better or worse, we curate everything from Spotify playlists to our social media identities. Algorithms that track our Netflix views, Google search terms, Amazon shopping habits, etc. in turn curate our lives for companies and advertisers.
The author doesn’t levy judgment or guess at what any of this may mean, but the reader gets the sense that it may as well be the end of times. Balzer’s tone takes on a hurried pace thanks to seemingly endless lists of restaurants, brand names, and apps — although the angst that ensues upon reading this chapter might be his entire point:
Anxiety is one of the key drivers of the curatorial impulse in capitalist society and culture—an anxiety to ensure things are valuable and in turn to define them as somehow productive or useful… In a time in which information, population and ambition continue to accelerate unmanageably, there is an attendant desire to control, contain, organize and, as a result, make elaborate, fretful ontological claims.
Indeed, an apocalyptic anxiety permeates Curationism. A play on the term “creationism,” Balzer’s title is meant to evoke a similar sense of religiosity and cultish fervor. This is an astute allusion, since big-name contemporary curators and other art world stars like Hans Ulrich Obrist and Marina Abramović have been the subject of much reverence over the past few decades. In some cases, artists have even offered up prayers to them. An obvious example is Bill Burns’s 2013 Art Basel Miami Beach work, wherein a banner flown by plane pleading “Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us” trailed over the din and sin of the art fair.
The author spends an inordinate amount of time talking about Obrist. A reverential prologue on the curatorial Messiah, entitled “Who is HUO?,” inexplicably precedes the book’s main sections. It details Obrist’s career and practice, which Balzer likens to “the American Puritans and their proverbial work ethic.” There is no inquiry into Obrist’s seemingly negligible sleep habits or how he funded his international art pilgrimages early on (or even now). He is merely omnipresent and omnipotent; a god among curators. Not even Brother Marx can save us now.
Although a skeptic, Balzer is clearly searching for something to believe in. In this light, perhaps Curationism should be read as a psalter (albeit an occasionally conflicted one) for the laypeople of the post-internet, post-recession art world. It’s not merely an account of the curationist moment, it’s a devotional for those that are losing faith and seeking answers to the big economic questions. We don’t fear technology or even etymology — we fear the great unknown.