The Harder They Come: How Did Curators Rise to Such an Exalted Place in the Art World?

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Few roles in
the art world command as much power and prestige today as that of the global
curator. Virtually unchallenged powerbrokers and tastemakers, curators spin
big-time international contacts and frequent-flyer miles into an endless number
of grandiose, important-seeming phenomena. Proliferating mega-museum-exhibitions,
biennials and, more recently, curated "book-xhibitions" are all testaments
to their rapidly growing importance. But how did curators, once little more
than mere hangers or organizers of group shows, rise to occupy such an exalted
place in the art world’s rigid hierarchy?

The modern
myth of the curator saw its star rise at precisely the time that the myth of
the formalist art critic free-fell into pitch-blackness. Embodied in the career
of the pope-like Clement Greenberg, the myth of the formalist art critic guaranteed,
along with the myths of genius and progress, an ordered, linear trajectory for
avant-garde art. But, given time, things changed and changed radically. Where
previously there had been a single history for Western art, multiple claims
issued forth for social and artistic redress. Where formal matters of shape,
color and composition had once primarily preoccupied art professionals, new
concerns invoked issues of identity and representation.

The outcome
of this not so covert battle was simple. In an ideological cold war to match
the one fought by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Modernist Authority was overcome,
then vanquished, by a mostly literary, fashionable Postructural Critique. With
the floodgates open, academic deconstruction, cultural studies and global curators,
in their racy, present-day guise, followed. In time, the transformation from
all-seeing, universalist critic to well-traveled, intensely particularist global
curator was complete. Out went history, shared standards of taste and the much
maligned canon; in came the airborne, multiple-time-zoned priests of the artistic
religion of Postmodern Multiculturalism.

In 1972, the
formalist critic Harold Rosenberg was already complaining that a certain exhibition
had been taken over by "a team of curators and art historians–a significant
takeover, in that a curator is likely to lack the imaginative and emotional
limits of an artist and to go as far as reason will allow." That exhibition,
"Documenta 5"–the fifth version of the great German rival to
the Venice Biennial–was organized by Harald Szeemann, the very same curator
of this spring’s 2001 Venice Biennial. For "Documenta 5,"
the young Szeemann emblazoned a large banner across one of the exhibitions’
main buildings that read "Art Is Superfluous." The largely hodgepodge
show illustrated its director’s message all too well. In the words of Rosenberg,
"the effect of [Szeemann’s] program was to give the theories of the
organizers of Documenta precedence over the works on display."

Among the first
international art shows to feature "either statements about art or art
about statements about art," "Documenta 5" proved an unfortunate
template for tens of thousands of important and not so important exhibitions
around the world. Modern curatorial practice, settling with rare aplomb into
the role of privileged orthodoxy, has since grown dramatically in prominence
while aggressively pushing, with the singleminded ambition of untenured faculty,
a politically proactive, publicly hermetic, largely antiesthetic program for
art exhibitions everywhere.

Curators around
the world, mining a narrow, cliched set of concerns, have, like Szeemann, become
expert at sounding, with the regularity of cathedral bells, the clanging, facile
notes of a tired political correctness. Looking chiefly, in the words of Stephanie
Barron–curator of the recent and roundly criticized exhibition, "Made
in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000"–to "present
art in relation to its social, political and historical context," curators
today routinely shoehorn work into theoretical lockboxes, reducing art to little
more than illustrations of simpleminded, politically naive and artistically
irrelevant curatorial ideas.

Of all the
notions that have come to define the curatorial rhetoric of the 21st century,
no idea has been more popular or abused than that of globalism. Globalism is
the Chrysler minivan of curatorial choices: it proves rhetorically economical,
seats Others comfortably and is to driving curatorial concepts as the faulty,
family car is to cruising in a Mercedes sedan: a dull, uninspiring ride that
is somehow supposed to be good for you. The genesis of countless exhibitions
from Venice to Havana, from Valencia to Istanbul, the emphasis placed on globalism
by museum and global curators resides squarely within a typically unchallenged,
postmodern cliche: the idea that today’s art world is truly pluralistic
and without a geographical and artistic center.

The latest,
top-billed curatorial attempt to illustrate the global pluralism of the age
comes in the form of the Tate Modern’s "Century City: Art and Culture
in the Modern Metropolis," the first theme exhibition to be staged inside
Britain’s most important art museum. A tale of nine cities and a single
old-fashioned idea–that modern metropolises have, during different "flashpoints,"
been the engines of artistic innovation this century–"Century City"
was billed by Tate Modern as a state-of-the-art exercise in interpretation.
"Century City," a mess of incoherent, regurgitated curatorial pap,
is instead what a number of local reviews said it was: "a joyless stew"
and an "appalling start to Tate Modern’s exhibition programme."

Curated by
Iwona Blazwick and a team of nine prominent global curators–including,
among others, Okwui Enwezor, director of the upcoming "Documenta XI"–the
exhibition presents key periods in the development of five Western cities (Paris,
Moscow, Vienna, New York and London) and four traditionally peripheral metropolises
(Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Tokyo and Bombay/Mumbai). Filling the sprawling megalopolis
that is the Tate Modern (at 360,000 square feet, it is the largest art museum
in the world) with little in the way of art and much in the way of art context,
"Century City" predictably offers embarrassing high-school versions
of each of these cities’ social history, while largely eschewing art history
and even the art itself. It’s an artistically disconnected and liberally
condescending tourist trip–why else, pray tell, would the weirdly dour
and weak exhibits on Lagos, Tokyo and Bombay/Mumbai be included–through
the urban loci of creativity last century, and concludes much as it starts:
by revealing and then underlining, despite itself, a Western bias built into
the very subject it tackles, namely the development of Western art.

But what is
Postmodern Multiculturalism if not the West’s falsely therapeutic, corrective
ideology to the narrow universalism once espoused by brilliant if historically
positivistic lugs like Clement Greenberg? The following quote from Enwezor,
poster child for global curators everywhere, goes a long way to illustrating
the dilemma of today’s nomadic, global pseudo-critic. "Curatorship,"
the chief curator of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial said, "has not been
properly and adequately theorized so as to push it to that space where it can
begin to approach the sophistication of the novel." How telling that Enwezor,
the curator as "global flaneur" par excellence, would pick as a metaphor
for his impossible, ultra-baroque authorship the privileged artistic vehicle
of the West during a previous century.