Paul O Neill
The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s)
(MIT Press, 2012)
If I said I went to openings to see art, I’d be lying. It’s hard to see art with a bunch of bodies in the way. If I’m intrigued by an exhibition, I go home and look it up online. Most of us see art not in real space, but as documentation, mediated by our computer screens. So if we come to know artists and their works, and even exhibitions, not through physically navigating the gallery but instead by scrolling down a Tumblr feed or clicking next on a Flash slideshow, what role does the curator play in our understanding of the work? And if we primarily come to know art online, then what role does online curation play in the contemporary art world? Have bloggers initiated a deprofessionalization of curating? And how does contemporary curating not only reflect the way in which we see work, but also present artworks whose medium is virtual and web-based?
In The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), Paul O’Neill does not attempt to answer these questions. Delivering, in great detail, the conflicting views of a variety of influential curators, theorists, art historians, and artists, his dense historical read provides a survey of curatorial discourse, but falls short of investigating what it really means to curate today.
The book begins with the birth of curatorial discourse, which has until now primarily been produced and maintained by curators and for curators operating within the art world. O’Neill describes how, during the 1960s, many of the boundaries between artwork, exhibition space, and audience became blurred, prompting a paradigm shift that located the exhibition, rather than just the discrete artworks that comprise it, as a subject of discourse. Criticism expanded to include not only what was shown but also how it was shown. The curator, who previously had primarily been a caretaker, adopted the role of mediator, working with artists to find formats to exhibit these conceptually driven works.
The market-driven, object-based art of the 1980s then initiated a shift in the exhibition-makers’ role from curator-as-mediator to curator-as-auteur. Exhibitions became stylized extensions of branded curatorial identities—physical manifestations of subjective curator self-presentation. By the late 1980s, the exhibition itself was an object of criticism and discussion, and the curators became hyper-visible personalities within the art world. Independent curators began to partake in symposia, publications, and public forums, situating their own practice as the subject of critical discourse. By the 1990s, curating had emerged as a global profession and curators enjoyed art-star status on an international level.
In the 1990s, the growing popularity of international biennials diversified art markets, providing recognition for non-Western artists previously underrepresented in the art world, and an opportunity to challenge and expand the ways in which established museums and other institutions defined contemporary art. O’Neill sees the globalization of the art market through the international exhibition as parallel to the expansion of free-market capitalism to new labor markets. Curators ritualistically grant lesser-known artists with art world status by including them in exhibitions that gain international attention, expanding the art market while also providing previously inaccessible opportunities to international artists. He ultimately credits the biennial as a model that provides a greater diversity of artistic avenues for the artist, the curator, and the audience that don’t rely on established hegemonic, Westernized museum and institutional models.
“[T]he temporary art exhibition has become the ultimate medium in the distribution and reception of art,” O’Neill writes. He describes how curators organize the gallery in order to create a narrative that unfolds as the viewer navigates the space. I would argue that the art exhibition is not the ultimate medium in the distribution, or the reception of art—the Internet is. The majority of art’s audience does not come to know certain works solely through their physical encounter with them at curated exhibitions. They come to know works primarily through their documentation online (whether documented by exhibition organizers, the artists, or the audience) and through the language that surrounds them (through criticism and reviews, but also through reblogging and sharing on social media sites). If the goal of the contemporary curator is to create meaning and provide context for new art, which is what O’Neill claims, then curators must look past the critical and curatorial discourse that is rooted in the exhibition space and investigate how meaning is derived and applied outside of the gallery.
Many curators are taking the Internet’s role in the distribution and circulation of art and its discourse not only as a given, but as the impetus for exhibitions and conversation. Early this month, Tumblr, hyperallergic, and 319 Scholes gallery joined forces to present The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium—described as “part discussion and part exhibition, [it] explores the fast evolving artistic landscape of Tumblr, one of the world’s leading social media and blogging platforms.” These curators investigate how creative online communities may signal a “new era of openness and transparency in curatorial practice.” In an essay for the symposium entitled “The Way We Share: Transparency in Curatorial Practice,” Lindsay Howard, the curatorial director of 319 Scholes, describes a project by Nicholas O’Brien, who conducted his curatorial research via Tumblr. His research started as he began to notice a trend within digital art where contemporary artists used techniques similar to modernist landscape painting and re-imagined pictorial representations of nature through digital means. O’Brien compiled works onto a Tumblr, creating a network of images and videos that gave shape to the project, which eventually birthed an essay and exhibition entitled Notes on a New Nature. Not only did O’Brien find his inspiration through his Tumblr dashboard, he also organized his thoughts on Tumblr and shared his thinking process with the Tumblr community in real time.
In investigating the role of the curator, O’Neill’s narrative locates the role of the curator within the traditional, hermetic curatorial discourse. He reproduces its academic and wordy rhetoric, while rarely addressing how its relevance may be shifting in contemporary times, where many producers who operate outside of the art world, outside of curatorial discourse, are assuming the role of curators via blogging and the organization/distribution of images and ideas online. Bloggers curate content on the web, stringing together a narrative through the juxtaposition and combination of found imagery, providing new context to disparate sources. O’Neill describes exhibitions as “a grouping together of diverse works, presented as if in mutual dialogue with one another and mediated as a personal narrative proffered by a single author-curator.” This same definition could apply to a Tumblr, where reblogged content stands in for the art object and the URL stands in for the gallery or exhibition space.
O’Neill successfully describes how curating has become a high-profile and highly influential profession within the art world: curation gradually became professionalized. But what makes contemporary curating exciting to me is that the roles of a new generation of curators are inherently unprofessional. Bloggers curate, but they do so outside of the art world and outside of the traditional curatorial discourse. Their source material—images and videos found online and accessible to all—cannot be commodified. What does it mean to curate content that is inherently independent of the market? How might the irrelevance of the market change the way curators decide what to include and exclude? And as this newest generation of curators mixes artistic content with “low” culture content on their Tumblrs and value an image’s potential to become viral over its association with a specific author or artist, what might this mean for the future role of the artist?
If O’Neill is interested in the role of the contemporary curator, I don’t believe it is enough to simply outline how the curatorial profession has come into existence. What is more interesting to me is how we might imagine contemporary curation to exist outside of the exhibition space, and to address the curatorial voices that are being expressed unprofessionally online. To fully understand the role of the contemporary curator, we need to develop an understanding of the larger context in which the distribution and reception of art operates outside of curatorial discourse. We need to examine how the reception of art is changing as it is circulated primarily as documentation online, and how new curatorial trends are emerging that don’t necessarily rely on the notion of authorship or the art market. O’Neill has provided a thorough account of recent curatorial history, but he fails to give us clues to or considerations of its future. He conducts his research within the field of curatorial discourse, and that’s where it remains.
LONEY ABRAMS is an artist, curator, and writer living in Brooklyn. She co-organizes hotelart.us, a curatorial project that produces shows in hotel rooms and exhibits them online. She will receive an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in May 2013.