Curationism and Academia

This week, I read David Balzar’s Curationism which was an entry in Kostis Kourelis’s expertly curated reading list. I’ve been vaguely interested in the concept of curation since UND’s 2013 Arts and Cultural conference titled Cultures of Curation. Anyone who reads the interwebs in even a superficial way comes across the language of curation applied to almost anything.

As Balzar explains, curation in the art world is a comparatively new idea, and it relates clearly to the idea that by combining art from various artists, the curator adds value to the works. This, of course, remains a controversial issue among artists who typically feel that their art has intrinsic value. As a result, curators have worked increasingly hard to demonstrate the unique value of their skills to the art world, while, at the same time, the concept of curation has become appropriated by any individual or corporations who assemble art (or any object).  As celebrity curators, appropriate the term to attract attention to their collections, the value of the term slips from the hands of professionals in the art world. The popularization of curation has made opportunities in the art world for aspiring curators both less lucrative and increasingly few, and called into question the value of the entire profession. 

Balzar associates, then, the deskilling of curation as a product of both its proliferation (which stems, in part, from lack of consensus as to what curation actually is and how it works to create value), and from the growing power of social media tools which allow any individual or group to curate content.  

The deskilling of the curators craft has obvious parallels with concerns among academics – particularly in disciplines like history which have come to celebrate their skills in organizing disparate bodies of data into a cohesive argument. The popularity and quality of sites like Wikipedia which is community curated and lacks the authority of single, known, credentialed artists, reflects the awesome potential of crowd sourcing knowledge and the potential to undermining the authority of the historian’s voice. 

The response to this, at least among some celebrity curators, is to emphasize industry and volume of production. The most famous of these curators is HUO, Han Ulrich Obrist, whose frenetic lifestyle involves almost continuous travel and work. While this clearly reflects the character of the individual as much as anything, Balzar makes clear that it represents an argument against the deskilling of the curator’s craft. The industry, professionalism, professional stature, and dedication of Obrist alone demonstrates the value of and demand for a skilled curator in a world filled with impostures. 

The increased pace of the curators life and the need to appear (if not to be) busy at all times to fit into a 21st century model of professionalism has certainly spilled into the humanities. The pace of life and work of a historian has come to represent value in the eyes of many both within the discipline and outside it. The constant refrains of “I’m so busy” marks out the professional academic as having particular value. (And perhaps serves a contrast to the dilettantish amateur can lavish attention on an obscure project of only personal importance.) At the same time, academic programs dedicated to curation have developed to prepare curators for the challenges of a career in the art world. This step toward professionalization occurred in the humanities during the late 19th centuries and helped to fortify a clear division between amateurs and professionals in an effort to ensure professional historians particular value in the emerging, modern university. Obrist, despite his celebrity, emerged from a preprofessional world of curation and learned his craft through apprenticeships at leading galleries and museums.   

The relationship between professionalization, pace, and value in the world of curation, then, has obvious parallels with the development of academic disciplines in the humanities. History faces the same struggles that the world of curating does with amateurs or crowd sourced alternatives taking more and more attention away from academic practitioners. It remains to be seen how and whether historians can regain their exclusive, professional authority or whether the discipline will succumb to the relentless pressure of popular perception.

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