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Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, journalists and politicians persistently led the polls as the most poorly regarded professional categories. At the rate things are going, however, chances are this decade will choose bankers and curators as public culprits. And, some might add, rightfully so. When asked what their job is, most people – including bankers – will easily describe their professional capacity and field of activity.
Even artistic practice, once considered a way of life rather than a job, is now largely accepted as a fullfledged professional undertaking, though the public at large might still have delusions about the purported importance of the art market and the financial revenues of your average practitioner. But when it comes to curating, we’d be hard pressed to reach an agreement as to what this terminology precisely refers to. Of course, it’s about making shows. But then again, there are as many ways to go about it, as there are curators. The prevailing line in the arts community is that this is actually positive, as it demonstrates the openness and nonconformism of its sector.
Interestingly enough, curators – in contradiction with corporatist mechanisms prevailing in other domains – are gladly letting everyone in. As a matter of fact, few diplomas and academic degrees apply to the strange discipline of curating. True, the past fifteen or so years have witnessed the emergence of so-called curatorial training programmes, but their respective criteria are more often than not miles apart. Moreover, as was spectacularly demonstrated by the 50th Venice Biennale, curators actively participate in inflating the number of their colleagues; when asked to devise a show, the curators’ first reaction was to nominate co-curators, who in turn solicited assistant curators, sub-curators and so forth. If you wanted to undermine the forging of a professional profile, this is certainly where you’d start.
Another remarkable evolution is the massive job switch from artist to curator (and back again), a corollary of the above-mentioned development. While in the 1990s, curators had to face criticism for believing they were the true artists, the situation has since dramatically changed. Artists now curate themselves, they curate other artists and curate curators. Understandably, when evaluating the job most curators were doing in setting up shows, many artists came to think they might as well do it themselves. And while they’re at it, grab the cash; for they finally must have realised that all along, while budgets would hardly allow for artists’ fees, curators always had spending money to pay for the drinks. Still, this state of affairs has produced a grotesque result: going to exhibition openings, you are likely to meet more people who deem themselves curators than artists – let alone spectators.
Stakhanovism is the production model in art today, the powerhouse its infrastructural matrix.
Institutions worldwide are surfing this wave by organising curatorial symposiums on curating, hosting curatorial debates on curatorial concepts, and publishing curatorial handbooks written by and for curators and aspiring curators. Indeed, rather than sharpening the picture, a myriad of institution-run training programmes has set out to form a caste of well-bred, multi-tasking individuals whose congenital scouting spirit is tirelessly widening the scope of what’s to be seen by their pairs, and incidentally, the public. In other words, this cloning of young, ambitious profilers, along with a fast-growing institutional sector, has fuelled an artificial need for more art – and thus artists – to be discovered. This trend has spurred a near-productivist craze, which in turn has helped altering the standards and, by extent, the nature of art. Stakhanovism is the production model in art today, the powerhouse its infrastructural matrix. And so, clever oneliners become museum pieces, and lunchtime ponderings make for a group show, with trendsetting practices finally catching up with the pace set by fashion and lifestyle magazines. Accordingly, art criticism has turned into page-filling cackle for glossy brochures that provide a favourable environment for product placement. In popular culture this is chastely termed infotainment, with full vertical integration the aim of the process. The recent Frieze Art Fair is a case in point here, since it all too clearly demonstrates the widespread connivance of an inbred system.
Apart maybe from full standardisation – an ideological hurdle the art world has thus far not really dared tackle, preferring a mode of production similar to the fabrication of luxury goods – the mechanisms of packaging and marketing definitely seem to have taken hold in art. Art as an alternative to other visual and performative practices is then a savvy discursive exercise in wishful thinking. Rather, the recent surge in oversized video projections and Dolby surround may be seen as mocking the real thing. This tendency to play at par with other, purely profit-based forms of cultural output, has no doubt contributed in making the arts more attractive to corporate sponsorship, which is slowly taking over in Europe as well. As of today, corporate agendas are guiding the choices; the sponsor’s call is hard to resist in an increasingly busy environment. Curators are adapting to this state of affairs by becoming zealous administrators, or at best ambitious managers of a global business whose display cases and outlets are the biennales, fairs and group shows of this world.
Art criticism has turned into page-filling cackle for glossy brochures that provide a favourable environment for product placement.
The downside of this evolution is an increasing competitiveness, as we know from liberal theory, of which it is the pillar. For one, the arts community is subject to the same restrictions that apply to all other professional fields; in this respect at least, the full integration of ‘Art & Life’ proclaimed throughout the 1990s has become a reality. Today still a somewhat protected realm of activity, the arts circuit, under the impulse of hothouse curators, is fast adjusting to the new paradigms of consumption and market compatibility: no wonder blockbusters such as the Arsenale show encourage viewers to behave like window-shoppers or MTV viewers, at the risk of becoming unpopular with the public at large. But what will happen once this development has reached its peak? Will the future crowds of unemployed artists and curators sign in for professional re-education? Or will they storm the gates of the few remaining privately run academies, museums and art spaces? Now many may argue that this assessment is reactionary, elitist and truly uncool. They might be right, and art might really just be a commodity like any other. Fact is that unless the prevailing trend is reversed by some external impulse – or, for that matter, an internal regulatory mechanism yet to be defined – the role of artists and curators alike will be reduced to implement the sales targets of their future employers. Trainees better start taking courses in window dressing.
Boris Kremer is a freelance arts worker trained at Stichting De Appel, Amsterdam. He is currently in charge of the International Studio Programme at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (publisher, a.o., of “Men in Black. Handbook of Curatorial Practice”…).
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)