Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Should the artist and the curator be friends?

Christopher Büchel's proposed thank-you note to Mass MoCA.

For some reason, this post over at Exhibitionist - a plug, like so much of Geoff Edgers's blog, for some part of the pseudo-edgy boomer establishment - brought together my thoughts on various trends in the current art world into the beginning of a rough thesis: is the trend toward merging the artist and the curator at the root of what's wrong with contemporary art?

It's too much to lay the full weight of this question/accusation on Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan, the subject of Edgers's post, but somehow the show he describes (including its title, "The World As a Stage"), seems so typical of the kind of "installation" we're seeing too much of in the art world now:

"In a selection of large installations, sculptures, performances, films, participatory works and events, many of which are new commissions, the exhibition investigates the extent to which a sense of theatricality impacts upon the gallery visitor's experience and is carried into the world at large as an altered mode of perception."

Uh-huh. Note all the theory-jargon (I particularly liked the hoary old "altered mode of perception") - and the cornucopia of utterly unrelated media ("sculptures, performances, films, and participatory works and events"). Also note that this exhibit includes at least 16 different artists, many of whom have been commissioned to produce new work for the show.

So who, really, is the central figure in the project? Who is the artist? The curators, obviously (Morgan is collaborating with another Tate Modern curator, Catherine Wood). And really, who the hell are Jessica Morgan and Catherine Wood to imagine that their "art" is good or interesting enough to deserve a sizeable chunk of space at the Tate Modern and the ICA?

Well, who do they have to be? They're the curators! Still, I think you see my point. And as far as I know, Morgan and Wood have never been the subject of any sustained critique - have they even been "reviewed," I wonder, outside of the echo-chamber/power structure of their peers? Is there, in fact, any cultural structure for critiquing the artistic content of curatorship in any systematic way?

I'm afraid the answers to these questions is "no." Curatorship used to be about the study and preservation of cultural artifacts. But Morgan and Wood, like so many current curators, are taking it upon themselves to actually generate the artifacts - they're not merely following the artistic dialogue, they're actively shaping it, and assuming an extended set of artistic responsibilities without having to undergo any kind of public assessment of their artistic powers. And before you say, "Hey, wait, Garvey - they're not posing as artists, they're just doing their jobs as leading-edge curators; the job description has changed!" let me ask you this question - how do they then differ from Christoph Büchel, whose notoriously half-finished installation at Mass MoCA was essentially an assemblage of American cultural detritus? Wasn't Büchel essentially operating as a curator, in much the same way Morgan and Wood are? Isn't the story of the collapse of that exhibit actually the tale of the dissolution of an artistic partnership, rather than a relationship between artist and curator?

And Büchel was hardly alone in this regard - indeed his relationship with Mass MoCA was that institution's accepted paradigm. And this muddled conceptual creep is only growing. Think about Martin Creed's "The Lights Going On and Off" - uh, didn't its "action" consist of precisely what museum personnel might do, and only that? Indeed, if we give Martin Creed the benefit of the doubt that Ken Johnson wants to confer on him - i.e., that "The Lights Going On and Off" is essentially a comment on the vacuum at the center of current arts practice - doesn't that still make him a "curator" rather than an "artist"?

It's hard for me to fight the feeling that we'd be better off quashing this whole trend before it gets much farther (although, as with global warming, it may already be too late). People always like to imagine that traditions have become outmoded, that new paradigms have changed everything, that we're on the cusp of a new utopia, etc., etc.; the conceit is as old as Adam, and about as perceptive. Yet regardless of all this punditry, said traditions and antiquated models generally come around and bite us in the ass over the long run. The fallout from the current artist/curator merger, one could argue, is the slow, drip-by-drip evisceration of the "magical" content of art itself - as it surrenders its special territory to criticism, one can sense its inner powers ebbing. Indeed, in Martin Creed, the "artwork" has literally disappeared - all that's left is the gallery, and the "curatorship." Remember that old Oscar Wilde line about killing the thing you love? Contemporary curators might be well-advised to remember it.

1 comment:

  1. Good post; however, the irritating Martin Creed exhibit is a good concurrent example (lights turning on and off at the BCA Arts Space). The BCA describes it as "gently ironic," which hardly describes the look far better / hungrier artists (representational and otherwise) are giving it: walking by and seeing an empty, high-profile exhibit space devoted to a single, thin joke -- and for a whole month. It's as if Creed was laughing at any genuine form of self-expression; very trendy, but we've seen this before ... and for around 30 years.

    But the Boston Globe probably shouldn't cover that aspect of it: the artists' comments I've heard about the 'exhibit' aren't fit to publish.