David Balzer: CURATIONISM / How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else

Review by Caroline “Swanee” Swanson

(Coach House Books, 2014)

“No curator is an island.”

This book may be slim (137 pages), but its efforts to discuss value, work, and technology in the curating world are robust. David Balzer initiates his work by establishing the term curationism in its diverse etymological and historical context, and its progression to rock-star status then finally shows how it takes off in the quotidian environment to collectivize and individuate simultaneously. A curator, essentially a jack-of-all-trades, is now understood as one who attends to the welfare of the work itself by showcasing it. Hyper-professionalization, which pervades nearly all fields in this specialized world, has prompted a plethora of prerequisites to gain entry to the upper strata of high art. Meanwhile, the internet has become a place for subversive manifestations of curating. Can we curate the world? Or, is it merely curatorial? Is the world obliquely curating us? And then, what of curationism itself, as the “-ism” enters the world of codified understanding? Where do we draw the line between cultivation and prescription of art? To answer, Balzer dissects institutionalized examples of art from the museum, the university, and social media movements. The point of the matter is that art exists for the satisfaction of human curiosity on whatever platform serves it best. The information Balzer redacts to “paint the larger picture,” if you will, is highly specific in a unique niche-world full of action: progressions in myriad movements where the first curator there gets the golden egg. Indeed, for centuries, art only belonged to the wealthy or artisan—slaves to coin and craft.

From scientific collections (or, curiosity cabinets as they were first called in the incarnate days of curationism) to donated private collections to salons, curators have evolved through the decades in such a way that ultimately what is being performed is identity exercised as persona. So much so, that the prologue to the book sets up a figure of ultimate success in the curating world, a man named Hans Ulrich Obrist. This man apparently sets a Herculean standard of the cool, decisive charm that dictates the taste of a curator. Curators conceptualize, organize, exhibit, and even sell. Figures such as this man have the power to give art its value through mere reputation. When the avant-garde in art rears its head with a new perspective, curators in their vast cultural literacy are able to place and legitimize. Take Andy Warhol and The Factory, for example, as the curator movement accelerated in tune with the 1960s response to neo-capitalist surges. “At its most useful, curated content provides us with guidance and clarity,” but curatorial work is also logistical and intense in its manipulations of space and light—a curator must always think of how best to present the work. What kind of posts do you make on Facebook? What sort of pictures on Instagram? Is your Pinterest full of wedding ideas or cat trees? These questions are not too dissimilar from the ones curators must posit to their projects. We can even take this as evidence for Balzer’s assertion that, “the curator is a condition of the contemporary.” And that is because “the only field that is constantly replenished is that of contemporary art.” The evolved curator who was once caretaker is now connoisseur, opening up intellectual and physical space for re-de-mystification that is the beat of creative life. However, the curtain is closing on the Obrists of the world.

While it seems as though Balzer respects curatorial travail despite its aggrandizement of identity, he openly censures those who extort fame for the sake of content. Despite being “imparters of value” as Balzer calls them, “Ru Paul suggests curating—in Madonna’s case, amassing and fusing an assortment of pop-cultural and counter cultural texts from [insert quasi intellectual mash-up here]— has become the way in which celebrities and entrepreneurs super-charge their brands and attract audiences.” This presents a two-fold problem of art (on which this book’s chapters are staged) between value and work when art becomes so referentially commodified. What role does a curator play when persona becomes a brand? What power do curators really have when it comes to the work being performed? What work will there be to perform if art can be collectivized digitally on individual platforms? Of all the graduate and post-graduate programs springing up in the fine arts world, which of them can promise the kind of work that a self-funded, self-creating entrepreneur like Obrist can achieve? Because, ultimately, what it takes to make it in the art world is an ability to self-start regardless of credentials. Even the Marina Abromovic Institute, named after the grandmother of performance art, offers positions that for all intents and purposes qualify as part-time positions, but which go unpaid as ‘internships.’ Available money proliferates through grants if one can beat out the competition to get them, and despite whatever autonomy the artist may manifest, there will always be the need “to fill the unglamorous roles of project management, facilitation, and advocacy” (127). What traditional sense of the curator will remain as subcultures and fandom continue to proliferate in the internet economy, and what use will the curator be to artists on, say, Etsy? Expanding the idea, for a moment, to social media curating—what end will there be to site population, algorithms, and market research data? “This is akin to publishers posting potential book covers on social media and making decisions influenced by what is most popular …The ostensible power afforded even by frivolous acts of curationism is thus considerable.”

One does not have to be a connoisseur of the art world to find Balzer’s book accessible—he does all the heavy lifting needed to understand just what the world we are living in now has been crea—sorry— curated for. What is the next step for curationism on the organisms it so profoundly affects as we redefine in order to refine conceptualist integrity? Balzer’s academic reportage and facility with the subject yields a speculative fascination toward the future for artists of all kinds. We should all be very thankful for the credible insights and revelations that Balzer has brought together in this curious study.