The Exhibitionists

Part two of the question ‘are curators artists?’ asks whether the visual
arts would be better served if curators modelled themselves on editors

The auteur theory arose in film discourse in the 1950s out of the frustration felt by an emerging generation of critics and filmmakers at the lack of recognition granted to directors who worked in the big studios, personified by stars and overseen by name-above-the-title moguls. Under this system studio heads held all the cards, actors were the glamorous ‘talent’ and directors were moved from project to project at the whim of managers and were sent packing when they pushed their own vision too hard. All in all, it was an assembly line from which the ‘art of cinema’ issued like brand-name goods of collective or anonymous design.

Sound familiar? Increasingly museums and kunsthalles operate on a similar basis, with curators rotating from job to job while all eyes are focused on the makers-and-shakers who set institutional priorities, including patrons and the handful of managers unaffected by the dislocations of curatorial life along with the artists then thought to embody the Zeitgeist. In this context galleries operate less like old-style art emporia than multi-service agencies, making sure that their stable is in steady demand in the industry.

With this parallel in mind, it is unsurprising that many curators feel disgruntled. (The fact that most are also underpaid while being obliged to witness orgies of spending doesn’t help morale.) Correspondingly, the thought that advocates might rescue their reputations from oblivion like those of Sam Fuller, Ida Lupino, Douglas Sirk and William Wyler is understandably appealing. In the fullness of time scholars may yet argue the case on behalf of a handful of those now crowding the curatorial ranks. By general agreement the late Harald Szeeman has probably attained auteur status already. Applying a metaphysical aestheticism, an agile craftsman’s ingenuity and cheerful political shrewdness to making exhibitions that covered a staggering range of work over a period of nearly 50 years, his achievement was palpably shaped by a sensibility that transcends the contingencies and occasional opportunism that otherwise inflected it.

However, like a number of his contemporaries, Szeeman was captivated by the siren song of Joseph Beuys’ dictum that everyone was an artist in their own sphere of activity, and he cultivated a mystique to match that illusion. It is the dovetailing of Beuys’ cultural populism with perverse variants of Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ discourse that has given rise to the present schizophrenic situation, where, it is said, art engenders itself within its sign system through the ‘agency’ of ‘producers’, but critics and curators increasingly expect to be acknowledged as unique creative thinkers, and honoured with appropriate billing. (Under this arrangement patrons and top technocrats nevertheless retain their authority unchallenged, despite the ceaseless ‘critiquing’ that takes place on the floors below the boardroom.) In short, we are witnessing the partial inversion of the previous power structure, to the extent that not very long ago a major sculptor whom I had invited to participate in an exhibition answered me by saying, ‘Tell me what you want, it’s your show’.

It was an offer you can – and I did – refuse. Not for lack of ambition on my part – I have plenty – but rather out of a feeling that a relationship to art that had long sustained my interest in the work of others was in the process of being turned inside out by an unanticipated and unwanted switch in roles. The things to which I am drawn as a curator are those that I did not make and could not have conceived. Nor have I ever thought of those things as being raw materials for my private enterprise, tools of my intellectual trade, terms of my critical discourse or facets of my professional self-portrait. Rather than ruthlessly bending the work of others to my intention, as an artist would his or her medium, I’ve seen my responsibility as being akin to that of a good literary editor, who may justly take pride in spotting ability and fostering accomplishment but who is otherwise content to function as the probing but respectful ‘first reader’ of the work/manuscript – thus acting on behalf of all future readers – and is disinclined to interfere in a writer’s process except to the extent necessary to extract the best that is in them so that the subsequent dialogue between their work and the public be of the highest and most open-ended order.

To claim special standing as curator/auteur re-encumbers that dialogue with a magisterial protagonist. So I offer this modest proposal, for those tempted by rivalry with or envy of the primary creators: rather than making yourselves over as the next Beuys or Barthes or even the next Sam Fuller, think instead of the great Modernist editors such as Maxwell Perkins, Kurt Wolf and Jean Paulhan, not to mention their contemporary equivalents, and consider that doing as well on behalf of the visual arts is better for all concerned than adding another name to the list of would be world-beaters.

Issue 94

First published in Issue 94

October 2005

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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