home | bio | articles & interviews | foci interviews | contact |

By Barry Schwabsky

Most people, remarks Harald Szeemann, look through the ear. Thats a lament, of course. Everyone knows that an art lovers goal is somehow to commune with the art without any dependence on another person to explain it or even point it outbut how many of us ever meet that goal? Here and now, in the imperfect present in which almost all of us are insufficiently acquainted with art (and those who love it most may be, perhaps, most aware of their limitations in this regard, and correspondingly most avid for any help in overcoming those limitations), we need to use words to help each other. We need to listen.

In order to make the best use of this book, then, you will have to look through the ear. You will have to let the words of the curators whom Carolee Thea has interviewed show you something about the art they care for, and about the exhibitions they have made in order to communicate their feelings about that art. But for that to happen, paradoxically, you will also have to listen through the eye, to turn Szeemanns phrase inside out. I cant think of a better way than that to describe reading (and especially the kind of reading whose goal would be to imagine the unheard voice behind the printed word), for its in the nuance of the speaking voice that the speakers attitude toward what he is saying can emerge. Even more important than the idea one has of art is the feeling that justifies the idea.

What is a curator? What does a curator do? Some of the possible answers will be found in the pages that follow, and there is no need for me to anticipate them. But an outsiders perspectiveI am not part of the tribe of curators; as a critic, I observe them from a distancemay make a useful supplement. It seems to me that a curator is someone who brings together things, and sometimes also people. By bringing things together in a considered way, taking into account everything that is antagonistic as well as compatible in the things brought together, the curator is something like a collector. How do things fit together? What is the space created by the differences among them? How would you justify, as the art theorist Thierry de Duve once mused, putting Manzonis cans of Artists Shit in the same museum as Bonnards Nude in a Tub? And yet the curator is different from the collectorand not only because the exhibitions organized by a curator have only a provisional existence; after all, many curators are also involved in developing collections for their institutions, and these collections are likely to remain together far longer than those amassed by private individuals. The difference is really in that old-fashioned Kantian idea of disinterestedness. The integrity of the collector is precisely that he puts his money where his mouth is, as the saying goes. By contrast, the curators integrity lies in an investment that is only of attention, effort, and, perhaps, reputation. What he shows does not belong to him, and therefore his collecting is free, and can have the character of an experiment.

This ideal of disinterestedness is something that the curator shares with the critic. The critics job of work (the phrase comes from the literary critic R.P. Blackmur) is to articulate whether and to what extent various things count, in his own view, for art. The curator does the same, representing her own view of art to the public. (To the extent that a critic works for a publication that may represent a certain tendency or viewpoint, to the extent that a curator works for an institution that may have a given history and a position, there is always the possibility for tension between the critics or the curators own viewpoint and the one she is compelled to propound publicly.) The difference this time, of course, is that the curator presents her understanding of art primarily through examples. Although she may write about what she has done, the presumption is that what she has chosen to exhibit and how she has chosen to do this should tell its own story. For the critic, on the other hand, however respectful of the artists work, the object must eventually flatten out and shrink to become a mere illustration; his words should carry their own weight. A critics work may outshine that of the art that has inspired him (we remember Constantin Guys, if at all, because of Baudelaires essay The Painter of Modern Life and not the other way around), but Im not sure that the same could be true of a curator. Hate the art, love the show? I suspect only the reverse is possible, a failure of the curators efforts.

If the main difference between the critic and the curator is that the former works mainly with words and the latter, mainly with objects, then isnt the curator, finally, something like an artist? True, the curator doesnt make the objectbut then neither need the artist, as Duchamp and so many others after him have taught us. Indeed the object need not be made at all, as Lawrence Weiner has said; or it can made by anyone at all, as in do it, which Hans-Ulrich Obrist refers to, an exhibition of works taking the form of instructions to be realized ad libitum by the personnel at each of its venues. This is a more difficult distinction to make than the one between curator and collector or the one between curator and critic. Perhaps it comes down to nothing more than whether someone cares to claim for himself the designation artist or bestow it on another. Reading these interviews, I hear between the lines a tone of respect toward the figure of the artist, a kind of romance that is very far indeed from any sort of postmodern critique of individual authorship. A curator of contemporary art works not so much with objects after all, but with artistsone might go so far as to say that the artist is the medium in which the curator works. And for that to be so, the curator needs to be believe in the artist, in a touchingly traditional waythe way painters believe in paint. And why not? I think that one should try to believe in things, as Jorge Luis Borges advised his listeners when he lectured at Harvard University, even if they let you down afterwards.

© Copyright 2005. Carolee Thea.