Define “Curatage”: What is it? What are its causes? What are the alternatives?
Occasionally I use the words “curate” or “curator”. On some occasions when this happens I notice that people will give me a quizzical, annoyed or disgusted look that suggests that they are either unfamiliar with the words or give them a different denotation or connotation than I employ. I thought in order to clarify what I mean when I use those terms I would provide a general discussion of the notion of “curatage” here. But first, it is helpful to consider a similar term that has some familial resemblance to “curatage”.
Curettage: in medicine the act of using a curette (French, meaning scoop) to remove unwanted or improperly functioning body tissue by scraping or scooping. In an ideal world, curettage is performed by a trained and competent physician or surgeon, but the ballooning medical malpractice rates and the common currency of terms such as “quack” or “butcher” attest to the fact that this is not always the case. In several areas of medical treatment, however, including dental gingivitis and early abortion, curettage has been replaced by safer and more effective treatments.
With this preliminary definition out of the way we can now go on to:
Curatage: (syn. curatorship, curating): In the visual arts, the act of using a curator to remove or prevent the propagation of art material that does not properly commodify or monetize. In an ideal world curatage is performed by a trained and competent aesthetician, but the ballooning academicism, obscurantism and insularity of the high art world and the common currency of terms such as “gatekeeper”, “gallerist” or “sheep” attest to the fact that this is not always the case. Indeed, with the decline of traditional media, brick and mortar marketing and the dilution of academic and professional credentials the traditional reliance on curatage in some areas of the visual arts may be waning.
Ok. With the formal definition laid out: What does curatage look like and how does it work? Let’s jump in!
Here’s the deal. It’s a big wide world and there is a lot more painting, drawing and sculpting going on out there than any one person could ever hope to take in or get their mind around completely. There isn’t enough time in the day to look at even just the new art getting displayed each day at Google Images, Fineartamerica, Saatchi, Redbubble or any one of the many other mass publishers of visual art. There is not enough time to get through the daily accretion, let alone what has come before. Forget about trying to stay on top of what is being physically displayed in all the museums, galleries, coffeeshops, universities, public buildings and corporate halls of any medium-sized city. To see the enormity of this problem, just imagine 10 million artists each day in their 10 million studios busily painting, drawing, chipping or molding new stuff they want everyone to look at. It can’t happen. We need help. There’s just too much to stay on top of, too much to look at.
So why not get someone to do your looking for you? A professional looker. Why not? We hire people to cook our food, clean our houses, raise our children, organize our recreation, tell us what is right or wrong, so why not someone to tell us what we like to look at? A specialized personal shopper. Someone else to look, so we don’t have to. Your eyes will thank you. Think of all the time that could be saved and better spent watching TV, facebooking or tweeting. But where could we find someone with such a discerning eye and the inclination to share it with us?
Don’t worry. The invisible hand is on it. As Adam Smith would have predicted and as Milton Friedman could have easily explained, where there is a need and a buck to be made someone will step forward to fill the need. Enter the curators. They’ll look so you don’t have to. They’ll judge so you don’t have to. And better yet, there is no separate charge for their service to us. The cost is just rolled into the operating expenses of the art industry. Whence come these remarkable creatures? And how do we recognize them when we come across them?
Great, you’re thinking , ‘so there are people who can exercise aesthetic judgment so we don’t have to. But doesn’t the same problem of having to exercise our own judgment arise when we have to decide whether or not a particular would-be curator is competent to serve us? Good question, but not to worry. There are institutions that provide credentials for would-be curators. Many a fine institution of higher learning, indeed many not so fine institutions, have degree programs in art and art history where an aspiring curator can get a degree certifying that he or she is trained in looking at art. So, you can rest assured of a potential curator’s competence before turning your aesthetic decision-making over to him or her by simply checking that your potential curator has a BFA or MFA (Bachelor or Master of Fine Arts) degree. Such a degree certifies that your curator has paid his or her tuition and spent the time sitting in classes necessary to get the degree.
But if you are a difficult person, you may ask, “How do we know that this or that particular BFA or MFA degree is a reliable certificate of aesthetic competence? Aren’t there people who are good at getting degrees but not necessarily good at art?” To which I would ask you, “Do you or don’t you want someone else to do your looking for you and relieve you of exercising your own judgment?” If not, you can always find some quibbling reason to question the judgment of someone willing to step forward and be an expert. But remember, if you do that you’re going to have to do a whole lot of looking for yourself. So be warned: quibbling and questioning should only be pursued so far, unless you are willing to learn what you like by yourself. Think about that before you go getting all logical or analytical on me. Are you willing to do your own looking just because you don’t know whether a particular curator’s credentials signify anything relevant to aesthetic judgment? Besides, not all curators are credentialed BFA’s or MFA’s. For instance, another common way in which to become an established aesthetic expert, a curator, is to simply have the money necessary to go into the art business. You can become a curator simply by buying, selling or displaying art, or the connections where someone else is willing to put you in a position where you can perform curatage. So, before we get too far into the weeds let’s just say a word of thanks that despite all the complexities surrounding the issue there are in fact such creatures as curators who are willing to offer their services looking and exercising aesthetic judgment so we don’t have to.