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.