In the beginning there was the artwork: But what do so-called curators make of it?

Why are the artworks and their authors, the artists, not as much in the foreground as they ought to be? We are talking about art here, aren’t we? How come we neglect the artists then?

Instant art

Shouldn’t we «curators» serve and support art with a grain of humility? Art is our livelihood, after all, our highest good, which we should treat with appropriate care. In German, we used to call ourselves «Kustoden» or «Konservatoren», «custodians» or «conservators» (how the Spanish came up with the terrible word «comisario» remains a mystery to me), and both terms imply a fine sense of caring for and fostering art. The term «curator» is no registered trademark: anyone can claim that title with impunity—and will do so for merely shifting a flowerpot from left to right.

Indeed, throughout the past decades, art has been more and more taken over by «the curatorial» and has been successfully subjected to it. The factor of time plays an important role in this context: it actually takes a lot of time, both with respect to the artworks and to their authors, to become acquainted with the originals, to study them, and to gradually understand them. Many «curators», however, lock their eyes on marketability and potential sponsors (more about the impact of the market at a later point), especially when they are expected to speedily round up a biennial or the like, and they frequently compile their artworks by mouse click. Most works look better on the Internet than in reality anyway!

Avoiding the artists

Sometimes one has the impression that curators regard artists as a necessary evil that they should deal with as little as possible. Rather than supporting the artists, «the curator» tends to abuse and take advantage of them by degrading their works to mere exemplifications of his own ingenious, more or less sound hypotheses. There simply are not as many themes as there are exhibitions, so what are all these silly titles for…?

Artworks are often radically subjected to «the curator’s» Stalinist demand for discourse. According to the well-established principle of «Eat or die!», we are supposed to obediently stomach the exhibition program decreed ex cathedra by «the curator»: what an archconservative, arrogant, and art-contemptuous procedure! 

Inductive versus deductive

I prefer the inductive approach, where I try to filter the sense and possible meaning of artworks in order to subsequently show them. This implies that I gradually draw my conclusions from the empirical situation, out of the present artwork. Trivial and simple as this may seem, my approach is in touch with reality, in contrast to that of many so-called colleagues who apply an authoritarian, top-down ,«deductive» system. I would like to share an anecdote:

Marianne Greber, Luana Muniz na Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, 2003

An Austrian photography artist and friend of mine has been working, among others, with trans people and drag queens for many decades now, mainly in Cuba and Brazil, and lately also in Peru and in the Lake Constance region. A young «curator» visited her at the studio and walked her through his list of questions. When he asked for her photographic method, she answered: «I don’t know. I work with the camera.» The «curator», by now thoroughly unsettled and at a total loss, soon took to his heels.

I refuse the attempt to categorize art and to press it into prefabricated schemes, as has been common a long time ago. But this is exactly what is happening again right now, day after day, at numerous academic institutions and locations where so-called «curatorial studies» are being offered—out of lack of empirical practice and lack of willingness to be involved in it. The delicate sprout of «theory» is instead laboriously propped up so as not to fall prey to the rough winds of reality.

Today`s necessity in art to deal with current and popular matters (climate warming, gender issues, etc.) kills the autonomy of the artwork (see my post no. 35); art is again being exploited for other than its own inherent purposes. But art should never deteriorate to the mere illustration of ideas. It should not compulsively try to prove something («Quod erat demonstrandum») – that is simply not the purpose of art. Many artists meanwhile align their production with the wishes and demands of “the curators” in order to be more exhibitionable and more sellable. But this is nothing really new: opportunism has always controlled many artistic strategies.

More than ever, we have to join forces and seek out the aesthetic, social, and political potentials of our curatorial practice. We, the artists and curators together, should strive hand in hand to turn our aesthetic events into challenges for the dominant society.  

  1. Dear Hans,

    Once again a very great and highly topical contribution.

    I know a lot of what you wrote from my own experience. Of course there are always exceptions (as with you). But these exceptions are getting fewer.

    A “market” that is turning faster and faster and constantly exchanging positions or embedding it in new “great” (unfortunately also constantly repeating) topics.
    It is often required that the artwork should adapt to the theme of an exhibition. It is forced to take a kind of fake position. No matter what idea the artist originally had. The constantly recurring questions and cataloging undermine the artwork in its original meaning.
    Sometimes you cannot explain certain processes. Sometimes the words are missing.
    Or like in the short film „Perfect Human“ by Jørgen Leth “Today too, I experienced something. I hope to understand in a few days “.

    Best, Roland

  2. I appreciate this, as an artist who’s had many wonderful experiences with curators (you for instance ;-)) but a few that I recall with rancour. Re those, I understand that curators search for their own little jewels to discover before anyone else, that’s natural. But there’s never an excuse for dismissing someone’s current work, no matter how tentative – especially when the visit has been initiated by them not the artist. Patience and empathy should be part of the job description.

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