Thursday, 8 October 2009

Curatus Perpetuus

The term curator has been hijacked, re-appropriated and expanded to serve the panoply of content people are creating and publishing across the web, which bleeds into physical spaces and seeps into our experiences. So many platforms, so little time.

Recently, I've developed an interest in curating, its history and how the role is developing and being imported to many different areas and industries. Even the role of Creative Director seems to be extending into the realm of curating given the proliferation of content creators (perhaps they always existed, but never had the opportunity to self-publish on such a variety of consumer-facing platforms).

Arguably, being able to discern, cull and combine work that will attract and interest niche audiences is a enviable and highly sought after skill in a world of abundance and choice. A skill that extends beyond the world of art.

A NYT article discusses the mainstream adoption of the word curate and how it is used in a pretentious fashion, intended to raise the reputation or standing of the said curator.

The word “curate,” lofty and once rarely spoken outside exhibition corridors or British parishes, has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting. In more print-centric times, the term of art was “edit” — as in a boutique edits its dress collections carefully. But now, among designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for “I have a discerning eye and great taste.”

Or more to the point, “I belong.”

For many who adopt the term, or bestow it on others, “it’s an innocent form of self-inflation,” said John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.”

I don't see it quite that way. I think the word curate, especially in our remix, recombinant and convergence culture, has evolved and transformed to encompass and describe various different roles.

According to the NYT, The Oxford dictionary defines curate as “to look after and preserve,” its standard “museum” meaning dominated until the mid-’90s, when references to curating hotel libraries and CD-of-the-month clubs started to pop up in periodicals, said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary.

Interestingly, most of the examples the NYT provides on how the concept of curating has been reshaped and redefined, are found on the web:

On the Web, the word — and the concept — have taken particular hold, not a surprise given the Internet clutter. Etsy, the shopping Web site devoted to handmade and vintage goods, routinely brings in shelter magazine editors, fashion designers and design bloggers to serve as “guest curators.”

Even news-aggregator Web sites, like Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, promote themselves as cultural curators.

“The Daily Beast doesn’t aggregate,” Ms. Brown says in a statement on the site. “It sifts, sorts, and curates. We’re as much about what’s not there as what is.”

This argument reminds me of how the definition of an artist has changed in the postmodern era and how it continues to evolve. Beautiful Losers is a documentary that captures the spirit of a band of artists that worked together in the early 1990s, developing their craft with almost no influence from the "establishment" art world.

These creatives, who include Shepard Fairey and Margaret Killgallen, were just artists who wanted to create things, didn't care for the scene, fine-art training or if people deemed them to be artists or not. I think the debate over what makes art, or an artist for that matter, is an apt comparison to the curator discussion.

It seems that we're breaking all the outdated rules - on what makes great art, an artist and who is 'authorized' to gather, cull and identify art. I suppose interested, niche audiences can make those decisions.

This new breed of curators, those who have the ability to spot and orchestrate great content, relating it to other work and backdrops, scenarios and themes, while igniting and uniting artists, are going to become increasingly valued and important.

And I bet we haven't seen the half of it yet.

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