A well-dressed crowd, including many senior members of the MoMA staff, turned up to contemplate the state of contemporary curation at Friday’s 56th Street Round Table at Má Pêche, hosted by the New York Public Library and Momofuku.
The panelists—Jeremy Geffen, the director of artistic planning at Carnegie Hall, Julia Hoffmann, the creative director of advertising and graphic design at MoMA, Maria Popova, the founder and editor of Brain Pickings, and moderator Elias Altman, the associate editor of Lapham’s Quarterly conceded almost immediately that none of them considered themselves curators—a point which would be interrogated throughout the discussion.
In his introduction to the subject at hand, Mr. Altman noted that the word “curation” has come to be thrown around “more often than a ping pong ball at a fraternity house,” alluding somewhat disdainfully to a dissemination of “curation” to the masses, a phenomenon which he would later attribute to the Internet. He questioned: “Is the new definition of curation, like, ‘I assemble things on my Tumblr and then I put them up for the world?’ Is that why we don’t want to be called curators?”
Ms. Popova—who, over the course of an hour managed to quote Tchaikovsky, Jack White, Jonah Lehrer and Cicero, among others—proceeded to invoke the latter, citing his belief that if a word didn’t exist it was because “it had permeated society so much and was so ubiquitous that the word was unnecessary.”
“I think that’s what’s beginning to happen with the word ‘curation,’” Ms. Popova continued. “We apply it so much that it’s become vacant of meaning.”
Ms. Hoffmann seemed to agree with this assessment. “It’s like ten years ago when everyone called themselves a designer just because they had Photoshop on their computer,” she added pejoratively.
Asserting that she believes there is a “problem” with “applying the word ‘curation’ to every Tumblr,” Ms. Popova called it a “real leap of logic” to equate “one person’s individual Tumblr” with, by convenient example, the Lapham’s Quarterly Tumblr, which she described as “astounding,” “really thoughtful” and “layered.”
Mr. Geffen came somewhat closer to explaining a distinction between individual and institutional curation. “We could easily create seasons that would sell out,” he said, speaking of the Carnegie Hall concert programmers. “We’d essentially be presenting familiar works, works you know are going to be enjoyed by the audience.”
“But that’s not the role of Carnegie Hall. That’s not the role of a cultural institution that’s invested in the future of the art form,” Mr. Geffen argued, adding, “You always have to be one step ahead of your audience.”
Ms. Hoffmann suggested that the relationship between curator and audience is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Speaking somewhat condescendingly of tourists who are primarily interested in seeing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at the MoMA, she expressed concerns regarding the effects of uninformed public opinion in shaping art. She maintained that these days many “people who have nothing to do with the creative process” are interested in talking about iconography like Tropicana packaging and the Gap logo. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” she stated, but expressed distrust at the mention of Facebook “likes” as having any influence in the processes of art and taste-making,
“Innovation would never happen if we were catering to focus groups,” she said firmly.
Yet others questioned the suggested hierarchy of the educated curator to a presumably uninformed audience. An audience member at the panel spoke up, questioning the difference between curation and aggregation. “There’s a really thin line between them,” he asserted, suggesting that this line was perhaps blurring and even disappearing.
“I don’t think the line is actually that thin at all,” Ms. Popova responded sharply. Curation, she said, is more about “editing and subtraction” and reflects “a point of view,” whereas she defined aggregation as more of a compilation driven by curiosity.
Mr. Altman became the only panelist to remove himself from the communal vilifying of Tumblr. “The Internet has obviously democratized the ability to be your own curator,” he acknowledged, conceding that though this comes with “a lot of annoying things,” you don’t need a PhD to be a philosopher.
“So, the fact that we’re not all necessarily accredited or swiped our way through graduate school doesn’t necessarily make you not something,” Mr. Altman said.
“But, obviously we have to talk about the considerations that go into making you who you are,” he concluded. Unfortunately, the panelists seemed more interested in defending their own status as “curators”—in the semantically accurate sense of the word—than enlightening the audience as to what some of these considerations might be.
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