What goes into curating an art exhibition

Digital / breaks

The Duden edition of 1986 does not list the verb "curate", and the meaning of the noun "curator" given there is as "administrator of a ...


The 1986 edition of Duden does not list the verb “curate”, and the meaning of the noun “curator” given there as “administrator of a foundation, representative of the state in the university administration” is clearly different from its primary meaning today. In the current online dictionary, the noun is illustrated exclusively by the sentence: “I curate an exhibition” - and the verb used in this formulation then appears again as a separate entry, also in connection with exhibitions. Not only these words, but also the activities to which they refer have had a steep career over the past two decades.


Anyone who speaks of “curators” and especially of “curating” reveals themselves to be a member of the highly educated, if not the most highly educated classes, and I have the impression that this intention is never actually completely bracketed or unconscious. To put it the other way around: you don't use the words without being impressed by your own educational standards and wanting to impress others with them. But what exactly is “curating” exhibitions about? First of all, that is the more technical-administrative side of bringing together your objects from many different, sometimes remote locations and concentrating them in a limited space. In addition - and probably above all - the verb “curate” refers to the development of a topic or a phenomenon in all its dimensions and on different organizational levels: through the selection, the basic understanding and the specific interpretation of this topic; through the short texts with which the objects in the exhibition are identified for their visitors and placed in the broader context of a concept; but also through the way in which the curator distributes the exhibits in the available space and relates them to one another.


All of these are achievements and skills, without which exhibitions cannot take place, and which one can therefore certainly appreciate - and should also appreciate. The nerve has more to do with the impression that with the curator fascination that suddenly came over us, the objects to be exhibited are often out of sight. The almost unconditional obligations of a conversation among the culturally insider today include comments on the “Tate Modern” in London, and they always relate to the unconventional style (not chronological and surprisingly narrow) in which the pictures are hung there, never actually to that Images themselves. The fact that the canonized images, artists and stylistic epochs are actually no longer worth mentioning among the truly educated (at least no longer need to be mentioned) results in the social distinctive effect of the curator discourse. Anyone who says “curate” always signals that he has learned “his cultural history” and internalized it very well - that he is familiar with a discourse of abstract interpretative terms such as the unbearably heightened pedagogical intentions, a discourse beyond and above all, the aesthetic experience and the experience of historical immediacy, which exhibitions should be about, permanently blocked.


The specificity of aesthetic experience among all other forms of experience (strictly speaking one would have to speak of “aesthetic experience” here, but this is a terminological problem that a blog only needs to address in brackets and brevity) arises from the fact that it is the brings together both fundamental modes of our relationship to the world in simultaneity without transforming them into a stable relationship: world appropriation through concepts (“experience”) and world appropriation through the senses (“perception”). The experience of a painting or a poem will never be fully fulfilled in the understanding, in the experience of its subject; With understanding, there is always and inevitably a perception of colors and of (heard or imagined) sound effects, and it may be the oscillation between these two levels, which cannot be switched off, which defines the open and concentrated intensity of aesthetic experience. However, an exhibition visitor who is primarily interested in strategies and concepts of curating must escape the dimension of perception - and with it its effect of concentrated intensity.


Curating and talking about it relates almost exclusively - and necessarily - to canonized topics and objects of historical or aesthetic experience. Only with regard to them have there always been terms and pre-orientations that we can “bring with us”. The accumulated effect of various acts and texts of curating could therefore, in the long term, with regard to specific topics and classical objects of aesthetic experience, lead to a drying up of their sensual potential precisely through its transubstantiation into meaning (as an absolute musical layman, admittedly, I have not infrequently the impression that precisely this effect took place during the later twentieth century with regard to atonal music or jazz).


For almost half a century, however, the hierarchical relationship and the hermetic impermeability between canonized “high” culture and the multiple forms of “popular” culture has become increasingly fragile. Rock music was an early medium of this institutional break-in, and now it is hardly a provocation to speak of fashion and sport, for example, or of wine and food as objects of aesthetic experience. But new and annoying baroque equivalents of the curator function emerge very quickly. The comments of sommeliers or waiters with humanistic training can become so complex and detailed that, under their influence, wine tastes like water and caviar tastes like black fish pudding. Verbalization and communication are not always good for aesthetic experience - and if this is ever the case, then at most to a certain extent. The aesthetic experience is no less at stake today than the last archipelago of our lives, to which the digital communication world has not yet completely submitted. Enjoy the wine, spoon the little caviar you can afford, let yourself be intoxicated by the goals of your favorite team - and be silent as best you can. Otherwise their world will be as sterile as the jazz festival on Sunday morning in the features section of the Monday newspaper. Just wordless curating doesn't get on your nerves.





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What sucks about "curating"

By Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

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