Critique or Curate: Part 1

Might we make a distinction between critical and curatorial sensibilities? To my mind, we can–and perhaps more urgently, we must. Of course I don’t think this is necessarily a new distinction. But perhaps with a little work we can see the rise of the curator over the last decade, and the accompanying demise of the critic, as symptomatic of some more general shifts in cultural perspectives rather than as the engine driving the change. So what is this distinction? Briefly, I think it boils down to the relative values that we place on “presentation” on the one hand and “discovery” on the other.

The curatorial sensibility is focused, almost singularly, upon presentation: whether of people or things, the role of the curator is determined by gathering, packaging and exposing. And, more saliently, it takes the value of these moves to be self-evident. Often what is gathered, packaged and exposed is of secondary importance. Sure the items of interest must be seen to conform, however slightly, to the curatorial conceit, but ultimately these relationships–of items to one another and to the presentation as a whole–are simply vehicles for the presentation itself. For those possessed of a curatorial sensibility, it is valuable in and of itself that some thing, no matter what it is, has been “presented” (in the existential sense of the term, to be made “present”). If it’s here and now “for me,” then it is, by definition, good.

The critical sensibility, in contrast, is focused I believe upon “discovery.” It is the role of the critic to discover those relationships within and between any given items of interest, regardless of whether they have been gathered, packaged and exposed to the world. The conditions of presentation may enter into one’s critical perspective, but they are hardly a necessary consideration. For those possessed of a critical sensibility, then, value is to be found within or between items of interest; it is, in other words, to be “discovered,” which requires articulation in some form or another. That articulation is surely a kind of “presentation,” but the form that presentation takes is driven by the discovery itself (and yes, “presentation” may be a sufficient condition for “discovery” to occur, but it is hardly necessary, which should put to rest the argument that the fruits of the critical sensibility require those of the curatorial).

If the terms of this distinction have remained purposely abstract, it is because the division I am thinking about in no way entails the labels of “curator” or “critic” as they are applied to personalities within the world of contemporary art. Within that world alone there are curators who are uniquely possessed of a critical sensibility–e.g. Jens Hoffmann, Sara Reisman–and there are critics out there who operate under a distinctively curatorial sensibility–think of Roberta Smith’s common refrain: “artists x, y, and z are brought to mind.” No, the curatorial and critical sensibilities are just that, “sensibilities”–ways of looking at, engaging in, and thinking about the world. It is the critical sensibility that possesses Tyler Green to draw out–i.e. “discover” for his reader–the missed curatorial opportunity at the Met’s recent show of Dutch masters where Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith (1670) could have been connected to ter Brugghen’s The Crucifixion (ca. 1625); whereas it is surely the curatorial sensibility that drove the Met to gather, package and expose–i.e. to “present”–its Dutch masters in the order that the works were gifted to the museum by its benefactors (whose names, it should be mentioned, are accorded pride of place in the “presentation”).

But the critical and curatorial sensibilities are at work outside of the art world as well; in fact, I would argue that it is only once we begin to take note of these sensibilities within the larger context of what Richard Florida has attempted to carve out as the “The Creative Class” (a book shot through with the curatorial sensibility) and what MBA and media types have taken to calling “Creatives” (a term I find highly problematic at best and meaningless at worst) that we might begin to get a better idea both of how the two sensibilities differ and why they have come to do so to such a dramatic extent as of late.

[Next installment: the critical and curatorial sensibilities outside of the confines of the art world]

One Comment

  • Catherine Spaeth

    I find some resonance here with my posting on Marian Goodman and Benjamin Buchloh in that the event of Buchloh’s writing about the gallerist highlights the distincton of curator and critic you wish to make – between presenting and discovering. And we are living in an unusual time where curators are increasingly moving into the space of the gallery, thereby showing a natural affinity in their material practice of exhbition.

    Art critics write, they write a lot, and I venture to say that perhaps one distinction might be that because of ths compulsion to write the operations of an art critic’s own thought becomes visible to her more easily than that of a curator. Because of this, I would add to discovery (which still needs a good deal of unpacking) Clement Greenberg’s notion of “self criticism.” Importantly, he wrote that as a critic.

    But I am not a curator, and so I can only offer this as my own experience. It would be great to hear the voice of a curator here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.