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The Politics of the Curation Craze

Amid flat wages and dwindling public services, curation gives us the illusion of control.

Blogs are curated. So are holiday gift guides. So are cliques, play lists, and restaurant menus. “Curated,” a word that barely existed forty years ago, has somehow come to qualify everything in our lives. When I tried that glib parlor game of typing a word into Google to see how it would autocomplete the search phrase, the first suggestion for “curated” was “content.” In other words, almost nothing escapes curation, or at least the possibility of being curated. How did our world become a venue for curation? And how did curating, a highly specialized line of museum work involving the care, accessioning, and exhibition of artworks, come to mean, as cultural policy scholar Amanda Coles puts it, “just picking stuff?”

One simple explanation is prestige appropriation. This is understandable—“curation” lends the cultural capital and seriousness associated with art institutions to the mundane assemblages of our lives. Curating an Instagram feed or Christmas list sounds more legitimate, somehow, than simply having a social media profile or scribbling on a piece of paper. Back in 2009 The New York Times’s Alex Williams spoke with UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about the tendency for the vernacular of an esteemed or prestigious profession to trickle down into popular parlance. Nunberg cited the term “associate,” which once connoted a colleague with a “shared a position of authority with another,” but today can refer to the person who processes your Frisbee return at Target. Similarly, the word, “executive” has practically become a prefix on professional job titles: “executive assistant,” “executive producer,” “executive vice president.” A few professional curators have become fiercely defensive of the word: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in the process of curation,” wrote Choire Sicha at The Awl. Others are impartial: “It really doesn’t bother me,” said Laura Hoptman, a curator then at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, to Williams.

While prestige appropriation is certainly a factor behind the broadening usage of the word “curate,” I don’t think it’s the most important one, nor do I think it accounts for the significance it holds for those who consider themselves to be curators outside of an art institution context. Professional curating is a collaborative endeavour, one in which compromise and working within constraints are as critical as personal vision. But curation in common parlance strongly emphasizes the latter. According to writer and art curator Rebecca Coates, fundamental to the present craze over curation as popularly imagined, is the emphasis it places on “personalization and creativity.” “Curation” has come to validate what would otherwise be simple preferences as not merely unique, but profoundly so.

In bestowing great importance to “just picking stuff,” curation in its contemporary, ecumenical sense reinforces many of the personal values promoted by neoliberalism: atomized individualism, the thrall of personalization, aestheticized control, and, of course, consumption-as-authenticity.

It’s no wonder that the qualifier “curated,” begins to appear with increasing frequency in published books in the early 1970s, precisely during the era of post-war economic liberalization and The ‘Me’ Decade, during which, according to Tom Wolfe, it became acceptable and good to spend time “…polishing one’s very self…and observing, studying, and doting on it.” (Indeed, in this passage, Wolfe describes the self as akin to a museum object.) The appearance of “curated” in print tracks steadily upward during the individualist, body-sculpting, self-improving, “no such thing as society” 1980s. The great value placed on the individual as the only valid social institution naturally elevated the consequence of previously quotidian things generated by the simple act of living, like lists and opinions. These things began to be worthy of the same white-gloved treatment and cultural esteem once reserved for fine art.

Essential to personalization is the aura of control. Curation of the commonplace not only elevates preference but also implies a sense of order that is determined by the individual. It imparts a sense of self-determination and dominant power much in the manner of 401-k investment portfolios and small-business entrepreneurship. Under neoliberalism, every individual is his own capitalist, his own world-maker. “Freedom” isn’t security in a just society, but the ability to shop—for a healthcare plan on market exchanges, for primary schooling, for stocks in your retirement plan (if you’re lucky enough to have one of those). We’re all masters of our tiny, curated realms.

The feeling of control that self-proclaimed curating can provide is in direct contrast to the loss of control unleashed by the very neoliberal policies introduced in the last decades. Flat wages, dwindling public services, and a relatively weak labor market have left many people disempowered and politically alienated. For all the significance placed on “picking stuff” in the age of curation, one thing people are resolutely not picking is political candidates. In last year’s election, voter turnout was 36.4%, a 72-year low. On the other hand, re-arranging “curated” compilations, be they stock portfolios or mood boards, can provide a much craved sense of power, excitement, and importantly—comfort— that comes from self-determination.

The personalization and creativity connoted by today’s popular understanding of curation also relate to the projection of certain kind of authenticity—one that is publicly visible and determined by consumption. Hence the eager embrace of “curation” within the spheres of social media and retail shopping. These are the arenas in which we can most easily construct microcosms and publicly projected pastiches of our selves, structured entirely by our own preferences. Ida Hattemer-Higgins describes beautifully the simultaneous creation and consumption of the “curated” self on social media: “Through Facebook, I had what one might call in Lacanian terms, a late-onset mirror stage. As my own spin doctor and publicist as well as the single most important consumer of the brand I was trying to launch, I bought into myself.”

Both Hattemer-Higgins and Zadie Smith allude to the ironic homogenization that occurs during this kind of self-curation. Hattemer-Higgins, again: “After all, a friendship—‘friendship’—is not maintained on Facebook unless another’s posts are genuinely non-irritating. There is no choice: you de-fang and de-claw yourself voluntarily.” Smith writes, “What’s striking about [Mark] Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires.”

Similarly with shopping, retailers bombard consumers with emails announcing the latest stock, “curated” specifically for Labor Day weekend, cocktail hour, the “gadget-loving dad.” Yet retailers depend on a critical mass of people desiring the same goods. What appears personalized and creative ends up being neither.

Earlier this year, I was struck by what might be a representative object for the age of curation: The Curator’s Handbook by curator Adrian George, published by Thames & Hudson. The handbook is exactly what the title suggests, a useful, practical, and friendly guide for curatorial professionals. It is also a beautiful object, clothbound in royal blue and printed in multicolor inks, complete with ribbon bookmark. As a thing, it is pleasing to look at and to hold. In fact, the utilitarian “handbook” makes for a winking bit of wit juxtaposed with the luxury trimmings. The publisher, very intelligently recognizing a market for the book well beyond curating professionals, decided to produce the handbook as an object that demands to be displayed, announcing the owner’s self-conception as a curator.