Part 1 Value
We can't know who organized the first art exhibition. It is even more difficult to propose a teleology of curating, as it has become popularly known: any arrangement or editing of things, usually cultural. Arranging and editing, like sex and appetite, are common yet variously expressed. They are part of who we are and always have been. Mid-twentieth-century generalists spoke of this frequently. The great British art writer Kenneth Clark called collecting 'a biological function, not unrelated to our physical appetites' (think natural selection).
Sociologists, anthropologists and ethnologists contemporaneous with Clark, who looked for structural patterns across cultures, argued something similar. In his 1962 study La Pensée sauvage, French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss advanced a complex view of culture creation stressing the fine-art term bricolage, a concept not unlike what we currently understand as curating. (A present-day florist in Austin, Texas, is named Bricolage Curated Florals.) Patrick Wilcken, in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory, elucidates Lévi-Strauss's theory of bricolage: 'Rummaging around their environment, [pre-literate societies] observed, experimented, categorised and theorised, using a kind of free-form science. They combined and recombined natural materials into cultural artefacts – myths, rituals, social systems – like artists improvising with the odds and ends lying around their studio.' The Lévi-Straussian bricoleur is, in Wilcken's estimation, 'a tinkerer, an improviser working with what was to hand, cobbling together solutions to both practical and aesthetic problems. La pensée sauvage – free- flowing thought – was a kind of cognitive bricolage that strived for both intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction.' The bricoleur is anyone attempting to plan, solve or create.
In his essay 'The Bias of the World,' art writer David Levi Strauss (no relation to Claude), formerly professor at one of the world's pre-eminent curatorial-studies programs at Bard College in Hudson, New York, also acknowledges the curator as bricoleur. But he begins his examination of the curator by looking at the titular origin of the word, a revealing exercise illuminating the contemporary curator's conflicted, paradoxical role. The use of curator can be traced back to the Roman Empire, in which curatores were bureaucrats made responsible for various departments pertaining to public works. (Curatores viarum, for instance, were responsible for overseeing roads.) The root of the word is the Latin cura, meaning care; curatore means, essentially, caretaker. The title of curator was used not just for bureaucrats, but for types of guardians or tutors under Roman law, who were either appointed to minors or to those with whom they were entering into contracts, in order to secure both parties from subsequent litigation due to the minor's inexperience. Curators could also be named as caretakers-cum-advisors for those classified as prodigus, or prodigal (i.e., proven to be squandering their estate or inheritance), and as lunatics. One should also not neglect the Roman procurator, most often a member of the equestrian class, and appointed to supervise outlying provinces. Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Christ to die on the cross, is referred to in the Bible as a procurator, although in other literature he is given the title of prefect.
By the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had appropriated the term. Writer Erin Kissane notes that The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term via William Langland's fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman: 'curatoures' are parish priests, 'called to knowe [know] and to hele [heal]' their 'parisshiens [parishioners].' David Levi Strauss rightly deduces that the early roles of curators thus constitute this Roman-medieval double duty, a 'curious mixture of bureaucrat and priest,' a split between 'law' and 'faith' – not unlike the contemporary curator within major art institutions, who, we assume, wants to make the public believe in art and artists, and also to function successfully within the political machinery of the museum or gallery, liaising with directors, donors and trustees, and sometimes securing works for loan or purchase.
There are pejorative suggestions to add to Levi Strauss's interpretation. The Roman curator, and especially procurator, was an agent – some might argue a tool – of the state. A person of rank, the curator was nonetheless at the mercy of those above him. Pontius Pilate is the obvious example of the toadying Roman procurator, sent to a far-flung colony (in his case, Judea) to enforce the power of his superiors. In the Gospels, Pilate is reluctant to condemn Christ. Depending on which source you consult, Pilate's decision to crucify Christ was due either to pressure from the Jewish Sanhedrin, who claimed Christ was controverting Jewish law, or, as the Sanhedrin themselves argued to strengthen their case, to Christ's flouting of Roman tax laws. In this latter sense, the Roman procurator Pilate is little more than a glorified tax collector. One could gather that the procurator is superfluous, only a nominal 'caretaker.' In The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Roman historian Suetonius refers to procurators a few times, always with the implication that their titles are politic stepping stones. Of the Emperor Vespasian's greed, Suetonius writes, 'he advanced all the most rapacious amongst the procurators to higher offices, with the view of squeezing them after they had acquired great wealth. He was commonly said "to have used them as sponges," because it was his practice, as we may say, to wet them when dry, and squeeze them when wet.'
The medieval curate is a position that endures in the Church in varied form to this day. The curate's title is not as tokenist or honorific as the Roman curator's or procurator's could be; the curate has important duties within the hierarchy of the clergy – he is what we commonly know as the parish priest. Said figure is responsible for the 'cure of souls,' a concept rooted in Pope Gregory I's sixth-century treatise Liber Regulae Pastoralis, commonly translated in English as Pastoral Care, which outlines the role of the clergy and defines 'cure of souls' as the exercising of the priest's duty within his assigned district. Contemporary curators, whose roles and responsibilities can often be murky or splintered, may find it amusing that the curate or parish priest was also expected to do a host of tasks, from delivering sermons to tending to the sick. The etymology of the term, and the meaning of the Latin cura, can be brought to bear here. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, cura had three main senses, 'care, concern, and responsibility'; 'cure of souls' is deceptive, then, because the curate or parish priest does not actually cure souls, per se, but care for them. The Oxford notes that it was only in late Middle English that cure develops its medical sense of healing. To care is not necessarily to cure, the former suggesting tending, the latter a more powerful ability to transform.
The stereotype of the curate or parish priest has long been one of a humble, hard-working, impecunious and at times obsequious man. The saying 'curate's egg' comes from an 1895 cartoon by George du Maurier entitled 'True Humility' in the satirical British magazine Punch. A curate, young, thin and hunched, sits in a restaurant with a bishop, his superior, who tells him he has been served a bad egg. The curate responds, 'Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!' Du Maurier's anxious-to-please curate may tickle disgruntled contemporary curators who feel pressure to answer to directors, trustees and artists, and to assure them that risky or contentious collections and exhibitions are indeed excellent. The curator is someone who insists on value, and who makes it, whether or not it actually exists.
And so it is that the two early understandings of curator that David Levi Strauss identifies – the Roman and the medieval-clerical – suggest dependence and responsiveness rather than direct action and agency. This makes a lot of sense when we begin to think about the curator within the context of the museum or collection, an identity that starts to take shape around the sixteenth century. The curator cares for objects, and the objects, not the curator, are the focus. The history of the curator can, in fact, be seen as one of successive subservience: to institutions, objects, artists, audiences, markets. The phenomenon of the autonomous curator, which arguably began its brief tenure in the 1960s in tandem with the conceptual art movement, is thus a fleeting, strange, paradoxical thing. Even Obrist – his fame, industriousness and caricatured public persona a professionalized, effortful embellishment of that 1960s curator – depends on others to do what he does. In striving to give himself value and power, the curator doth, perhaps, protest too much. No curator is an island.
That said, the curator as we know her emerges with a twist of autonomy, through the vital concept of connoisseurship: a display of taste or expertise that lends stylized independence to the act of caring for and assembling. Early in its existence, 'curator' was arguably a grab-bag title, but nonetheless, according to writer Anthony Gardner, gained, after the Renaissance, a 'scholastic and artistic dimension.' Robert Hooke, a rival of Sir Isaac Newton's in Restoration England and Curator of Experiments for London's Royal Society, provides a fascinating example. Hooke, who among other things pioneered microscopic imaging, was, as Royal Society curator, responsible for putting on weekly demonstrations of material from the Society's Repository: a trove of specimens that, according to Sean Riley Silver, 'was driven by a grand institutional goal, an attempt to realize the ideal academic society imagined by Francis Bacon.' Ideally, the Repository was to have 'one of everything' (this Platonic notion of the comprehensive collection plagued early museums, which were notoriously overstuffed, often with copies or fakes of unattainable objects). Hooke's demonstrations, which put him in the role of intermediary between the private, thing-filled Repository and the public audience of the Society, were theatrical 'experiments' showing and explaining its many wonders. Hooke the curator was both dependent and independent. His brilliant mind, as Curator of Experiments, was on display, but limited to what the contents of the Repository could evince. His experiments were in service of the Society, meant to heighten its value and that of the Repository's objects. Silver notes that some accounts suggest the excessive time Hooke spent in the Repository ruined his health, an example of the early-Enlightenment scholar whose entire being was given over to objects and their intellectual significance.
The Royal Society's Repository will sound familiar to students of art history, who will recognize it as an example of the Cabinet of Curiosities or the German Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer. These are the main Western precursors to museums, their creator-custodians precursors to contemporary curators, eclectic mixes of amateur and professional, committed both to connoisseurship and to care of objects. (Curious and curator both have that same Latin root, cura; care in Latin connotes both custodianship and taking an interest in something.) Cabinets were rooms, typically belonging to royalty, aristocrats and wealthy merchants, which, like the Royal Society's Repository, contained sundry objects of importance, from religious to geological. In many respects the cabinets were endemic of their time, which saw a fervent interest in colonial exploration as well as humanist-scientific research, and thus the desire to house and catalogue the objects of such endeavours. Some curators of the cabinets were also their owners, while some were hired by their owners. The cabinet of Irish physician and Royal Society secretary Hans Sloane, which contained a vast array of antiquities and natural-history objects, was bequeathed to the state and became the foundation for the British Museum. Many cabinet curators had a busy, idiosyncratic flamboyance in which contemporary curators like Obrist find their precedent. Athanasius Kircher, for example, a German Jesuit priest and intellectual eccentric of the seventeeth century, was a proponent of the magic lantern, an early form of cinema, and advised famous sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini on the construction of the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, perhaps the first example of an artist-curator collaboration.
The Cabinet of Curiosities might look like an early period of freedom for the curator, although there was a marked subservience to objects and the person who owned them, reflected in the exclusive nature of the cabinets, which were not commonly open to the public. Nevertheless, the curator was positioned importantly within the cabinet, which for many owners was microcosmic, a mini-Eden over which they held exclusive domain, with their curator as a kind of Adam. The multidisciplinary quality of Renaissance and early-- Enlightenment scholarship is also appealing to the contemporary curatorial mind, with the Cabinet of Curiosities becoming a renewed fixation in the mixed-media, grab-bag contemporary art world. (To say nothing of the internet, digital Wunderkammer extraordinaire.) A 2008 group exhibition at the MoMA in New York was called Wunderkammer and included such artists as Louise Bourgeois and Odilon Redon; Cabinet, an art magazine that has been around since 2000, seems directly inspired by the Wunderkammer, its mission statement to 'encourage a new culture of curiosity.'
The Cabinet of Curiosity might also be allied with the concept of the readymade, still so popular in current artistic practices, and forged in the early twentieth century by Marcel Duchamp with his exhibition of mundane industrial objects, including shovels and, famously, an upturned urinal. (Duchamp would also Wunderkammer himself with a series of boîtes-en-valise, portable suitcaselike museums containing his own work.) Yet the presentation of objects as a creative and formal act, one conscious of onlookers, would not define the emergent museum of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which, like the Cabinets of Curiosity, was cluttered and not terribly accessible. Instead, it would be up to those like Duchamp – preceding and successive cohorts of avant-garde artists, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries – to modernize concepts of both exhibition and curation.
By most accounts, the curator of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century museum was not much of a free agent. The late Edward F. Fry, associate curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has described the nascent museum curator as a tool of the state, as many museum collections, notably that of the Louvre in Paris, developed because of political turmoil and imperialism. Like the Cabinet of Curiosities, the Louvre, opened in 1793, was inescapably symbolic, a literal piece of the body politic. Early in its existence, after the French Revolution, it became the flashpoint for the didactic aims of the emerging Republic, and later, with Napoleon, morphed into a propagandistic 'universal museum' housing spoils of war. Its emperor-appointed curator, the ex-pornographer Dominique Vivant Denon, presided, in the words of scholar and gallerist Karsten Schubert, 'over the greatest museum collection that ever was' (however thieved). Denon was unquestionably charismatic, yet his overarching task was to catalogue and care for this booty.
Shortly after Waterloo, the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. Exhibition halls were chronologically ordered but unlabelled and cluttered. In Schubert's words, 'the curator simply envisaged visitors in his own image.' This image was not dynamic, but pedantic, conservative and bureaucratic; the curator was akin to a librarian or academic. 'The museums presented their political masters as custodians of world culture,' writes Schubert. 'In effect, the museum became the handmaiden of imperialism.'
At the same time, around the mid-nineteenth century, the salon reached its height. Salons and their ilk, including universal expositions and the annual exhibition of London's Royal Academy, are early examples of the selection-based exhibitions that are now standard in the art world. Popularly attended, presided over by a jury and thoroughly academic – in deliberate reaction to the commercial art market, which was also developing healthily at the time – the annual or biannual Paris Salon originally exhibited only members of the state-sanctioned Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, but, after the revolution, opened up to non-members. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Paris Salon moved from the Louvre to the Palais de l'Industrie on the Champs-élysées, a trade-showlike venue presaging the locales of today's art fairs. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Salon no longer turned up its nose at commercialism. Its catalogue, for instance, published contact information for artists so that buyers could get in touch.