The Harder They Come: How Did Curators Rise to Such an Exalted Place in the Art World?

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Few roles in the art world command as much power and prestige today as that of the global curator. Virtually unchallenged powerbrokers and tastemakers, curators spin big-time international contacts and frequent-flyer miles into an endless number of grandiose, important-seeming phenomena. Proliferating mega-museum-exhibitions, biennials and, more recently, curated "book-xhibitions" are all testaments to their rapidly growing importance. But how did curators, once little more than mere hangers or organizers of group shows, rise to occupy such an exalted place in the art world's rigid hierarchy?

The modern myth of the curator saw its star rise at precisely the time that the myth of the formalist art critic free-fell into pitch-blackness. Embodied in the career of the pope-like Clement Greenberg, the myth of the formalist art critic guaranteed, along with the myths of genius and progress, an ordered, linear trajectory for avant-garde art. But, given time, things changed and changed radically. Where previously there had been a single history for Western art, multiple claims issued forth for social and artistic redress. Where formal matters of shape, color and composition had once primarily preoccupied art professionals, new concerns invoked issues of identity and representation.

The outcome of this not so covert battle was simple. In an ideological cold war to match the one fought by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Modernist Authority was overcome, then vanquished, by a mostly literary, fashionable Postructural Critique. With the floodgates open, academic deconstruction, cultural studies and global curators, in their racy, present-day guise, followed. In time, the transformation from all-seeing, universalist critic to well-traveled, intensely particularist global curator was complete. Out went history, shared standards of taste and the much maligned canon; in came the airborne, multiple-time-zoned priests of the artistic religion of Postmodern Multiculturalism.

In 1972, the formalist critic Harold Rosenberg was already complaining that a certain exhibition had been taken over by "a team of curators and art historians?a significant takeover, in that a curator is likely to lack the imaginative and emotional limits of an artist and to go as far as reason will allow." That exhibition, "Documenta 5"?the fifth version of the great German rival to the Venice Biennial?was organized by Harald Szeemann, the very same curator of this spring's 2001 Venice Biennial. For "Documenta 5," the young Szeemann emblazoned a large banner across one of the exhibitions' main buildings that read "Art Is Superfluous." The largely hodgepodge show illustrated its director's message all too well. In the words of Rosenberg, "the effect of [Szeemann's] program was to give the theories of the organizers of Documenta precedence over the works on display."

Among the first international art shows to feature "either statements about art or art about statements about art," "Documenta 5" proved an unfortunate template for tens of thousands of important and not so important exhibitions around the world. Modern curatorial practice, settling with rare aplomb into the role of privileged orthodoxy, has since grown dramatically in prominence while aggressively pushing, with the singleminded ambition of untenured faculty, a politically proactive, publicly hermetic, largely antiesthetic program for art exhibitions everywhere.

Curators around the world, mining a narrow, cliched set of concerns, have, like Szeemann, become expert at sounding, with the regularity of cathedral bells, the clanging, facile notes of a tired political correctness. Looking chiefly, in the words of Stephanie Barron?curator of the recent and roundly criticized exhibition, "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000"?to "present art in relation to its social, political and historical context," curators today routinely shoehorn work into theoretical lockboxes, reducing art to little more than illustrations of simpleminded, politically naive and artistically irrelevant curatorial ideas.

Of all the notions that have come to define the curatorial rhetoric of the 21st century, no idea has been more popular or abused than that of globalism. Globalism is the Chrysler minivan of curatorial choices: it proves rhetorically economical, seats Others comfortably and is to driving curatorial concepts as the faulty, family car is to cruising in a Mercedes sedan: a dull, uninspiring ride that is somehow supposed to be good for you. The genesis of countless exhibitions from Venice to Havana, from Valencia to Istanbul, the emphasis placed on globalism by museum and global curators resides squarely within a typically unchallenged, postmodern cliche: the idea that today's art world is truly pluralistic and without a geographical and artistic center.

The latest, top-billed curatorial attempt to illustrate the global pluralism of the age comes in the form of the Tate Modern's "Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis," the first theme exhibition to be staged inside Britain's most important art museum. A tale of nine cities and a single old-fashioned idea?that modern metropolises have, during different "flashpoints," been the engines of artistic innovation this century?"Century City" was billed by Tate Modern as a state-of-the-art exercise in interpretation. "Century City," a mess of incoherent, regurgitated curatorial pap, is instead what a number of local reviews said it was: "a joyless stew" and an "appalling start to Tate Modern's exhibition programme."

Curated by Iwona Blazwick and a team of nine prominent global curators?including, among others, Okwui Enwezor, director of the upcoming "Documenta XI"?the exhibition presents key periods in the development of five Western cities (Paris, Moscow, Vienna, New York and London) and four traditionally peripheral metropolises (Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Tokyo and Bombay/Mumbai). Filling the sprawling megalopolis that is the Tate Modern (at 360,000 square feet, it is the largest art museum in the world) with little in the way of art and much in the way of art context, "Century City" predictably offers embarrassing high-school versions of each of these cities' social history, while largely eschewing art history and even the art itself. It's an artistically disconnected and liberally condescending tourist trip?why else, pray tell, would the weirdly dour and weak exhibits on Lagos, Tokyo and Bombay/Mumbai be included?through the urban loci of creativity last century, and concludes much as it starts: by revealing and then underlining, despite itself, a Western bias built into the very subject it tackles, namely the development of Western art.

But what is Postmodern Multiculturalism if not the West's falsely therapeutic, corrective ideology to the narrow universalism once espoused by brilliant if historically positivistic lugs like Clement Greenberg? The following quote from Enwezor, poster child for global curators everywhere, goes a long way to illustrating the dilemma of today's nomadic, global pseudo-critic. "Curatorship," the chief curator of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial said, "has not been properly and adequately theorized so as to push it to that space where it can begin to approach the sophistication of the novel." How telling that Enwezor, the curator as "global flaneur" par excellence, would pick as a metaphor for his impossible, ultra-baroque authorship the privileged artistic vehicle of the West during a previous century.

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