In The Baffler, Thomas Frank traces the transformation of “curating” from a specific role in the art industry to a catch-all prestige term for anyone—from chefs to editors to university administrators—who selects or aggregates things for a given audience. Calling this phenomenon “curatolatry” (i.e., the worship of curation and curators), Frank argues that it even extends to the political sphere, with liberals embracing curation in its many guises, and conservatives avoiding it like the plague. Read an except from the piece below, or the full text here.
What is a curator, and why is it the admired cultural position of the moment? Why is this the word that springs to our tongues today when once we would have said “DJ,” or “blogger,” or “expert,” or just “snob”? And why is it persistently associated with liberals?
Consider the most basic aspect of the word as we use it today. A curator is an arbiter, someone who distinguishes between what is good and what is bad. Curators tell us what to welcome and what to exclude, what to keep and what to toss. They make judgments. They define what is legitimate and what is not.
But curators don’t make these judgments subjectively or out of the blue, as would chefs or gourmands or other sorts of fussy people. No, curators are professional arbiters of taste and judgment, handing down their verdicts on news stories or pot roasts from a position of dignity and certified authority.
The word is deeply associated with academic achievement. Gallery curators are often people with advanced degrees, and “curation” and its variants are sometimes used to describe certain kinds of university officials. The highest officers of the University of Missouri, for example, are called curators, and at Bennington College, even prospective students are encouraged to think of themselves as curators—curators, that is, of their applications to associate with this illustrious institution. As Bennington’s magazine puts it, they are invited to “curate their submissions and engage in the admissions process as a learning experience.”
It’s all about social status, in other words, and the eternal desire of Americans to claw their way upward by means of some fancy-sounding euphemism.
Image copyright: Lindsay Ballant. Via The Baffler.