In the current issue of SFAQ, John Rapko parses the language of three noted curators—Jean-Hubert Martin, Okwui Enwezor, and and Hou Hanru—to answer the question: Why do curators use so many big words to seemingly say so little? For Rapko, the way curators speak today provides a window into the role they play in an unstable, globalized art system:
One part of the problem of the Curator’s speech remains superficial, albeit pervasive: its clumsy and over-heated quality. A good rule of thumb is that the more ambitious the Curator, the worse the style. The problem is familiar to every college teacher of composition: when the author has little to say, but feels the pressure of making a Big Statement, the reader is confronted with abstract nouns doing and having done to them all sorts of thinly characterized actions, with a high percentage of passive constructions, dangling clauses, and modifiers that modify nothing. Perhaps the fabled awfulness of Enwezor’s prose is in part due to his pitched ambitions. Accordingly, the common objections to the Curator’s talk—its hollowness, pseudo-intellectualism, vapidity—strike me as almost invariably accurate. But perhaps these objections are not definitive if qualified by the sense of the strenuousness of the Curator’s ambitions.
The problem is deeper. The most serious objection to such talk, to my mind, is the characteristic way in which it blocks self-reflection or even the beginnings of self-clarification. Michael Baxandall once noted that even the most puzzling, obscure, or even tautological statement in art talk may come to have a meaning, and even offer illumination, in the presence of a work.6 Adapting Baxandall’s example, imagine someone saying “the design is firm because the design is firm” in the presence of a simple gouache. If we can make anything of this, two conditions at least must be in place: First, we must import something of a background sense of what graphics as an art consists in. Part of this will necessarily involve some conception of the artistic process, wherein an artist engages in an activity governed by some conception of what she wishes to create, and monitors and sustains a feedback process involving an enormously complex set of actions and reactions. The process may go awry in countless ways, but if it succeeds, as it must do with some regularity if it sustains a living practice of art, something results which exhibits some kind of inner organization. Second, the sentence must in some sense be juxtaposed with the work. As we consider the sentence and gaze at the work, something of the sentence is clarified: the first part (“the design is firm”) refers to the inner organization of the work; the second part (“because the design is firm”) refers to the artistic process. What gives rise to further thought is the “because”: in what ways does causality operate here?
So one way of seeing what misfires so badly in the Curator’s talk is to note that it typically occurs in the absence of the works. The Curator imagines that she addresses the sense of historical necessity and possibility, but the talk latches onto nothing. But surely the Curator would respond by noting that in her exhibition previews and talks she does show and discuss various works. The problem, though, is that the Curator lacks a viable conception of the artistic process. One sign of this in the quotations from both Martin and Enwezor is the indication that in some way values are embodied by works of art, but neither author offers the slightest indication of how this occurs. It is part of the force of Baxandall’s example to show how damaging the lack of some sense of the ways in which the work process of the artist charges materials with meaning. And just how damaging is that?
Image: Installation view, “Magiciens de la Terre” at the Centre Georges Pompidou and La Grande Halle, Parc de la Villette, Paris, France, 1989. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin. Via SFAQ.