Critic V Curator

April 22, 2017



A Discussion of the Dynamics behind the Rise of the Curator and Fall of Critic in Today’s Artworld


The artworld has changed a great deal in the last century; I intend to explore how the relationship and nature of the critic and curator have changed within the story of the artworld. Today’s fall of the critic paralleled by the rise of the curator is not incidental; many of the critic’s tasks have fallen onto the shoulders of the curator. The traditional role of these figures can be found in their etymologies: ‘Critic’, comes from the Ancient Greek kritikos meaning ‘a judge’; while ‘Curator’ is from the Latin cura, ‘to care’. Today, I argue, these roles have been shaken up. I see the culprits for this as an economic paradigm shift, digital expositions, and the democratisation of cultural appreciation. These factors have undermined the role of the critic: his judgement is no longer significant or even necessary, while the curator has become increasingly valuable as the adjudicator of value in art.


O’Neil writes the neo-critical space of curating has usurped the critic’s role. I prefer to think of it as an evolutionary process; a transformation from criticism into the expanding discipline of curating, in which the curator has developed from a guardian to an active player in the artworld. I intend to address the consequences of such a shift in power. The curator, unlike the critic, is dependent on institutions to communicate; I examine whether this compromises Read’s ‘three necessities upon which the life of art depends: appreciation, patronage and liberty’.[1]


An economic paradigm shift: The problem of things


In the 17th Century, banknotes were first used as promissory notes. Bankers issued notes of greater value than the total of their physical reserves on the assumption they would not have to redeem the value of all their loans at the same time.[2] The banknote, therefore, changed from a promissory note to an agency for the expansion of monetary supply itself, forming the basis for fractional reserve banking. In 1716, after Louis XIV had used up all of France’s precious metals in wars, the Scottish economist John Law established the first French Bank issuing paper money. What is more intriguing is that when the Duke of Orleans heard about this, he dismissed all of his alchemists.[3] He realised paper money had achieved more than centuries of alchemy aspired to; paper had an equivalent value to gold. H. C. Binswanger argues that the core of modern economics still rests upon the medieval discourse of alchemy with its premise of unlimited eternal growth.


In classical economic theory, the process of value creation is eternally repeatable. Today it is evident this is not the case. The end of each cyclical bull market, Obrist teaches us, shows that ‘dependency on endless growth is unrealistic’ and unsustainable in human and planetary terms.[4] For the majority of history humans have struggled with a lack of resources and goods. As production became increasingly efficient, we reached a turning point in the last century when overproduction, as opposed to a scarcity of things, became ‘one of our most fundamental problems’.[5] Binswanger identifies that ‘our economy’s growth functions by inciting us to produce more’. Today moderating growth is a global necessity.


Obrist suggests ‘cultural forms’ can help us ‘sort through the glut’ and priorities quality over quantity. He argues todays’ rise of the curator reflects a shift from producing more objects to selecting and rearranging what already exists. In this, Obrist follows the artistic practices of Huebler who refused to make objects, saying the world is full, and Wolfgang Laib who explores the hermetic effects of ‘participating in objects’.[6] We no longer need or even want people to produce more, and a focus on original objects rather than further production, is emblematic of a world that needs to slim down. The curator collects objects together to start a conversation through ‘assumptions, juxtapositions….and associations’, this has a conceptual open-endedness that is lightweight in its production and resonant today.[7] Postmodern thought on curation has moved away from ascribing definite meanings to objects in favour of creating dialogue, encouraging each viewer to interpret in a unique way. Curating is an immaterial answer to the problem of objects, grounded in real things remaining resilient to the pressures of the digital world.


The effects of democratisation of culture and the digital explosion on the critic


Like banknotes, art is based on a system of imagined or perceived value. Binswanger suggests aesthetics and economics rest on parallel alchemical processes.[8] Art, like money, is constructed by a system that creates imaginary value. Dickie writes ‘what constitutes art is not, and never has been, observable characteristics in the work of art.’ [9] Rather it is the social framework, which embeds particular works in the institutional framework. Arthur Danto calls this the ‘artworld’; it comprises of a core of creators, presenters and appreciators.[10] The creators are the artists and writers; the presenters are museum directors, curators, managers, publishers, actors, the walls of museums and internet; and the appreciators are the museumgoers, art owners and viewers. Together, this forms the machinery of the artworld that fulfils the mysterious alchemy of turning objects into art.


 In Dickie's estimation, the curator is closer to the hub of the artworld than the critic. While in the past the critic played a more central role, presenting and generating value in art: today these positions have become obsolete through digitalisation and democratisation. Before the pre-digital era the critic presented art to the public, he could priorities images and their interpretation, forming a bridge between the work and the viewer through his description. Museums were not as big as they are today, and reproductions in books were poor. The critics judgement was therefore of paramount importance in directing how the work was received. Today, Elkins suggests, no one reads art criticism; images of artwork online allow the viewer to see it for themselves.[11]  As with the invention of paper money, the critic has become like the alchemist, struggling with a redundant task in the digital age.


Paper money offered Louis XIV an escape from the constraints of resource scarcity; today with an increasing scarcity of resources, digitisation allows for perpetual growth in the non-physical realm. Banknotes are becoming de-monetised as online banking and smartphone apps by like Uber and Starbucks make payments.[12] There is an increasing market for digital products and information. With almost no production cost for digital material, the information created by human societies has increased exponentially, we find: more text, more opinions, books, images, charts, and data. We have moved from kilobytes, to gigabytes and terabytes – equivalent to 1428 CD-ROMs. In 2010 Wikipedia comprised of 5.87 terabytes of data, today the Library of Congress expands by about five terabytes of data every month: we have a much greater capacity to hold ideas digitally.[13] The curator who deals in the physical, becomes increasingly significant beside the writer who can be uploaded into another digital experience. 


The creation of value was perhaps the most powerful role the critic played. In the past, the critic’s judgements created a hierarchy in which different works were considered to be of greater or lesser value. Groĭs describes this hierarchy as a ‘vertical infinity’ of works ascending from the sketches of amateurs to Michelangelo and the ‘gold nugget of genius’.[14] Today we work on a horizontal axis; in which a horizon of images stretches before us aesthetically equal and infinite. This change was brought about by the new forms and aims of art in the 20th Century. In the 60s ‘artists were making blank films; they locked galleries, and practiced doing nothing’, there was ‘fusion and confusion’ of practices.[15] Lucy Lippard writes that with such drastic changes in art criticism should change too. Conceptual art, Minimalism and the ready-made rendered art criticism inessential. In these movements, ‘value judgements were beside the point’.[16] From the critic’s perspective, an awareness of the variety of art styles makes rigid broad judgements in art inappropriate. Following Greenbergian criticism that emphasised a strict formula of value over artistic method, Foster suggests the contemporary critic ‘works against’ judgement, to counteract Greenberg’s narrow definition of quality.[17] More recently, our ‘post-truth’ era of unreliable data debases the critics’ judgement, while the proliferation of digital criticism drowns out the opinions of the individual critic.


While a horizontal stream of equally valued images is interesting, the art-market shows this is not the case. Despite the debasement of the critics’ judgement, artworks still hold artistic and economic value. The question is where does this value come from?  The solution lies with the curator – and dealer, because as a collector he also curates – who holds a privileged position over artworks that cannot be democratised. Only he can choose which artworks are seen, and for how long. The curator can create value through association; by connecting the artwork with a Picasso, pedestal or high price tag he gives the work a position in the artworld. I suggest today a successful exhibition can change the value of an artwork, while the opinion of a critic will not.


The rise of curators through control of art space


In the past the curator played a passive role as a caretaker and bureaucrat, as Diaghilev said to the King, ‘your majesty, I am like you, I don’t work, I don’t do anything, but I am indispensable.’[18] Gertrude Stein took a broader view in her criticism of the gallery and all of its contents, calling museums ‘cemeteries of culture’.[19] In the 1920s, the artworld rested in artist’s studios, collector’s homes, dealer’s rooms, and writer’s pamphlets; not in institutions. However today the market has changed and so has the seat of art. Barry wrote in 1969, ‘for year’s people have been concerned with what goes on inside the frame. Maybe there’s something going on outside the frame.’[20] McEvilley enlarges this point, explaining that the ‘genius’ of our century has been ‘to investigate things in relation to their context’, first to see the context as formative, and then as the thing itself.[21] What outside the gallery is a urinal, inside becomes Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. ‘Things become art in a space where powerful ideas about art focus on them.’[22] This alchemical transformation is achieved by the power of the artworld and the controlled atmosphere of the white cube that subtracts all clues that interfere with the idea of an object as art. The cube bleaches out the past and seeks to control the future. Untouchable by time, it brings connotations of posterity and the eternal beauty of the masterpiece. The magic of the space makes you lower your voice; you do not eat, sleep, laugh, drink, dance or sing in a gallery. Since the 1940s this powerful new space has been the subject of artistic gestures; Duchamp filled it with string and Klein left it empty. Christo wrapped up the museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, ‘a parody of the divine transformation of art, the object is lost and mystified, the museum the container is itself contained,’ the ‘artifier’ is ‘artified’. [23]  


In the 21st century artworld, the art gallery is the space that takes in straw and turns it into gold. As Greenberg and Nairne wrote ‘exhibitions have become the medium through which most art becomes known’.[24] In the 20th Century the terms ‘curating’ and ‘curated’ were coined indicating the curator’s rise.[25] Today everyone curates; chef’s curate ingredients, stylists curate wardrobes, poker players curate despair. ‘Curating’ is a rubbery term stretching from DJs to political strategists, slippery and tough to pin down. The curator epitomises the contemporary idea ‘of the creative self, floating freely through the world making aesthetic choices of where to go and what to eat, wear and do.’[26] As popularised (and satirised) by Irvine Welsh, today we ‘Choose life. Choose a job…choose washing machines’.[27] Curators have become as visible as artists; the ‘film director’ of the blockbuster museum exhibition in which artists appear as ‘actors’. The rise of the independent curator has seen ‘free-agents’ not attached to an institution invited to curate exhibitions for their own idiosyncratic way of working. The role of the curator is also becoming more fluid; Lippard discusses curating exhibitions in windows, streets, union halls, demonstrations, old jail, libraries, community centres, schools, or cities.[28] Lippard’s book ‘Six years: the Dematerialisation of the Art Object’ has been discussed as an exhibition in itself.[29] If writing a book can constitute curation, the critic is at times a curator: curating his biography, subjects, paragraphs and illustrations to create style and argument.


The artworld grew physically and conceptually in the 20th Century. Obrist presents curating as a ‘map making’ around an ever more chaotic artworld.[30] The curator’s map is more useful than the ‘directions from a local’ we get from the critic: an amassing of evidence where criticism offers an empty argument. In cultural terms, the gallery space offers a balance of insular and polyglot, a place apart and a crossroads. Curating is a medium that can offer up new routes through not only an artworld, but an artist, culture or world. Curating is also about the connecting cultures and the ‘cross pollination of culture’.[31] Alloway calls the Biennale ‘an orgy of contact and communication’.[32] In this sense, the curator is a catalyst, bridging gaps in the machinery of the artworld – the creators, presenters and appreciators. In facilitating and manipulating communication, the curator plays a role unlike anyone else in the artworld.


The curator has excelled in modernity through his relationship to things. A ‘sensual revolution’ of the last 50 years has promoted embodied experience over digitalisation.[33] This argues there is something important and unique about the physical experience of Art in a world of screens. Consequently, although digital curation is now a possibility, it cannot usurp physical exhibitions. The Dutch phenomenologist van den Berg writes that ‘painters and poets are born phenomenologists’ because they express their encounter with the world.[34] I would suggest the real resident phenomenologist of the artworld is the curator; examining the relationships between people and objects, the curator explores structures of consciousness and perception to shape our experience. By contrast, Serres in Le cinq sens, describes academics and writers as bound down to words like ‘a desensualised robot, moving stiffly, unable to taste or smell, preferring to eat the printed menu than the actual meal.’[35] The importance of haptic sense is present in our language for realisation; we must ‘grasp’, ‘touch’ and ‘feel’, through participating in the physical we truly come to understand - Pallasmaa calls this experience ‘life-enhancing’.[36] Ulrich suggests the ‘curatorial turn’ towards embodied exhibitions originated with ‘Les Immateriaux’ at the Pompidou in 1985.[37] Organised by Lyotard, the exhibition focused on simulacra and the media, anticipating the digital future. It took an embodied approach, focusing on the visitor’s experience. Parreno explains the excitement of ‘producing ideas through the display of objects in space’ compared to ‘writing a book or developing a philosophical concept.’[38]


The fall of the critic


Since the 1990’s, it’s been agreed that art criticism has been in varying stages of ‘decay’ from Rubenstein’s ‘quiet crisis’ to Elkins’ ‘very nearly dead’.[39] The consensus is that criticism is subject to overproduction: ‘massively produced and massively ignored’.[40] In the early 19th Century the art critic was taken seriously on a par with philosophers and academics. In the first half of the 20th Century, critics thought on a grand scale. The Bloomsbury writers Fry and Bell, made a manifesto demoting everything from the 12th Century to Cezanne. With Greenberg in the Mid-20th Century, art criticism was still polemical. Elkins suggests that today the critic offers ‘informal opinions on transitory thoughts’ avoiding judgement and artwork beyond the exhibition space.[41] Focusing on the exhibition has only served to reinforce the artworld’s prioritisation on curatorial practice, and promote it as a worthy subject to study.[42] Meanwhile the artworld has become increasingly academic, aping the monkeys in the Jungle Book, artists have decided to ‘be just like those other men / I’m tired of monkeying around’. A lot of this writing is weak, alienating and overridden with jargon. Elkins concludes that criticism has gone from being historically informed and passionately engaged to massively funded, but voiceless.[43] I disagree; the voices of Jonathan Jones and Simon Schama are nothing if not opinionated. There is a vast variety of art criticism available, and while some is weak, the overall demise of critics does not arise from flaws in content or style. I would rather blame the broader societal developments of digitisation and an expanding market. Art critics rarely earn a living from criticism; Elkins, in 2003, notes over half of critics in top American newspaper jobs earn under $23,500 a year.[44] The Federal Poverty Line is at $23,000. Meanwhile Glenn Lowry, director of Moma, was paid $5.35 million by New York Fine Arts Support Trust, in addition to an annual salary of $1.28 million from 1995-2003.[45] While Lowry may not be representative, the capacity to earn money in the artworld is considerably higher in curating than criticism. This reflects the curators influence over the value of artworks: the bankers of the artworld, they are dealing in a higher and more influential currency.

A new equilibrium and its consequences for critic and curator


As I see it, the fundamental prerogative of the critic and curator is to enhance an artwork by starting a conversation around it. Picasso called a good critic ‘a bridge people can walk over to join the artist’.[46] Today this is the role of the curator too: Ulrich writes that good curating comes from ‘a drive to explain and justify reactions to art–to enter into a dialogue’.[47] No longer ‘the carer’ and ‘the judge’, I feel curating and criticism would both benefit from addressing how closely their relationship have become in mode and message; they differ only in medium. When curating the Number Shows Lippard ‘began to see curating as simply a physical extension of criticism’.[48] Elkin’s described art criticism as an umbrella term for a seven headed Hydra of critics. [49] Today I wonder if we can consider the curator as the eighth ‘head’: the physical critic.


Transforming the crisis of criticism into the successful curator is a tidy solution. To view curating as a transmutation of art criticism could be a progression that prevents the ‘slow slipping of art criticism from the face of the cultural world’.[50] To secure this we must examine how the modern curator differs from the traditional critic to work out what is lost and changed in the translation. Will the artworld be better or worse for prioritising the critic or curator?


O’Neils argues that the curator’s critique differs from that of the traditional critic.[51] When curators act as critics, they turn away from the object in favour of curatorial criticism, prioritising the exhibition space over the art. In taking a more creative and active approach the curator becomes more like an artist, the exhibition his Gesamtkunstwerk. Starting with Wilde’s 1890 ‘The Critic as Artist’, in which the eye of the beholder produces the work of art, Watkins has convincingly argued that curating is a form of artistic practice in the manner of Duchamp’s ready-mades.[52] The curator as artist is now a key debate in curatorial discourse, while artists curating have also become more common. If the prioritised role of the curator leads him to act like an artist, the art is undermined. Storr states, curators acting as artists ‘will ultimately be judged bad curators as well as bad artists.’[53] This is a danger curators must approach with caution: Obrist stipulates that ‘curators follow artists, not the other way round.’[54] As long as we keep the cart behind the horse, we should be fine.


In the past the critic was the ‘free agent’ in the artworld, able to criticise the institution and suggest new directions in art. Today the system of checks and balances between critic and curator, that maintained shared power in the artworld, is gone. Artists are dependent on curators, while curators rely on institutions as the repositories of art. Exhibitions create value in works of art, consequently placing power in the hands of institutions, potentially undermining the diversity and freedom of art. Van Gogh wrote ‘one of the reasons that I am out of employment now, why I have been out of employment for years, is simply that I have other ideas than the gentlemen who give the places to the men who think as they do.’[55] In the late 1960s the institution was heavily criticised as a place of cultural confinement. By the 1990s, curators and directors within art galleries held discussions on the institution, leaving the critique a dead victim of its own success, ‘swallowed up by the institution it stood against’.[56]


The artworld has changed since the institutional critique of the 60s and 70s. The 20th Century saw museum directors competing for ever larger museums to establish themselves as global art centres. Consequently, we see a multiplicity of artistic centres throughout the world today: Tate, MoMA, Pompidou, and Guggenheim.[57] Small galleries and temporary exhibitions have grown to counterbalanced the monopoly of large institutions in the 21st Century. The Digital age has propelled small galleries into the international artworld to become global networkers. The growing phenomenal of Biennales further enhances this cartography. Biennales work on an ‘off centre principle’ in which activities occur everywhere with no core. [58] The temporal, varied and plural nature of this new artworld may mean autocracy has less sway, while art is promoted from the peripheries and beyond the internationalism of Europe and America.


We must remember the curator is not the end of the line. Behind the gallery, institutions and art-fairs are the owners. As an employee, (albeit a freelance one) the curator is answerable to the individuals and governments who pay him. In this sense he is a puppet, making todays artworld less liberal and open than it was fifty years ago, as Adorno prophesised works of art are ‘no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.’[59] In finding a solution to the problem of power, Fraser addresses the personnel making up the artworld as a discursive institution rather than the institution or gallery.[60] The artworld is therefore not a building but a way of thinking. We must discuss what kind of institution we want to be, the ‘forms of practice we reward [and] kinds of rewards we aspired to.’ Curators have a responsibility to be aware of their compromised position and act responsibly to priorities art over economy.


Finally, if we accept most of the responsibility of the critic has moved to the curator what should art critics to do? The ‘Father of Modern art criticism’, Baudelaire was primarily known as a poet and writes ‘the best criticism is that which is both amusing and poetic: not cold, mathematical criticism’.[61] Many of the best critics have been poets, including Apollinaire, Eluard, Heine, and Wilde. We must therefore ask what it is in poetry that works so well for the critic. I suggest poetry is grounded in lived experience, it communicates ‘intuition which is in itself a spontaneous creation’, rather than ‘the dry information that can be culled from reference books’.[62] The critic’s value stems from communicating an experience just as the curator creates one. Poetic criticism forms a work of art itself created alongside the artwork. Lippard writes that criticism is not an art separate from its subject, ‘but as a text woven like a textile (the etymological root is the same) into the art and the system that surround it’.[63]  In the 1960s Lippard started writing poetic criticism with a ‘chameleon (or parasitic) approach…choosing a style of writing that was congruous with the artist’s style of art making’. Elkins calls this sort of criticism innocuous, not overtly critical, it fails the goal of criticism.[64] Elkins is holding onto an early 20th century perception of criticism that has become antiquated. Interpretation and opinion are conveyed subconsciously in every word a critic writes, while precise language is itself a judgement.[65] Criticism’s role is no longer to generate value through exaggerated judgement, rather, to entertain people who enjoy reading and thinking about art. Werner writes ‘If criticism is to be revitalised it is through poets replacing pedants.’ [66]


As Adorno said, ‘today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying.’[67] Today we meditate and experience art through exhibitions. However curatorial discourse is still new, and still in its own production; we must consider carefully how it continues. Criticism is still interesting, it is still valuable, but it is no longer directing the artworld. While criticism is not essential for dissemination of art, it can make it better.




[1] Herbert Read, To Hell with Culture: Democratic Values Are New Values (London: Routledge, 2002),93


[2] Hans Binswanger, Money and Magic: A critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe’s Faust (Chicago:.University of Chicago press,.1994).referenced in:.Hans Ulrich Obrist,.Ways of Curating.(London:.Penguin,.2002),81-82


[3] Ibid,82


[4] Ibid,83


[5] Ibid,83


[6] Sarah Tanguy,"Wolfgang Laib:.A Detail of Infinity."Sculpture.33,no.2(2014):40.


[7] Obrist,Curating,154


[8] Obrist,Curating,82


[9] George Dickie,"What Is Anti-art?",The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33,no.4(1975):419.


[10] Ibid


[11] James Elkins,.What Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago:.Prickly Paradigm,2003),4


[12] Izabella Kaminska,“The de-monetisation of the economy started with coffee,”The Financial Times, 21/10/2016, accessed 5/4/2017.


[13] “Collecting Digital Content at the Library of Congress,” Collection Development Office, 1/2/2017, Accessed 5/4/2017,


[14] Boris Groĭs, Art Power.(London:.MIT Press,.2008),16


[15] Lucy R Lippard,“Curating by Numbers”,.Tate Papers, Autumn 2009,.accessed 5/4/2017.


[16] Ibid


[17] Hap Foster,.The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century.(London:.MIT Press,1996),11


[18] Obrist,Curating,135


[19] Obrist,Curating,27


[20] Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space.(London:.University of California Press,1999),14


[21] Ibid,7


[22] Ibid,14


[23] Ibid,100


[24] Paul O’Neill,“The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse,”in Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance, ed..Judith Rugg and Michèle Sedgwick.(Bristol:.Intellect,.2007),16


[25] Obrist,Curating,23


[26] Ibid


[27] Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting.(London:.Secker&Warburg,.1993),187


[28] Lippard,“Curating by Numbers”


[29] Ibid


[30] Obrist,Curating,1


[31] Ibid


[32] Ibid,127


[33] David Howes, Empire of The Senses.(Oxford: Bloomsburry,.2005),1


[34] J.van den Berg,.The Phenomenological approach in Psychiatry.(Illinois: Charles C.Thomas,.1955),61


[35] Michale Serres, Les Cinq Sens.(Paris: Hachette, 1985) in Howes, Empire of the Senses,5-6


[36] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, Architecture and the Senses.(London: John Wiley & sons, 2012),7


[37] Obrist,Curating,157


[38] Ibid,160


[39] Elkins,What Happened,43


[40] Ibid,4


[41] Ibid,6


[42] O’Neil,Curatorial Turn,15


[43] Elkins,What Happened,6


[44] Ibid,10


[45] Stephanie Strom, “Donors Sweetened Director’s Pay at MoMA,” 16/2/2007,accessed 5/4/2017.


[46] Alfred Werner,.“Baudelaire: Art Critic,”The Kenyon Review 28,no.5.(1966):650-61


[47] Obrist,Curating,5


[48] Lippard,“Curating by Numbers”


[49] Elkins,What Happened,17


[50] Ibid,81


[51] Obrist,Curating,129


[52] O’Neil,Curatorial Turn,22


[53] Ibid,


[54] Obrist,Curating,33


[55] Read,To Hell,92


[56] J.Charlesworth, “Curating Doubt”, in Rugg, Issues in Curating,94


[57] J.Heilbrun.& C.Gray,.The Economics of Art and Culture.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001),3


[58] Obrist,Curating,129


[59] Theodor Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered”.New German Critiue,No.6(1975):13


[60] J.Charlesworth, “Curating Doubt”,94


[61] Werner,Baudelaire,651


[62] Ibid,656


[63] Lippard,“Curating by Numbers”


[64] Elkins,What Happened,47


[65] Ibid precise language,51


[66] Werner,Baudelaire,651


[67] Theodor Adorno,.Aesthetic Theory (London: Athlone Press,1997),1

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