Keywords for the Age of Austerity 5: The Curator

Curate, v., curator, n.

Judas Priest doesn’t just release a greatest-hits album, Metallica and Slipknot “curated” that album; a high-end sneaker store doesn’t sell shoes, it “curates” them. A high-end bartender doesn’t mix cocktails, he “curates an experience.” Web-based media are “content curators.” An event planner or music booker is an “experience curator.” And really, how in today’s fast-paced world can you find the time to interact with luxury brands without a curator? You probably didn’t even think to dignify throwing out your moth-eaten sweaters and Ragu-stained shirts as curatorial work. And you almost certainly didn’t even know what a terrible job you were doing. As this maniacal closet-cleaner writes,

[W]ith the death of average in mind, we must cull from our wardrobe removing from it all that looks average. We must become our own curators. Becoming a curator, however, not only takes effort it takes practice. If you’re anything like so many of my friends then your wardrobe is overflowing with goods. For them, cutting it back, curating it to include only the exceptional, is not only a daunting task, it’s a paralysing one.  

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The New York Times is already on this trend, describing the proliferation of “curators” as a form of pretension by which relatively humble pursuits, like shoe-selling or party DJing, attain the lofty heights of the trained connoisseur. In this way, something we might have once called “selecting” or “editing” is treated as a form of expertise equivalent to the work of a museum scholar. And there’s plenty of truth to this, but a merely eye-rolling response overlooks a deeper economic logic at work, one inflected by the rise of a low-wage, precarious service economy and its gendered division of labor.

Curating’s migration from the academy to the boutique is about claiming for the latter the prestige of the former, certainly, but it’s also about substituting prestige for more tangible forms of compensation. It also brings the caring function of the curator/curate into the service sector. This is significant, since “curate” belongs to sectors like fashion retail, associated with female labor. It has also proliferated in library and archival work (“data curation,” for example, is a term of the digital library world). It seems at least tangentially relevant that the rallying cry of university unions, “We Can’t Eat Prestige,” was coined by the female white-collar support staff at Harvard in the mid-70s.

This connection to care-work comes from the word’s etymology. Before the word became predominantly associated with the work of museum academics, “curate” had a mostly religious meaning. In the Catholic and Anglican Churches, the curate is a priest at the local level entrusted with the care (Latin cura) of souls. The verb is a back-formation of the noun, derived from the Latin curare, “to care for,” and curator—a “guardian” or, tellingly, “overseer.” There is something of both in the contemporary consumer-capitalist curator. On the one hand, selling me sneakers becomes a work of aesthetic expertise and spiritual comfort. On the other, my experience is no longer my own—it is curated for me, as Forbes Magazine reveals with its credo for online entrepreneurs: “Curate and Control.”

The word’s combination of moral purpose and creativity aligns it closely with the “innovator” and the “entrepreneur.” In the most enthusiastic celebrations of each, marketing ingenuity and aesthetic imagination are scarcely distinguishable from one another.

The rise of the retail/experience “curator” perfectly captures this commodification of creativity by combining in a rhetorical flourish the function of the manager and that of the artist/caretaker. Curators have always been both “bureaucrat and priest,” as the art critic David Levi Strauss writes. The contemporary use, therefore, is novel only in its expansion of the “priestly” side of this equation to the care, not of souls, but of wardrobes and palates. Yet most “curators” at sneaker stores, of course, just work there, for wages supplemented by whatever prestige they can find.

Like the “entrepreneur” and the “innovator,” “curating” as a business practice presents profit-seeking activities as the pursuit of virtue. It also captures some myths about Big Data and the democratic spirit of the Internet. “Data curators” manage the vastness of digital information; the older “archivist” is concerned with its scarcity. Shopping curators exist to cull the variety of goods online. Online publishing democratizes information access and authorship itself, as in this article in The Guardian’s business section, for example, which gushes about “new breed of media businesses that see themselves more as curators of content rather than owners.” Snarky anti-business bloggers can only be grateful for business journalists who guilelessly presume that the way media moguls “see themselves” is in fact the way they are: all priest, no bureaucrat.

 

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