Monday, February 22, 2010

A Time to Redefine : Open Thread

One of the things I learned early on in debating folks on politics is that if you don't start off ensuring you're working from the same definition of what you're talking about, you'll go rounds and rounds for hours assuming the other guy has slush for brains, just as he'll be convinced the same about you. An agreed-upon, clear definition is critical to productive communication. That's why, in case you haven't noticed, I frequently get all giddy about a good definition, redefinition, or useful coinage. Facilitating clear communication is more than an art form, in my opinion, it's manna from heaven.

A very insightful comment was posted here the other day by Mark Creegan. In response to the Think! post discussing what Dalton and Powhida have focused on trying to facilitate for #class, Mark wrote:
I think it seems that this hodge podge of reflexive actions is important and note that a good number of the participants are bloggers where you would normally find reflexive insight. Figuring out ones relationship to the art world and how one wants to exist within their particular conception of that system is an ongoing process and to do that in this communal setting is interesting and refreshing. My take on most of these events is that they seem less of a rant (although I am sure ranting will happen) fest than a renegotiation of ones relationship to the process and structure of making and thinking about art. A thousand participants will leave with a thousand different re-definitions.
Indeed, based on just the opening last night (and a test run event on Friday), I think Mark has nailed it. One conversation I had Friday evening, for example, was with Stamatina Gregory (who with Jovana Stokic will be hosting a discussion this Friday at #class, February 26, 6pm – 7 pm, on "Bad Curating"). We got into how the meaning of the word "curate" has been watered down to where people now talk about curating their wardrobe or the furniture in their apartment. What it means to "curate" in a fine art context has become so unclear that Stamatina and I eventually agreed that trained professionals with art history backgrounds and years spent developing a first-hand knowledge of select art objects will probably need to redefine themselves, or perhaps just relabel themselves, to ensure the vocabulary we use to discuss what they do is clear.

One of my first (personally somewhat painful, but eye opening all the same) points of clarity in this was when New York Times critic Holland Cotter, who was kind enough to review an exhibition I was listed as having "curated" at another gallery (before we opened our own), discussed my role instead as having "organized" it. Initially I was somewhat insulted, but in hindsight I recognize he was absolutely correct. Just because I was willing to have "Curated by Edward Winkleman" printed on the invite in no way altered the definition of the word in Mr. Cotter's mind.

Unfortunately, over the years, such claims have altered the meaning of the word in many other people's minds, and so I agree with Stamatina that it behooves fine art Curators to redefine themselves. Trying to reclaim the word from its widespread usage today is probably a losing battle.

Not being much use in coining catchy phrases myself, I'll use this one example to open a thread on "curate" and other such terms that people in the art world might take advantage of this economically imposed time to reflect to renegotiate their relationship to or the definitions of. What would you call, for example, "trained professionals with art history backgrounds and years spent developing a first-hand knowledge of select art objects"? Scholarly curators?

If you feel your personal position within the art world could use some redefinition (Gallerist vs. Dealer, Painter vs. Artist, Collector vs. Philanthropist, etc. etc. ) feel free to muse on that here as well.

Labels: art careers, definitions, working with curators


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a statewide biennial art competition where I live. It's the only one and is a big deal to artists who aren't commercially viable and don't yet show outside state lines.

The art used to be judged or jurored but once the organizers discovered that judging was considered state fair hokey in more sophisticated places, it became curated. This change of wording gave the 'curator' more leverage to make selections based on how the pieces interacted rather than the quality of individual work. The show became curator, rather than artist, centric and lost much of its original intent of showcasing the best work produced in the state.

I am now a client, rather than a customer of the person who cuts my hair and the clerks at Walmart are all sales associates - I lump 'curator' in with these. The word has become hokey.


2/22/2010 09:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it me, or does anyone else out there avoid the use of the term 'artist'. I hesitate almost every time I need to discuss what 'I do' with other people. I would like to redefine the term 'artist'; When used outside the art world, everyone and their dog is an 'artist'. I often tell people that I make objects or constructions. I understand this would be problematic for conceptual or performance based artists. What do you say? How does one explain the life long investigation required to be an artist without diluting said investigation by general description? Why do I even care? But I do.

2/22/2010 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

good point, anonymous. I find that I almost always use qualifiers such as "serious" or "professional" before artist in order to try and make that distinction.

Now that everyone and their cousin has joined the DIY movement, serious artists who (sometimes) use craft-based media are wrestling with definitions as well. There are still many grants that have not caught on to this fact, and exclude "crafts" from their list of approved media. I understand they don't want Granny's cross stitch, but they would then be excluding the likes of Kiki Smith, Ann Hamilton, Louise Bourgeois, etc.

2/22/2010 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the context of #class, I'd suggest describing all the players according to their place in the art world. Curators are museum curators, free-lance curators, or artist curators. Artists are either represented artists or independent artists. Dealers are either gallery dealers or independent dealers. As for collectors and philanthropists, maybe they could both be referred to as patrons.


2/22/2010 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Anon 9:40, I know your pain... I used to care so much about this that it almost paralyzed me conceptually.... but at some point during the last few years the need to have a definition became less pressing and frustrating... I think maybe it's more important when you're going through a defining moment in your career development or personal evolution or something like that... sometimes I think the work alone will take over and resolve any insecurities about labeling yourself... I wrestled with this for years but once I stood up for my work and gave it the respect and sincere attention it deserved I stopped giving a shit about what to say to people or about what they think... and I suspect that people in many different careers have this same dilemma, not just "object makers"...

2/22/2010 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Curate is a decent word with a decent history. Fashion people who talk about "curating" a wardrobe are the same as the real estate developers, who having promoted "artists' lofts" to Wall Streeters, have now taken to promoting "gallery-style" lofts, whatever that means.

I'm going to hang on to "curator." I hope we all do. Otherwise, the same thing that happens to artists' physical spaces (and galleries sometimes)is going to happen to the language that defines who we are and what we do: people looking for the "cachet" of creativity take over the space and we're left looking for another studio. Or in this case, another word.

Dig in, people!

2/22/2010 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous SL said...

Even my husband, who I met in undergrad college where we both received 4 year degrees in fine art, call art-making my 'hobby'.
Simply because I don't make my living that way?
I think everyone in the art world is suffering from lack of respect for what we do and what we know.
But how can we start to change that?

2/22/2010 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Larry said...

"Collector" can be a pointless word too. Personally I have bought about 3 dozen pieces of fairly modest priced art. Does that make me a collector? I have also written a few pieces of music and a play. Am I therefore a composer and playwright? I strum a few Beethoven sonatas and Chopin nocturnes on my home piano. Am I also a pianist? I cook a few Italian, French, Spanish, and Indian dishes from various cookbooks. So do I now call myself a chef? You get the idea.

2/22/2010 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I think Joanne Mattera has it right. Dig In.

I define myself as an artist, with NO qualifications. I might say I'm a painter, to indicate my current medium, but not to exclude myself conceptually from other aspects of the field. It's my answer to "what do you do?"

The word "curator" has a meaning which I think we all understand within its usage context. The distinction between the "organizer" or "curator" of an exhibition has to do with the degree of intellectual involvement and organization of the exhibition.

2/22/2010 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Is model railroading a hobby? Many people charge admission. Chris Burden dabbled in model railroading. Why did he stop? I guess he wasn't a serious model railroader. But why continue to make oversized toys for rich people? Is that any more "high" than ambitious model railroading? Artists like to flatter themselves that they have more content than railroaders - are more insightful or philosophical. Clearly no one is above deluding themselves.

I don't think everything that is labeled art or artist is more high or low. I think it's often more a left-right thing. Red Rover, Blue Rover.

If you qualify yourself you might be admitting to being a dilettante (Oh I dabble in Chopin). That can be a good way to sell art for a number of reasons, but it still causes eyes to glaze over and faces to fall.

As an amateur failed blog commenter, I find the freedom involved outweighs any urge to professionalize my "praxis" - I think a lot of artists are very serious but really hate the market, and I think that hate is justified. All those dirty eyes soiling your model railroad? Gross.

2/22/2010 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

A good number of people think of themselves as artists these days. But most of them don't answer "I'm an artist" when asked "What do you do?" So there's no pressing need in our society to come up with a different word for "artist."

Those of us who feel strongly enough to always answer "I'm an artist" usually go on to explain that we do or don't make our living from art-making.

2/22/2010 07:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The word curator comes from the Latin word which means, roughly, "keeper of souls". I like this definition, as opposed to an organizer, or seller of souls. I mean really, who does scholarship anymore? Read a few articles from Artforum so far this year, then go back, say 15 years and read a few. We spend more time talking about The Market in print and on blogs than we do about what art Means, and Meaning is where Value is argued over and created.


2/22/2010 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I'm more of a "complete-nobody-so-that-it-makes-you-feel-better" type.

I've experienced a lot of unfairness in life, and not always as the looser, and I'm very intrigued by these questions of hierarchies and who's better than who. It's one topic that completely paralyzes me and make me watch other people and wonder, wonder, wonder...

Cedric C

2/23/2010 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Its odd that we live in an era of the most freedom to self-define ever in human history. No longer does our situation at birth exclusively determine our identity. But there are still conventions that complicate our professional status. At any given point I ask myself if I am a professor if I am only adjuncting? (part-time prof? But I teach 5 class per semester.. how is this part-time? ) What determines being an "real" artist?- representation?, sales?, inclusion in museum collections?, a degree?

I hear Shaq is now a curator! How ironic is it that professionalized pressures (like the cache of "curator" as opposed to"organizer") has a democratizing effect?

2/23/2010 01:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't say "I'm an artist", when I'm asked "What do you do?". Instead, I answer: "I work for the CIA, and that's all I can tell you". That usually ends the Q&A part of the evening.

2/23/2010 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger The Reader said...

Laura wrote
"Curators are museum curators, free-lance curators, or artist curators."

I totally agree and think it is well worth making this type of distinction. Shows can be curated from many different perspectives and this type of qualification could really add to the way that we understand certain shows.

"Artists are either represented artists or independent artists."

Can't say I agree with this though. I appreciate the generality of the term "artist" as something that suggests the possibility of moving across various media or stages of commercial representation.

2/23/2010 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Marie Kazalia said...

This is a friendly discussion, and I don't want to bring up something overly negative, and of course I am risking making myself look bad, but, I am wondering just how powerful art critics are these days? I encountered one female art critic in an online discussion on woman artists. I disagreed with her on a point or two, and she told me she would never review any of my work, and that she was going to tell "everyone" "what kind of person" I am. Whatever that meant. So I'm blacklisted for having an opinion!? I asked her by private message, and she replied "you are not blacklisted".
Others in the discussion scattered and the moderator of the group deleted all the comments.
I wasn't the only one disagreeing with her rather negative comments about women artists. That's just the background of the situation.
I suppose it is foolish to bring this up here, but am I to quake in fear of this art critic? Do artist really have so little say? I wonder if anyone will even reply to this...?

2/24/2010 11:07:00 AM  
Anonymous sharonA said...

I also agree with Joanne - dig in.

There's a problem in our problem with language. Why should the art world - its academia, institutions, and participants - perpetually make attempts to distinguish itself from the rest of its culture? Why would we choose to pick apart simple effective words with simple effective definitions for what we do when we can (as has been brought up) clarify by making distinctions?

I have an axe to grind in regards to the art world putting a wall between itself and the non-art-immersed public. Constantly redefining ourselves as the public slowly appropriates the context/approach/language we use (as they should!) is a purposeful alienation which only ends up proving the art world's elitism.

I'm an artist, I do installation work. But I'm also a draftsman in addition to my installation work, and much of what I do involves cutting and/or sewing. And I also curate. *And* I'm a writer. So how do you define so many hats without being a cumbersome addition to the conversation? I say I'm an artist. People always ask, without fail: "what kind of art do you do?" People aren't stupid, they're curious and they understand there's a rather broad spectrum of what constitutes "art".

If there ever is a question in regards to one's credibility or merit, or whether or not one is "curating" a collection of "serious" art or running shoes in a shop window (and really, so what if we were?); I would hope the work would speak for itself.

2/24/2010 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher/Mark said...


I think you are really supposed to say "I USED to work for the C.I.A"

2/25/2010 08:36:00 PM  

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