Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Follies of International Curatorial Practice, Indian Ones Too

(Francesco Bonami, Italian Curtaor)

I do not know the renowned Italian curator Francesco Bonami exactly the way he does not know me. But not knowing mutually does not make any difference to the world, politically as well as culturally. However, the views on curatorial practice that he had recently expressed in the online magazine ‘artnet’ make me think about him and many like him in the world because I too belong to their tribe; the tribe of curators. According to Bonami, curators have ‘become self delusional characters and at the same time totally irrelevant in relation to the market and the artist’s career.’ The context of this interview is the growing involvement of the artists, artists’ collectives and even non-artists taking up the curatorial reins of many a project in the global visual art scenario. Bomani, considering his unshaken position in the international curatorial circuit, is a bit sarcastic and condescending while he speaks of the curators’ role in today’s world. His sarcasm is accepted for he has earned the right to be so. But the pointers that his views leading to, are not so funny as it seems.

The platitude that the curators ‘validate some kind of intellectual content that even the most callous dealer seems to need in order to maintain some kind of credibility’ in the context of Bomani’s interview assumes a deeper significance because even if he does not say that the new age curators or even the star curators or the non-curators curating the shows internationally lack in such authority to validate the works of art that they curate, the case is so. The danger of non-curators curating exhibitions all over the world today, pushing the trained and traditional curators behind the scenes or almost rendering them jobless is futurist in many ways. First of all, the future markets need validation for the works of art irrespective of the star value of the curator who has exhibited these works. His /her star value does not count because the intrinsic meanings of a work of art are not context specific of its exhibition but invariably a continuity in time and space (in other words within the frame of the work). If that is the case, the star curators devoid of academic abilities to ‘validate’ these works of art would eventually supply nothing to these works in the future market. It would be pushed into the columns where provenance of a work of art is printed in micro fonts whereas an academically trained curator’s words would remain a permanent vehicle of validation for the particular work of art in the future market. The presence of star curators is good to grab eyeballs and some page 3 spaces and maximum innumerable shares in the social media. Beyond that no additional value will be given to a work of art with the attachment of a star curator’s name to it.

 (JohnyML, Indian art historian and curator)

I am not an apologist for the academic trained curators for I do not have too much of regard for all the academically trained curators. At the same time I respect a lot of curators academically trained in certain disciplines but with eclectic interests in visual arts and have this particular ability to interlink his/her expertise in the academic field and the visual art forms that he/she fancies. No issues if such academics come to the curatorial scene even without a degree in curatorial practice. I generally do not approve the curatorial practices of non-curators in the field of curatorial practice. However, I have a great respect and regard for those non-curators who have in-depth knowledge in the subjects that they take for curation. For example there are a few artist-curators who have very close relationship with their subjects both personally and academically and are capable of doing wonderful curatorial projects. There are also non-curators who would curate certain exhibition only because they have a first-hand knowledge about the subject.

Post-modernism allows anything to be taken seriously; that is good to certain extent. But at the same time post modernism has its own emphasis on human discretion because permissibility of anything anywhere in the name of culture and politics could be counter-productive. Hence, we cannot say that non-curators should not curate or non-art historians should not write art history. But there should be a discretion why certain people or celebrities are chosen as curators or given prominence as curators, almost discarding the academically trained curators. This preference is pre-meditated because the presence of a celebrity as curator or a non-artist celebrity as curator or a famous artist as curator could liquidate many a work of art into money besides the exhibition getting a lot of press mileage wherever the celebrity curator’s name is familiar. That means the employment of celebrity curators or star curators or celebrity artist curators is not basically for validating works of art for the future markets but for its immediate currency in the national or international art market. In that sense, the celebrity curators here function as trade representatives than intellectual mediators who validate the works for future markets. A celebrity’s dumbness could bring attention to the exhibition while the works of art would be permanently dumped by history for the very lack of ‘history’ around it. Our market has been failing to see it.

(a curated show- image for illustration purpose only)

Bomani points out that the young and academically trained curators are now almost pushed out of the market. And in their place the market has propped up celebrity curators, celebrity artist curators and non-curators. Perhaps, this is trendy for the sheer fun of it. While the market celebrates these new arrivals, it does not have a basic work ethics to see what the trained curators including the art historians are doing. Many years before I had pointed out that the potential curators, art critics and would be art historians are campus recruited by the gallery system in India and made all of them back room researchers or the front desk personalities curbing their urge to become potential curators. Either they cease to become art professionals or they remain permanently as assistants in the galleries, with frustration growing, which eventually makes them cynical and prematurely retired from the art scene. This is the great injustice that most of the galleries have done to the practicing curators in India too. Their frantic search for quick liquidation, media attention and selective footfall they all started employing celebrities or artist curators to add value to their shows. I would never say that artists are bad curators because artists while thinking about their own works they self curate often. But when a few artists are brought together and their works are displayed in a curated show, the artist curators job become that of the display strategists. I have seen artists curating while the historical validation is done by other writers in the same catalogue. I would say the most celebrated artists curators in this country are basically socialites with some sense of design. Where the content of the show is shallow, they make it more lucrative by conjuring up quirky titles.

I insist that celebrity artist curators or collectives-curators, despite their celebrity quotient are bad curators always fearing about their reputation as celebrities and to protect it making their projects more and more spectacular and facile devoid of deep intellectual content and as a result of it their statements about the shows would always be contradicting with the statements that they have made just a minute back. We have seen it in front of our eyes. To understand the shallowness of such huge projects curated by celebrity artist curators, one should just try to remember the number of works or the names of the artists who had participated in their shows. We would only remember the names of the celebrity curators. It is like the build up of a movie and the star who acts in it. The discussions are about the fan clubs, the distributors, the money that it would make in the box office, the overseas frenzy of the fans and so on, without heeding much to the real movie which gives a context for all these madness possible. The exhibitions curated by celebrities therefore become celebrity affairs with no emphasis on works of art or the artists. For the future markets photographs in the page 3 really do not make a good provenance.

 (a curated exhibition- for illustration purpose only)

The worst thing that Indian art scene could do to its artists and to its curators is this that either the galleries started employing celebrity curators or the gallerists themselves becoming curators. The logic is simple for the latter. “It’s my gallery, my idea, my money, my artists, my people displaying, my friend writing the catalogue, I am paying for the publicity, I am even controlling the number of bottles of wines to be distributed on the opening day, I am sitting at the reception desk, I am socialising with the guests, I am going to sell the works....if so why should I need a curator?” This is a typical way of thinking many gallerists did immediately after the collapse of Indian art market. Then came a hoard of untrained people from the rich class who started calling themselves as curators. Even the two articles old art writers started printing their visiting cards with the tag line, ‘curator’. The hierarchy created within Brahminical structure of the art scene also created Brahminical structures for curatorial practices. Girls and boys coming from rich backgrounds, and those boys and girls who are willing to accept some kind of trends in the scene are always trained by the so called curators in certain curators’ hubs, which in my opinion are largely unproductive but they do it because it gives the people behind it a tremendous amount of credibility in the international circuits as they want the colonial left over still remaining intact in the future market called India so that they could perpetuate their kind of art and related practices into the Indian sub-continent. I have never seen curators coming up such hubs and doing shows elsewhere. Getting married to foreign curators could be one short cut to become cross over international curators or even organizing large scale events and self appointing as curators. But none of them would make future markets. The future markets are entrusted in the writings and curatorial practices of the academically trained, diligent and self innovating curators. The earlier the market sees their potential the better their chances of making money out of ‘validated’ works by valid curators. 

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