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Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating

Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating. Edited by Steven Rand and Heather Kouris. New York: apexart, 2007. 128 pages. ISBN 9781933347103

By Shana Beth Mason

Less of a “how-to” guide on becoming, being and remaining a contemporary curator, the second edition of Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating is a lucid, plainly crafted text by such respected theorists and active curators as Boris Groys, David Carrier, Sara Arrhenius and David Levi Strauss about how curating factors into the practices and practicalities of contemporary art in general. apexart, founded in 1994 by New York-based artist Steven Rand, functions as a salon-style environment, in which the promotion and consumption of art and artists takes a backseat to theory-driven workshops and curatorial exercises. This edition concisely outlines critical issues and interesting solutions in the field, noting how the curator has transformed from an administrator of the exhibition into somewhat of a celebrity, sometimes capable of upstaging the artist(s), artworks and their cohesive dynamic altogether.

In the preface, Rand describes the shift from research to social networking in the curatorial field, a consequence of “the values and insecurities in society today.” The problem, for Rand, is the tendency of young curators to sacrifice creative risk for career stability. Curating, in this context, takes its ideal shape as a product of research, artist-curator communication and cross-referencing fields of social anthropology, political theory and art history. In the current educational climate, degrees in curating have sprung up independently of academic departments that, for Rand, “results in exhibition essays describing the work, quoting others, and engaging in classical obfuscation by using the kind of rhetoric that makes the insecure give undue credit to the writer rather than question the content.”

The body of the text further outlines the intellectual anatomy and aims of the curator. Groys, for example, contends that the curator is a form of iconoclast: destroying the spiritual integrity of the artwork (and in the process, the artist) and revealing that the institution in which art is located strips the art of individual status as a unique creation is a part of the curator’s goal. The end result is informing audiences that the illustration of history using artwork is a futile effort, and herein the curator’s success can be measured by how clearly that message is conveyed. David Carrier argues that the importance of the curator is not to simply corral a series of works together and find a suitable, logical thread to bind them; curators have taken the position of critic, in that their tastes drive the overall nature of exhibitions, thus the successful presentation of an exhibition means that their tastes find widespread agreement and their methodologies employ enough creative risk to startle their detractors.

Risk is a word quoted often in this book. Curators are, more than ever, at the mercy of declining institutional budgets, critical publications ever-more scrutinizing of their efforts than that of artists and museums combined, and a general public increasingly cautious of philosophically heavy, esoteric exhibitions. Above all, these authors insist that spontaneity, passionate historical engagement and sheer determination push the curator towards fulfillment.

Shana Beth Mason is an art consultant and critic based in Miami. She holds a Master of Arts degree with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Christie’s Education London.