The Revolution Will Not Be Curated

Making sense of curatolatry

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“The era of the curator has begun,” declared the prominent art critic Michael Brenson in 1998. The figures who assembled artworks into galleries, he reasoned, were now “as essential” to exhibits as the artists themselves. Curators were a species of universal genius who “must be at once aestheticians, diplomats, economists, critics, historians, politicians, audience developers, and promoters,” Brenson wrote. “They must be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders, business executives, and heads of state.” And what a curator “welcomes or excludes” is what makes all the difference.

Whatever else we might think of this assertion, it was certainly prescient. Today the era of the curator is in full flower. The contemporary literature about the heroic organizer of exhibitions is large and enthusiastic, with adulatory new installments added all the time. In 2006, a prominent art writer saw a generation of bold young curators “armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything.” In 2012, the New York Times marveled at the growing number of “programs in curating studies” and at how certain curators established themselves as “star names” in the art world. Brightest among these stars, without a doubt, is one Hans Ulrich Obrist, a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the author of Ways of Curating and A Brief History of Curating, and the closest thing there is to an art-world superstar these days, his every taste-quirk fawned over by the press.

But it is in the broad world outside museum culture where the phenomenon we might call curatolatry (as in the worship of curation and curators) is really booming. Everyone wants to curate things these days—to choose what to welcome and what to exclude—whether they work for an art gallery or not. “Curator,” for example, is the name of a PR agency in Seattle. “Curate” is the name of at least four different software applications. “Curate” is a data-gathering firm based in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a kind of flavored water available at a grocery store near you. It’s also a brand of snack bars, whose maker explains the name as follows: “Curate means to bring things together to share them as a collection.”

Those who work with food are especially prone to thinking of themselves as curators. Chefs, for example, are said to be curating things wherever you look. There are countless internet personalities who refer to themselves as “food curators.” With a little searching, you will also encounter wine curators, beer curators, coffee curators, tea curators, spice curators, and cupcake curators.

The fantasy of curation can be extended to virtually any product category. Shops are often thought to be curated. So are rugs. And furniture. Cosmetics. Landscaping. Wardrobes. Music is eminently suited for the oversight of curators. So are TED talks. In fact, “curator” appears to be the actual job title of the chief officer of the TED organization, as it is of those who oversee TEDx events. It’s also a title of a radio producer at NPR.

And, of course, “curating” describes something that websites are supposed to do. It is the new and more benign word for what a short while ago was called “aggregating,” or what a less pretentious person might call “editing” or “sifting.” The web is a vast, chaotic, onrushing thing, the idea goes, and “curators” promise to sort it all out for us, welcoming and excluding as they see fit. That’s why what goes on at Pinterest and Tumblr and Instagram and Digg is often called “curating.” Above all, curating is what takes place at Facebook, where busily sifting “news curators” used to choose stories to be included in the hotly desirable “trending” category.

In that particular case, however, curation didn’t work out so well. Last year, Facebook’s staff of curators were accused of deliberately ignoring conservative news items that should rightfully have been deemed “trending.” The scandal dragged on for weeks, until eventually the company decided to delete its custodians of newsworthiness, replacing them with a computer program in August.

Filters Amok

Here’s where our story of curatolatry takes a turn for the strange. When Facebook replaced its curators with an algorithm last summer, “fake news” seemed to blossom. All of a sudden, there were reports of Facebook mainlining preposterous, easily debunked right-wing news items into the national bloodstream.

Liberals always dream of curating things, far more than do conservatives. The word seems to trace the fault line between the country’s great political factions.

The most infamous specimen, of course, was the “Pizzagate” saga, which posited that Hillary Clinton and Democratic operative John Podesta were running a child-sex ring out of a Northwest D.C. eatery—a libel that later created an actual news sensation when a diligent soul from North Carolina “self-investigated” the claim by turning up at the restaurant with a loaded rifle in tow. Other fragrant entries in the genre included a fake CNN report from election night relating the breathless news that a mean-drunk Hillary “beat the sh*t” out of her ex-president spouse, and a report that Democrats in the Florida state legislature were for some reason scheming to impose sharia law on the Sunshine State. (This one got its second wind in the news cycle when Michael Flynn—the credulous general whom Trump has appointed national security adviser—faithfully repeated it on the campaign stump.)

And then, a short while later, Donald Trump was elected president, a shock supreme to the sort of people who listen to TED talks and take things like cupcake curation seriously. What could explain this horrifying turn of events? Representatives of the prestige media thought they knew what had happened: It was fake news that did it, fake news abetted by the Russian propaganda machine. This had not merely been a choice between a Republican and a Democrat, they moaned; it was the eternal war between true and false. And “the truth is losing,” as a memorable Washington Post op-ed headline put it.

Another way of describing this situation might be as a conflict between the counterfeit and the curated. Fake news was everywhere, it now appeared, and the solution to it wherever it turned up was curation. The world needed this heroic profession, not merely to oversee its art galleries and wine lists, but also to screen the transmission system circulating our knowledge for telltale signs of wholesomeness or decay. According to Jeff Nesbit in Time magazine, Facebook needed to “partner with legacy media to curate real news.” This was, he wrote, “the antidote” to the scourge of lies that had elected Trump.

Barack Obama himself said pretty much the same thing. At a White House-sponsored conference of “innovators” last October, the then-president gave a speech deploring untruthful statements on the internet and said, “We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.” Obama’s statement, once it made its uncurated way through the social media-sphere, triggered countless bursts of right-wing internet outrage.

Curating the World

It is not a coincidence that Obama chose to speak of “curating” in his speech and that the right exploded with fury over it. The word seems to trace the fault line between the country’s great political factions. Liberals always dream of curating things, far more than do conservatives. Liberals like to talk about curators and curating; they are often described with these words; and they just seem naturally to gravitate to those-who-curate. When Obama chooses songs, for example, he is often said to be “curating” them. Introducing a 2012 interview with the president in Rolling Stone, the centrist historian Douglas Brinkley was moved to declare that “Obama, simply put, is the curator-in-chief of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society.” Using the word to the opposite effect, leftist historian Mike Davis sneered in 2011 that Obama was “the chief curator of the Bush legacy.”

Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago, delivered in January, featured what it pleased the Washington Post to call “curated tweets” projected on a screen. As he left office, a photographer “curated” favorite pictures of the former president for Politico. Spotify jokingly offered Obama a job “overseeing our music curation and playlists team.”

Upon investigation, this playlist business turns out to be a running theme with Democrats. Like her husband, Michelle Obama was said to have “curated” a playlist for you to enjoy back in 2015. An officer of the Clinton Foundation was also once reported by Billboard to have “partnered with Spotify . . . to curate playlists for kids that promote their development.”

Donald Trump, for his part, is consistently associated with the refusal of curation. Trump does not reform or organize the chaos of the world; he is the chaos of the world. What he does with his blustering Tweets and his vulgar boasts is the opposite of curation. As his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway once explained, with Twitter, “you don’t have to wait for some journalist, some anti-Trump journalist to curate the information and bias it.” Others suggest that curating is simply beyond his ability, such as the “digital fundraising experts” described last summer in the Washington Post who “were skeptical that Trump has been able to curate and maintain such a big [donor] list.”

Experts of every kind have in our time been promoted to curators, which is not just a longer word but one that carries grand professional implications.

People who curate things are not to be connected with Trump, as we learn from this urgent January newsflash: “Grammy-winning producer David Foster denied rumors that he’s helping curate President-Elect Donald Trump’s inauguration entertainment in January.”

Or this November headline from the Times of Israel: “Rabbis who organized walkout during Trump’s AIPAC speech curate an album”—an album of music, that is—meant to cheer the downhearted after the election.[*] 

Actual, honest-to-God museum curators hate Donald Trump, of course. Shortly after the election, a New York artist rallied her colleagues to protest Trump with this simple proposal: “Hello female artists/curators! Let’s organize a NASTY WOMEN group show!!!” And according to numerous news items in the London Daily Mail, all manner of “artists, curators,” and other assorted gallery types are currently rising in outrage against the billionaire bigot and his family.

Others see curation as the answer to it all, the thing we need to get serious about and dedicate ourselves to if we want to avoid future Trumps. Shortly after Trump’s surprise win, for example, a comedian interviewed by the Guardian opined on the disaster in this non-facetious way: “I think this is all a big shocking sign that we need to do more for each other, show understanding for one another, join forces with allies and help curate the world we want to live in.”

Selection Bias

What is a curator, and why is it the admired cultural position of the moment? Why is this the word that springs to our tongues today when once we would have said “DJ,” or “blogger,” or “expert,” or just “snob”? And why is it persistently associated with liberals?

Consider the most basic aspect of the word as we use it today. A curator is an arbiter, someone who distinguishes between what is good and what is bad. Curators tell us what to welcome and what to exclude, what to keep and what to toss. They make judgments. They define what is legitimate and what is not.

But curators don’t make these judgments subjectively or out of the blue, as would chefs or gourmands or other sorts of fussy people. No, curators are professional arbiters of taste and judgment, handing down their verdicts on news stories or pot roasts from a position of dignity and certified authority.

The word is deeply associated with academic achievement. Gallery curators are often people with advanced degrees, and “curation” and its variants are sometimes used to describe certain kinds of university officials. The highest officers of the University of Missouri, for example, are called curators, and at Bennington College, even prospective students are encouraged to think of themselves as curators—curators, that is, of their applications to associate with this illustrious institution. As Bennington’s magazine puts it, they are invited to “curate their submissions and engage in the admissions process as a learning experience.”

It’s all about social status, in other words, and the eternal desire of Americans to claw their way upward by means of some fancy-sounding euphemism. Back in the 1980s, English professor Paul Fussell set down a list of occupations that had contrived to class themselves up by adopting longer names that sounded more professional. “In many universities,” he wrote,

what used to be the bursar is now the disbursement officer, just the way what used to be an undertaker (already sufficient as a euphemism, one would think) is now a funeral director, an advance of two whole syllables. . . . Selling is raised to retailing or marketing, or even better, to merchandising, an act that exactly doubles its syllables, while sales manager in its turn is doubled by being raised to Vice-President, Merchandising. The person on the telephone who used to provide Information now gives . . . Directory Assistance, which is two syllables grander.

And so experts of every kind have in our time been promoted to curators, which is not just a longer word but one that carries grand professional implications.

Curatolatry also imparts a certain smiling friendliness to expertise. Long ago, a “curator” was a medical worker of some indeterminate sort—someone charged with curing, basically. And even today we can see that curators do what they do not because they are greedy or snobbish but because they want to nurture the public. This is especially important as scandals ripple through profession after profession: accounting, appraising, investment banking, medicine, and so on. A curator would never use monopoly power to gouge users of some prescription medicine, for example. They care about us too much. They are not dictators; they are explainers, to mention another occupation that is much in vogue nowadays. They just want to help you to learn and understand. They are authority figures, yes, but they are lovable and benevolent ones.

And they are infinitely adaptable. Curatorial authority can be counted on to fine-tune your taste in food, your news consumption—even, in all likelihood, your ideological worldview. And with every sphere of American experience so promiscuously aestheticized, the curatorial reflex can be understood as something that a benevolent class of tastemakers and enlightened celebrities is selflessly undertaking for your own good. That’s why, for example, self-appointed celebrity pundits such as Lena Dunham and Alec Baldwin claim improbable perches in the protest culture of liberalism—and why Meryl Streep, who laid into Trump on the press’s behalf at the Golden Globe awards, has acquired the status of a twenty-first-century Edward R. Murrow.

When I was younger, people on the left used to look suspiciously on the canons of orthodox taste that earlier generations had built. Today, however, it seems the problem with canons is that they celebrate the works themselves—the novels, the art, the historical heroes—and what we actually need to be honoring are the interpreters and critics and professionals who make those choices for us. The books and the art and the history don’t matter any longer, but the curators do, welcoming and excluding and gently nudging the world in the right direction.

Actually, we’re well into that curated world already. Yes, I know, the web is a wild west sort of place, with fake news lurking in every corner. But follow our prestige media for a while and you will start to notice an uncanny unanimity of opinion. From TED talks to NPR, from the DNC to the Washington Post and on to the award-winning blogs, they all agree with each other, echoing and quoting and linking back and forth in a happy conversation, all the comfortable insiders welcoming one another with praise and prizes. What they don’t agree upon, meanwhile, is simply ignored. It is outside the conversation. It is excluded.

A world without fake news might really be awesome. So might a shop where every bottle of wine is excellent. So might an electoral system in which everyone heeds the urging of the professional consensus. But in any such system, reader, people like you and me can be assured with almost perfect confidence that our voices will be curated out.


[*]  There are occasional exceptions to this rule. The music that played over the PA system at Trump rallies, for example, was once said by Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker to be “Trump-curated.” And there’s this from E. J. Dionne, after Trump fired a number of campaign staffers in April of 2016: “Trump decided he needed to curate his brand big time.”

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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