The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Signifiers

Curate

Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Curators…everywhere, all the time.

I last encountered the “c” word on a visit to a recently opened independent bookstore, an immensely agreeable place where a lover of books could wile away many delightful hours. Like any bibliophile, I am inclined to hail the mere survival of such stores with a champagne toast, and to greet the creation of new ones as a token, however faint, of civilizational recovery. I also tend to rate the people running such establishments among the real heroes of our time. So at the risk of sounding even the least bit ungracious toward the owners of this particular store, I must confess to being somewhat taken aback by publicity materials that described their inventory as “thoughtfully curated.” Those slightly smug and self-congratulatory words made me wince. Book lovers ought to be word lovers too, and this usage felt all wrong, its intrusion into this happy scene a microbetrayal. 

I suspect that my strong reaction was spurred by a more general problem. In the demimonde of Facebook and the like, everyone is in the public relations racket, and everyday life takes on the texture of a real-estate commercial, with constant inflation of language and imagery in the service of self-presentation. Why is it no longer enough to say that a store stocks a fine assortment of important and interesting titles? Is “selection” not a fancy enough word anymore? Does it not convey in plain and accessible English the central idea—that this is not a Barnes and Noble or any other cookie-cutter franchise operation, but that the proprietors have instead exercised independent taste and judgment in assembling their offerings? Why do we need to have the pretentious and mystifying notion of “curation” drifting in and fogging up the air? 

“Curation” lends to the proceedings a certain air of quasi-professionalism. It seeks to claim for the proprietors an exquisitely refined faculty of discrimination, a sense that “objective” higher standards are being enacted and adhered to. The selection that has been made, we are being assured, was not a product of whim or fancy, let alone crass commercialism. It reflects deep wisdom and heightened competence, a sensibility like that of the museum curator or wealthy collector, or the sommelier who truly knows his wines, rather than the all-too-human idiosyncrasy of enthusiastic but uncredentialed amateurs offering the reading public an assortment of “books we like, and that we hope you will like too.” And, as the word’s allusion to museums and museum work subtly suggests, the use of “curate” carries overtones of social climbing, of seeking to associate oneself with the “better sort” of people—tasteful, knowledgeable, attractive, suave, well-to-do. 

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