The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Signifiers


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. 

Perhaps this reaction seems petty and ungenerous. But the sudden ubiquity of the verb “curate” gives one the feeling that a sort of linguistic occupation force crept in and took over in the dead of night. It is as if everyone else went to a workshop on the subject while you were fast asleep, and then you awoke, like Rip Van Winkle, to a changed world, full of new locutions you were expected to adopt instantly, without the benefit of explanation or justification. When, and why, did break-ins become “home invasions”? When, and why, did the weatherman begin referring to rain and snow as “precipitation events”? When and how did hotel rooms come to be described as “breakout”? (And should one take extra care to secure one’s possessions if one stays in such a room?) To live in this century is to be asking such questions all the time. 

I am all for the vitality of spontaneous linguistic creativity, as we see it in the constant adaption and development of slang. That fountain of invention is the energy of life itself. But there is nothing spontaneous or winsome about this other kind of change. It is prescriptivism with a vengeance. These awkward and abstract ways of expressing things are impositions upon the language. They have the same feel to them as the array of politically correct euphemisms—“differently abled,” or “visually impaired,” or “sanitation engineer,” or pick your own—with which we are constantly being badgered. These days, the breaking wheel of language revision never seems to stop turning. Whether these innovations proceed from a cultural-political agenda desirous of controlling discourse, or merely from a modern compulsion to invent jargon as a way of marking off social territory and driving away poachers, one always feels, when forced to adopt them, as if one is being fitted for braces, or lined up dutifully for a third-grade class photo. 

But “curate” is a little different. It is not a word imposed, but one adopted eagerly, even anxiously, by those who use it, because it bestows the prestige of cultivation, learning, and esprit de finesse upon activities that might otherwise seem plain and unexceptional, even vulgar. This is a game that more and more want to play. Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas recently announced the renovation of its Palace Tower, featuring décor “curated by top designers.” “Curation” is a dressing-up intensifier, serving the same function in our current speech as the adjectival heel lift supplied by “artisanal” cheeses or “craft” coffee. 

Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded. 

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so. 

But the word “curate” itself may be too corrupted by misuse to be able to carry such larger meanings much longer. As in so many other respects, Silicon Valley leads the way. It is now commonplace to speak of “social curation,” which means something akin to “the wisdom of the crowd,” the belief that the most meaningful way of sorting through and selecting and organizing masses of data is by the aggregation of the opinions and tastes of millions of completely independent individuals. There is a good deal to be said for this view, but the process it describes is the very opposite of curation itself, a word that, if it is to mean anything at all, means the application of a conscious sensibility and organizing intelligence. The spirit of curation resides in the saying that one man plus the truth makes a majority. The spirit of “social” curation is the belief, well captured in the title of a best-selling 1959 record album, that 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

Which may well be true. But when we start calling all those Elvis fans curators, then that’s a sure sign that “curation” has left the building.