There is an in-joke (or rather, an apt observation, since it’s not especially funny to anyone outside a mile radius of Whitehall) that government departments are notoriously opaque from the outside. Though physically on the ‘inside’ during my internship, I remained ‘outside’ in almost every other respect, and terms like ‘Convene’, ‘Curate’, and ‘Research’ seemed to slither around as little more than impenetrable legalese when used in the context of ‘team branding’. So, I did what any liberal-artsy person might do, and retreated into semantics, setting out on my task with a huge dictionary which floated around that office. Here is what I found for ‘curate’: “n.One entrusted with the cure of souls; a spiritual pastor; v. To act as curator of (a museum, exhibits, etc.); to look after and preserve.” I started to wonder what exactly it was that we were curating at the Cabinet Office. Yes, we were putting together events, we were creating networks and mapping the so-called field, but were we actually curating anything? The answer, quite simply, was no, we weren’t. We were neither curing souls, nor were we looking after, preserving, or displaying museum artefacts and exhibits.
I Curate, Therefore I Am: narcissism as curation in the digital age
Last year I was working as an intern in a Cabinet Office team, newly set up to strengthen links between government and academia. There was no particular art bias to speak of and, as a humanities student, I found myself drowning in Whitehall jargon, digital directives, and an overabundance of acronyms: all very interesting stuff, but almost entirely alien to me. Given that I was bamboozled by how to put together, say, a BUD AR for DCMS, I was set to work on reinvigorating the team’s nascent branding strategy, which, when I arrived, consisted of three words: ‘Convene’, ‘Curate’, ‘Research’.
An article in Forbes Magazine recently offered a ‘5 Point Plan to embrace your Curated Life’ which included - I kid you not - a directive to “filter your friends,” a depressingly chirpy declaration that “you are what you Tweet and Eat,” and the frankly absurd suggestion to “get offline - and explore Real World Experiences”.
It makes for a neat anecdote, but it is unfair of me to poke fun at the misuse of this term here, given that, in 2018, one can hardly move for curation in almost every facet of social life. An article in Forbes Magazine recently offered a ‘5 Point Plan to embrace your Curated Life’ which included - I kid you not - a directive to “filter your friends,” a depressingly chirpy declaration that “you are what you Tweet and Eat,” and the frankly absurd suggestion to “get offline - and explore Real World Experiences” - because the ‘real world’ is obviously not where we exist by default, but some mysterious terrain hovering beyond hyperspace. Elsewhere, on a website called, simply, Curatedlife, a definition is offered: “Curating your life means carefully choosing what you allow to shape your identity, atmosphere, relationships and sense of well-being.”
Don’t get me wrong, I know that words evolve, that their meanings change and they assume new contexts, but the question still needs to be asked: Why this sudden and strangely conspicuous superabundance of the term curation? Is it simply a case of semantic shifting, or is there more to it? To return to that heinous aphorism “you are what you Tweet and Eat,” there’s no question that the term is profoundly tied up with digital lifestyling and social media platforms. Our private lives have become impossibly public, until every single thing we do needs to be ‘curated’ for our friends (or a host of virtual strangers) to see through a perfect, sun-bleached instagram filter. We can’t enjoy eating our breakfast anymore, we have to curate it on the plate first, finding exactly the right angle, and sharing it with thousands of people before we can tuck in. By which time it’s probably floppy and cold. #eatingfortheinsta is a real hashtag.
Perhaps more pernicious than the glossy curation of people’s ‘real’ lives through instagram, is the sad curation of imagined lives on platforms like Pinterest. Millennials facing the unlikely probability of being able to afford their own homes and fill them with pretty things, instead invest their time curating the lifestyles that they can only dream of. “No, this isn’t my home,” people say through their boards and pins, “but it’s the lifestyle I’ve curated digitally, so no matter.” What’s more, these digital spaces are echo chambers: what purports to be a unique and personal style is actually a reproduced image that gets pinned and re-pinned, until one big, homogenous blur of exposed brick and pre-rusted steel whizzes round and round the web - and its name is ‘The Curated Life’. I want to be clear: I haven’t got it in for the people priced off the property ladder (myself amongst them); what I resent is an anaesthetisation through terms like ‘curation’ and ‘lifestyling’. Of course, as hobbies, these activities are benign enough, but when the idea of “exploring the real world” seems fantastical, we have to be wary of their proliferation. This kind of virtual carrot-on-a-stick, this illusion that lifestyling is a substitute for real life, is not only lamentable: it’s part of the bigger problem.
From Brexit, to Trump, to The Curated Life, this emphasis on populism, on rubbishing experts as models of elitism, is creeping into every pocket of contemporary cultural and political existence.
The notion of a curated life - of curating oneself for others to see - is bound up with a growing skepticism of ‘the expert’ - something that Rebecca Watts has aptly termed “the cult of the noble amateur.” From Brexit, to Trump, to The Curated Life, this emphasis on populism, on rubbishing experts as models of elitism, is creeping into every pocket of contemporary cultural and political existence. While there is something to be said for democratising public engagement - certainly for giving voices and platforms back to those who have been marginalised - I can’t help but detect a deeply narcissistic perversion of this movement, which is encapsulated by the shallow desire to curate one’s own identity. From where I’m standing, this pursuit seems to entirely miss the point of curation as we know it, which is to create discursive and generative spaces. Where the Noble Amateur gets short circuited by their own ego, the experienced curator negotiates a dialogue between artwork, artist, and audience; they both construct meanings and leave meanings open to new constructions; they spark curiosity and incite innovative thinking. Though the curator may often be one individual, the very purpose of curation is to generate a multitude of voices, rather than to present a single, closed perspective, an idealised and finished vision that people are expected to (literally) subscribe to in some docile, unthinking way. Curation itself isn’t some static entity either - it fits into a tradition, a history, on which it keeps building and responding. In every iteration, the act of curating becomes inextricable from each artwork that it places and gives fresh meaning to a piece. In some measure, it is thoughtful curation that keeps art alive and flourishing, keeps it relevant to society, and lends it political force. And as our lives grow ever more virtual, gallery curation reminds us of the necessity for material spaces, for communal sites of unexpected interaction, where we can keep agitating the status quo - and just maybe cure some souls along the way.
By Mae Losasso.