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June 28, 2011

To curate or to create


At The Millions Lydia Kiesling has written an article that expresses displeasure with the current cultural fondness for acts of curation. To “curate,” she writes,

a verb formerly evoking museums and archives, a verb with family ties to assistant priests in country parishes, is enjoying a hip renaissance….Curators abound and curate all manner of material: playlists, the news, cheese, porn movies (link questionable for work)…many of the contemporary uses of the verb make the heart yearn for a simpler time-tumbrils instead of tumblrs.  Still, to deny the import of this word in its new iterations is to deny the real anxieties of our information-saturated age. How will I know all the new songs, and the best memes, and the craft beers and oozing cheeses, if they are not curated for my edification?

Kiesling associates the modern curatorial form to be essentially a marketing strategy. “Our particular moment is all about managing data rather than producing it; a theme is assigned, the material assiduously curated.”

As an example of her qualms, Kiesling mentions the recent book Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms by Carmela Ciuraru. Even though Kiesling enjoys many aspect of the book (“[Ciuraru] has a gift for organizing and presenting information and an ear for the money quote from a novel or letter”) and indeed describes it as an “admirable application of the curatorial principle to a phenomenon that is neither new nor hip,” in the end, she finds it lacking as a result of its curatorial quality. “This is curatorship — engaging and impressive curatorship to be sure — but taken alone, none of its chapters are revelatory.”

Kiesling responds negatively to the “ubiquity” and “hipness” of curation in modern culture, and her feelings seem part of a more general backlash against many aspects of the digital era. Her voice joins those weary of remixes and copying and lists. Yesterday I wrote a post about copyright infringement and one of the commentators wrote “This issue could be completely and easily solved if people just stopped copying other’s works and did the heavy lifting themselves. Copying is not creating. Copying is what children and students do when they are learning a craft or art. Then, if they are artists, they go on to create their own works.” I don’t know if Kiesling would endorse such strong emotions, but both writers seem to crave revelation over imitation, the unfamiliar over the organization of the familiar. This is a coherent hierarchy and a strong aesthetic. But, to me, it does not feel completely fair. It’s easy enough to demand revelation. But in the meantime, the desire to discover, organize, and present the things of the world is a small but essential pleasure. If you cannot make, I feel it’s perfectly honorable to curate.