Magazine article The Spectator

Culture Studies: Mark Irving

Magazine article The Spectator

Culture Studies: Mark Irving

Article excerpt

The world exists and then it disappears, piece by piece, the gaps widening until one age is replaced by another, leaving only fragments of the past. With luck, these pass through the hands of curious collectors dedicated to bridging the gaps formed by the desecrations of time, before reaching a terminus point in a museum as votive offerings on the altar of culture. And that's where it so often goes wrong.

Charged with the care and conservation of these precious fragments, curators can all too easily become anxious hoarders of knowledge instead of agile communicators serving a synaptic function between object and audience. Curating as an art of defence -- usually against the public and its uncomfortable demands -- is the default reflex of a certain type: slow-burn institutionalised careerists filling dead men's shoes. Subject expertise of real depth takes years of committed research and firsthand understanding of cultural artefacts, but this isn't the same as developing the special skill of exciting people with illuminating stories. Storytelling is essentially an act of generosity, not the display of knowledge itself.

But generosity towards the visitor is rarely the primary sensibility inculcated in those studying curating in our universities and art colleges, for this would situate curatorial practice within the cheerful commercial terrain of the leisure and tourism industry rather than as a high-minded adjunct of academic research.

Paying lip-service to a predictable range of 'progressive' concerns -- accessibility, diversity, cultural democracy -- po-faced curators rarely focus on service itself, on the delivery of quality and delight, for this would, they silently fear, render them functionaries of pleasure rather than guardians of righteous thinking.

'Progressive' curating -- especially that incubated within cultural studies departments -- can be afflicted by an intense narcissism, where a thin line (often overstepped by the incautious or intemperate) exists between an individual's volatile identity politics and their professional credo. But curating isn't therapy.

Curating courses shouldn't serve as a sanatorium for fragile sensibilities, where obtuse critical theory distributed as medication produces a misplaced sense of infallibility. Too often, students start such courses as lively, alert citizens of the world and end up dulled parrots of ideological cant that everybody in the seminar room knows makes little sense but which nonetheless elicits nods of collective approval for fear of shattering the illusion of significance. …

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