The Heckler

The Heckler: Curators were once donnish scholars. Now they’re hip illiterates

Jonathan Meades sees today’s growing curatocracy as a ‘conspiracy against the laity’

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

As a purveyor of lairy souvenirs Venice outdoes even Lourdes. The scores of shops and booths that peddle this lagoonal kitsch are manned by graduates of hard-sell whose market-barker schtick does not need to include descriptions as their goods are self-explanatory.

Every other year they coexist with a different sort of operation: the galleries, ateliers, showrooms and studios of the Biennale. And with them an ever-burgeoning cadre of soft-sell operatives, who compose the hieratic order of the curatocracy. There is no piece of approximate art or workshopped event that cannot be curated just as there is no foodstuff that cannot be sourced. At a recent ‘ideas festival’, I was enjoined to participate in a curated walk round a small town. I resisted temptation, sourced a packet of crisps in a vending machine and ate them on a platform at Ipswich station.

When, over a century ago, G.B. Shaw accused them of being ‘conspiracies against the laity’, the professions were the law, the church and medicine. Whatever their practitioners claimed, all other endeavours were still trades. Not that it really matters. Once a trade develops its own mores, patois, rites, sartorial code and forms of indenture, it pretends to the characteristics of those original learned professions: exclusive, impregnable, self-important, impasted with bogus tradition, in love with its own pinchbeck arcana and gimcrack mysteries. It can safely be said that the curating malarky has achieved all this and more.

Curators were, till a generation or so ago, urbane historians of the renaissance or donnish scholars of the Beaker people. The dusty smell of muniments rooms hung about them. Today they are — well, what are they? Achingly hip neophiliacs who have mastered the peculiar illiteracy that comes from having been the willing victims of critical theory, cultural studies and art history, which, as we all know, begins with Duchamp — and ends with him too. Where once museums and galleries were repositories of what already existed, they have mutated into stores of stuff commissioned by their amply funded curators who impose their pensée unique upon a public too timid to protest that this is a load of balls. That taste is of course avant garde — the thoroughly conventionsalised, institutionalised art of the establishment.

Curators have moved from the passive to the active. From being receptive to what is actually made to being controlling. From accepting random expressions of individual creativity that belong to no ‘school’ to proposing taxonomies and ordering up ‘site-specific’ works: where creation ends and curation begins is moot. The spectre of ‘collaboration’ looms. And so, too, does that of the century-old modernism and the anti-establishment posturing that is de rigueur throughout the establishment. This consensual frivolity is, of course, taken seriously; there can be no more damning proof than the risibly self-important language that the curatocracy employs to explain installations so mute they are meaningless. It is, laughably, called ‘art writing’: ‘…on the one hand cultural productions are symptomatic of these relations, while on the other analytic of them — having the potential of intervention and critique, again with a specific placement and angle, or, if you will, method of intervention and mode of address.’

No. Me neither. Curator shall speak unto curator.

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  • Dr Bock

    Huge fan of Mr Meades, probably fair enough to say that these new ‘professions’ take on the hypocrises of those they purport to despise and, in fact, excel at emulating.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Rename the poncy buggers as curates, that should finish ’em off.

    • Frank Marker

      Don’t you mean curators?

      • Christopher Matthew

        I hope he meant curates

        • Glyn Thompson

          Once upon a time curation meant ‘cure of the soul’: hence “curate”.

          • Christopher Matthew

            I know this, as in the Cure d’Ars.
            Forgive my somewhat anti-clerical humour. 😉

  • Only a highly decadent society could fritter its resources in this way.

  • Simon de Lancey

    I’m saddened by the “cartoon” at the head of the article. Whatever has happened to Heath?

    • Newton Unthank

      Heath has always been rubbish. Scratchy, childish, talentless scrawls.

  • elystan

    Quis curate ipsos curatores?

    • Perseus Slade


    • justejudexultionis


  • Dr. Heath

    The Daily Mash, perhaps the world’s greatest on-line purveyor of opinion and news, has its own article on this and it’s come to much the same conclusion. Curators are embarrassingly pretentious people aching to be cool, aching, I sense, to sprout unkempt jihadi-ist beards [gender permitting], and to talk about all aspects of culture as though they actually know or care about them. Does The Guardian have a special section in its vacancies column catering for the ’employment wants’ of curators?

  • Precambrian

    This is just yet more job-title inflation; like sales reps call themselves “managers”, or cleaners calling themselves “hygiene executives”.

    Part of the general decay of language that we also see in “meaning creep” and spin; seen in everything from politics to the leaving of secondary school being marked by a “graduation”.

  • Henry Hill

    An accusation of a conspiracy against the laity written in The Spectator and using words such as ‘hieratic’ & ‘muniments’? Mud-slinger shall speak unto mud-slinger. If you’re trying to communicate an idea, why not communicate it in its simplest terms? Does the real value of this piece lie in its intellectual masturbation than its central charge?

  • orkneylad

    Applause etc!