Curating and crimes or the critics as Narcissus
Suggested soundtrack for the reading SPOTIFY.
It has been said, and people who devote themselves to this applaud it, that curating is the new criticism1. We could not disagree more. The two activities are radically different. Critiques, in their real and credible version, unmanipulated and fearless, can be negative or positive provided they do not embrace absurd fawning2 and flatter readers with pretty words about someone or something. Critiques should show a clear commitment to society, and depend only on the criterion of the critic and on the critic alone. Curators meanwhile do not have the same freedom. Although in principle their work could be understood as much more pleasant, focused simply on selecting what is interesting and spared from having to cope with troublesome negative critiques. We should not forget that curators are beholden much more to their audiences than to the institution hiring them. Curators should therefore take many more interests into account, both when they curate exhibitions, debates or events of any sort, and when drafting a text or a publication about what they have curated.
Criticism in architecture magazines, as has often been mentioned, has long ago abandoned any glimmer of criticism. It now goes no further than weeding out the good and duly justify itself by explaining that there is no need to waste time on the misguided and non-substantial works. We want to highlight here than neither film or literature critics have chosen such scantly engaged paths. As in literature, where the sheer number of books makes it impossible for there to be space for all of them to have a critique printed in the newspaper –a friend who works in the culture section of a national newspaper recently told us this – selections tend to include the best works of new writers, and, be they better or worse, all of the works of acclaimed authors which is what any reader expects from authors who have already earned their prestige. In film, because the production is far less vast, everything is subject to being critiqued at least in a few lines and be blessed or cursed by the critic.
Unfortunately, the same does not hold for architecture, where in many cases criticism is non-existent, while in others it is taken as personal. This makes the work of curators all the more important. Curators merely have to take care in selecting and celebrating the best of the best.
Is it then impossible for curators to make a mistake and receive criticism for the work just as critics receive criticism when they publically express negative opinions? Naturally. Again, the selecting and editing process is a screening or critique in and of itself where what may indeed be of interest is left out for being less interesting than what was selected. Curators, then, are also subject to making judgements and will not only receive applause from those that they have selected but may also be criticised for the criteria they use and the results of their selections.
Sometimes we as curators suffer from what we will call the Narcissus effect, the merely natural tendency to judge or value the work of others and take interest in them based on what is more akin and well known. Therefore, we see the beauty of our own work reflected in other similar work done by others who we are friends with or admire and who in a sense belong to our immediate surroundings.
The Narcissus effect even appears in panels and awards, in critiques and in curating alike, without us realising it. Avoiding its contagion is difficult but not impossible. In order to understand the notion of strong misreading it may be helpful to understand that it can also be applied in the opposite direction, in other words panels and curators can also make the wrong judgements of their own work, in directions and towards places that are far from their own practice. This enables them to overcome the inevitable first loves that Harold Bloom mentioned in the weak poets when referring to young poet’s forerunners and models who they inevitably emulate before finding their own voice and becoming strong poets. Otherwise, prize-winners in one way or another would look as much like those who select or judge them as Narcissus looks like his image in the lake.