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Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011) is an attempt to work through a question about the possible connection between cruelty and the production of knowledge. Is there an inherent link between learning and trauma, or is their coincidence merely that, occurring where it may (or may not)? Through artistic practices high and low (from Marina Abramović to Jackass), Nelson grapples with the effects representations of violence, working through the different ways these kinds of images can be made productive for those who come upon them, by choice or not. In her reckoning, she offers some choice criticisms about the hubris of the idea of an artist bestowing knowledge upon their audience. “I’d much rather the artist be thinking about his or her own experience than trying to micromanage mine,” she declares, for “the desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making, one that underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers, and overestimates that of most artists” (109, 116).

So much curatorial writing around art does just this, preaching the effects on an audience of an encounter with a work instead of drawing out what it meant for a curator to encounter the work initially. I know I am guilty of this, using the “we” instead of the “I,” of generalizing outward, of making assumptions about what an instance of looking can yield. But what would my writing look like if I were to shift the frame of consequence from an imagined audience to my own body? Part of the resistance is to deny the ego or self-centredness of speaking about artworks through my specific experience. As a curator, the idea is to move the experience of a constellation of works, first felt deeply in privacy, out to others, but does this mean to literally situate looking from my seat of experience? Or, in Nelson’s terms, how can the curator remain humble about how their framing might resonate with viewers while simultaneously not attempting to predetermine the very same experiences viewers might actually have? Because the thing is, those frames–exhibitions–are very very deliberate. The conceit is that the context encourages the works to be read a certain way. But maybe the solution is to somehow incorporate the actual experience of the show back into the curatorial texts, so that, let’s say, there is an essay that accompanies the closing of a show that somehow reflects on how the work was experienced by gallery visitors. What might an investment in this type of recuperation look like? What kind of changes in the curator’s understanding of how the work functions, from opening to closing, could be mapped? And might this information be useful in understanding any of the works themselves?

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4 thoughts on “

  1. Pingback: Thinking about not looking | Gabrielle Moser Projects and Things

  2. JW says:

    i think you *have to* shift the frame of reference from an imagined audience to your own experience, but quietly and without any personal ego. to do otherwise is completely presumptuous and crazy. i very strongly disagree with it and i think it is a dangerous game of ego stroking and un-neccessary masturbatory theory word play that has nothing to do with the work and everything to do with the curator’s ideas about the work, which interest me the least.

    i think it is important to remember the traditional role of curator, not these new roles and protracted definitions that have been institutionally forced into frame, but the job of curator in traditional practice and literal definition. the focus should always be on clearly presenting and caring for the work[s] and the artist. to me the best curation is silent and invisible, and the artists’ ideas are most important. i haven’t read maggie nelson. but i don’t think it is hubris to consider that of course, the artist is communicating to some kind of imagined audience. because the imagining of that possible audience is vast and varied, and usually happens obliquely and over much time, so the message and its interpretations are vast and varied. obviously the artist is thinking about his own experience by creating the work in the first place, that doesn’t mean that he is also trying to micromanage the experience of others by doing so.

    and, of course the exhibition is deliberate. but i don’t think the framing should encourage the works to be read in a “certain way”, but rather highlight and play with different threads of the ideas in many ways, as many ways as possible. in this way the “body” of the curator has to be as open as possible, think in as varied a way as possible, and blank as a new canvas. curation should be present, but with a most open mind, a very light hand, no assumptions, and resonate only clearly and very quietly, gently. if it is not, the open web of possible thought becomes obfuscated with the presence of another’s signage and idea mongering. that feels like a kind of violence to me. i strongly dislike any writing accompanying shows unless it is written by the artist[s]. but if there the curator must write an essay to accompany a show, it should not be presented at the show, but presented as something completely separate from the show, or presented during a talk perhaps, and only after the opening, if the curator must have a platform to discuss their own thoughts and how they wanted them to affect others or believe they did affect others. collecting thoughts from audience members is a more interesting endeavor, and the information gleaned could be possibly useful in understanding the works, though perhaps the actual collection of clear and honest thoughts is more difficult to execute.

    • Juliann, I think you are saying that the totality of an artwork’s meaning is derived from the artist’s intentions and ideas about what their work means. But how do you account for context then?

      Have you ever seen a show where the curatorial frame added to your experience of the works comprising the show?

      And do you think an artwork’s meaning is wholly determined by an artist at the time of its making? Why are the artist’s ideas about their work more important than other people’s ideas, be it a curator or gallery visitor?

      In the historical sense of the caretaking curator, they were still arbiters of taste. How do you suggest a curator take responsibility for the power embedded in their postion if not by trying to approach curating ethically, (which I understand as the opposite of silent and invisible, though both those strategies could be utilized in service of ethics, given a particular situation that called for as much)?

  3. Pingback: Thinking about not looking | Gabrielle Moser

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