The Pressure to Curate

Hammam offers us another thought-provoking analysis, this time about the artist-as-curator. Are our attempts as "makers" to diversify and hybridize our practice creative responses to or symptoms of the conditions of cultural production under capitalism? – Artblog Editor

Joseph Beuys I love america and america loves me
Joseph Beuys, still from “I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974.

Since the development of advanced digital technologies, the practices of cultural production, reproduction, and circulation have expanded in ways hitherto unimagined. Culture is no longer produced by an elite cadre of practitioners but is, rather, generated by a great majority of people. A significant percentage of us are in a constant state of producing and uploading images onto Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and other websites. We are perpetually commenting on current events on Twitter; we are endlessly setting up magazines and journals; and we do not stop organizing cultural events. Simply put, we embody a constant whirl of cultural activity. As the energy corporation Chevron succinctly put it in a recent advertisement, this is because “we are doers.”

This conversion of the masses into producers has, in a sense, dissolved the boundaries that once separated “artists”—understood as uniquely gifted creative subjects—and “non-artists”—those who experience the products made by artists. We live in times when the consumers are the producers. With this dissolution of the basic opposition of artist/non-artist in mind, an immediate question arises: what is an artist today? In this article, I would like to offer a set of basic reflections that respond to this question by focusing on what I take to be an increasingly visible defining characteristic of contemporary artistic activity: curatorial practice.

Cultural super-production

The cultural production of our age could be called an ‘age of cultural super-production.’ By cultural super-production, I mean something quite simple. Culture has produced an excessive amount of content, one that far exceeds even the aggregated experiences of millions of people, since a great majority of people have become creators of cultural content.


This super-production allows us to perceive what it means to be a cultural individual in contemporary advanced capitalist societies—to be an individual is to be subjugated to the command of creative productivity. You are somehow not an acculturated individual if you are not involved in the production of culture. For this reason, one could offer a rejoinder to Joseph Beuys’ famous maxim “everyone is an artist”—everyone must be an artist.

The injunction to constantly produce cultural content finds its most accomplished expression on the Internet. The Internet is the great exhibition hall, the world’s fair of the contemporary world. The only difference between the Internet and the great expositions of the mid to late nineteenth century is that there are, in some sense, no spectators in the former. Within the conditions of digital technologies of production, reproduction and distribution, we are all busy working away at our creations, leaving no cultural space for others to look and contemplate. Here we come back to our guiding question: if we are all compelled to be artists, what happens to the figure of the artist understood as something other than simply the producer of content? Indeed, what happens to art as a zone of cultural activity that is not simply subsumable to the endless machinations of creative production and reproduction?

The artist-curator

I think that recent artistic practices are increasingly conscious of this and have responded by assuming the position of the curator. Within the context of the Philadelphia artist-run spaces scene, artists are more and more leading curatorial projects, thus subsuming curatorial practices within their larger artistic practice. But what, precisely, do artist-curators do?


First, they respond to the superabundance of produced material. This can be understood as a momentary suspension of the received notion of the artist as producer. Thus, instead of producing content, the contemporary artist-curator reflects on the preexisting material. Second, they gather material through a process of selection and appropriation. From this, the artist-curator rearranges the selected material in ways that were not, perhaps, previously imagined. This rearrangement is then exhibited (online ‘Reader Advisors’ are a paradigmatic expression of this process).

There are three things to note here. First, this sorting through of material in order to produce a constellation hitherto unrealized recalls the classical image of the artist as someone who brings into existence something that did not previously exist. Second, artistic-curatorial practices are producing content determined by the conditions of super-production. Third, the issue of what animates artistic-curatorial practice remains insufficiently understood.

The first two aspects are problematic for obvious reasons. Artistic-curatorial practices are a symptom of (1) the injunction to endlessly produce, and not a critical response to it; and (2) are based on the nostalgic fixation with the figure of the artist as a creatively productive agency since what they do, at the most elementary level, is simply reproduce this age-old image (since the artist-curator essentially produces new objects and events). The third aspect is harder to grasp. In order to understand it, it is worth reflecting further on the progressively visible subsumption of curatorial practices into art practices.


Hybridity, entrepreneurship and “up-to-dateness”

We are in a historical context in which artists identify themselves as ‘hybrid’ entities. Artists do not simply paint, sculpt, or offer performances; they write criticism, organize social events, curate exhibitions, engage in political activism, etc. That is to say, the contemporary artist is a figure who occupies a multiplicity of different positions. The corollary to this is clear: the artist is irreducible to a fixed essence since it is not a social form that represents an individual but is, rather, a project caught in a constant state of flux and transformation (incidentally, this is one reason why artists increasingly identify the things they do in terms of ‘projects’–the term has an open-ended, processual feel to it that resists its reduction to a ‘thing’). Understood from this vantage point, one could say that there is nothing that limits what an artist can be or do.

Yet, hybridity is precisely what we are forced to become in an economic context that no longer promises stable working conditions. The hybrid artist who constantly expands their creative capacities resembles the contemporary entrepreneur, an agency that is constantly pushing to find new ways of representing themselves and becoming new kinds of people within a world dominated by aggressive and competitive capitalist markets. In a sense, the motivation of the artist-curator resembles the innovative entrepreneur: both are competing for recognition as dynamic individuals in a particular cultural zone. Within the context of artistic-curatorial practices, this dynamism is registered by the ability to appear up-to-date.

Here we come to a clearer sense of what animates artistic-curatorial practices. It is the constant attempt to move with the time and, therefore, to not be swallowed up by it, that directs artistic-curatorial practices. This attempt to be “up-to-date” is evidenced in the topical thematic of artistic-curatorial projects (again, ‘Reader Advisors’ are a clear example of this). If something garners a lot of attention at the level of cultural production, artistic-curatorial practices respond by providing basic reflections of the topicality of a social phenomenon. This is a rather paradoxical gesture as it seems to want to both detach itself from the superabundant productive flow of culture in the age of digital production and to contribute to it via its very mechanisms of production. Under these conditions, the artistic subsumption of curatorial work is simply folded into cultural super-production. Thus, it is not different from contemporary cultural practices since both are ultimately caught under the pressure to perform, produce, and curate.

The unresolved problem

Where does this leave us? I think that the whole issue of what constitutes artistic practice needs to be raised to the level of critical analysis. That is to say, what needs to be addressed is the issue of what artists do, understood from the standpoint of the specific context in which they are active. For us, this context is the cultural arena of super-production. More importantly, the figure of the artist needs to be comprehended as an unresolved, openly contested problem and not as a codified, elastic cultural position that simply sets to work producing cultural objects, situations, and projects without a strong sense of what necessitates the production.

Understood in the latter sense, artists are simply reduced to the most basic level of a worker operating in capitalism. In other words, they are mimetically reduced to an entity limited to a single dimension: to sell its capacity to work. The great irony is, of course, that the process of hybridization does not solve the problem of our reduction to one-dimensional working entities, but is a symptom of the reality of the subsumption of our activities to endless work. The constant pressure to produce is simply the culturally codified pressure to constantly work.

I believe that it is the task of artists to begin to open up the very idea of what an artist is and, crucially, what they “do” if it is to be distinguished from the universalist “doing” that is being crystallized by the multinational corporations that structure current monopoly capitalism.