restricted access The Past and Future of Curatorial Discourse
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The Past and Future of Curatorial Discourse
The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), by Paul O’Neill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 200 pages. $24.95 hardback.

In The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), Paul O’Neill uses cultural studies to analyze contemporary art since the 1960s. Postmodern discourse and the rejection of artistic autonomy provide the basis for his project that, at its core, examines the fate of art once it is stripped of its inherent value. Over the course of three historical case studies, O’Neill argues that the exposure of art’s institutional structures undermined artistic autonomy and the primacy of the author, resulting in the curator’s place at the center of artistic discourse. The book culls and intertwines a broad archive that includes symposia, catalogs, interviews, and ephemera and insists that the acknowledgment of the interdependence between the artwork, exhibition, and discourse challenges the values and structure of the late capitalist art market.

Most visibly, The Culture of Curating draws on Marxism and its legacy in British cultural studies for its analysis of art’s sociopolitical implications. O’Neill structures the text around three particularly contentious moments in the history of exhibition in order to show [End Page 120] the development of contemporary curatorship: the dissolution of the art object, the convergence of the global and local, and the rise of the artist-curator. This chronology begins in the 1960s, when postmodern critics and curators, including Lucy Lippard, encouraged the exposure and interrogation of the power dynamics of the art world. O’Neill rightly identifies the Marxist undertones of these methods and notes that the curatorship’s demystification not only revealed the inner workings of the practice but also foregrounded the influence of space, capital, and display on contemporary art. In particular, The Culture of Curating examines the applications of demystification and their function within the moneyed and hierarchal contemporary art market. Despite citing strong voices on both sides of the debate, O’Neill remains ambivalent about the results of curatorial visibility and argues that it encourages both dominant and oppositional practices. Raymond Williams’s “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent,” which maintains that dominant culture always includes various modes of resistance, provides the theoretical basis for this ambivalence. Williams defines emergent practices as new relationships and values that challenge the status quo and residual practices as traces from a previous period that may support or contest dominant culture. O’Neill maps William’s argument onto the history of demystification in order to explain how this practice both challenges the values of modernism and contributes to curatorial celebrity and blockbuster exhibitions.

The book’s first chapter begins in the 1920s with the Dadaists’ efforts to integrate art into everyday life and then traces this impulse from the 1960s through the 1980s, through installation art, conceptual art, and institutional critique. As O’Neill points out, these formal innovations dissolved art into the spaces of display and conflated curatorial and artistic responsibilities. During the 1960s and 1970s, the rejection of objecthood by artists such as Sol Lewitt occurred in tandem with the exposure of institutional structures by curators such as Lucy Lippard. Exhibitions including Lippard’s 557, 087 (1969) revealed the curator’s working process and directed attention toward the methods for display. Seth Siegelaub, the first curator to use the term “demystification,” frequently exhibited heavily abstracted works—such as Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series (1969)—that owed their visibility to curatorial intervention and support structures, including fliers and posters. By dismantling modernism’s veneration of visibility, universality, and autonomy, these projects contributed to a new values system in which the curator was a singularly brilliant visionary. O’Neill notes that by the 1980s, demystification retained only traces of its initial subversiveness. Instead of calling attention to the figures of [End Page 121] support behind exhibition, the absence of demystification contributed to a new stratified art market in which famous independent curators oversaw high-priced group exhibitions.

Throughout the book, O’Neill weaves together divergent critical perspectives that convey the dual impulses embedded within curatorial visibility. Drawing upon William’s “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent,” O’Neill argues...