February 23, 2003 12:52 | Culture

Mediocrity in art, and curators.

Mark Federman, again, commenting on some ideas by Steve Mann about mediocrity in the arts:

Steve says:

Many traditional curators love mediocre artists, because they provide an intellectually blank canvas upon which they can paint their curatorial and philosophical discourses. Especially loved are groups of mediocre artists, who share a sufficiently shallow vision (or no vision at all), such that the curatorial creativity shines through. Often we also see a mixture of mediocre living artists, put together with famous dead artists. The famous dead artists don't challenge our intellect because their art is so well known, that it no longer surprises us or makes us think anymore than when presented with the works of mediocre living artists. Thus a curatorial canvas may be painted from the cliche colors of the dead, overlaid with light and fluffy hues of the living limp. As a result, none of the artists really makes us stop and think. Instead, we are struck by the profoundness of the curator's vision in putting together these mind-numbing artists in a creative new way.

And Mark opines:

In an interesting fashion, the curator is a performance artist, whose media include the art itself, the physical environment of the showing, and (in the case of a particularly "cool" exhibition) the audience.


I'm currently planning (with a group of students) to mount an exhibit on The Black Sparrow Press, in the Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. This is John Martin's Westcoast Alternative Press (the man who discovered, among others, Charles Bukowski). The university holds a fair bulk of the Black Sparrow Press Archive's early publications. One thing I've learned is that how one puts together the materials to be exhibited will certainly condition or license the viewers' immediate response. Different codes altogether are at work when a curator gets involved. But, to respond to your entry. I'm not sure whether the idea that "the famous dead artists don't challenge our intellect because their art is so well known" holds much weight. Contentious, to be sure, and at the very least provocative if not annoying. Where is the curator without the artist, I wonder? Isn't the curator a sort of archivist? And in order to have an archive you must have a collection of art, from artists who, most often than not, have been very dead for a very long time, no? Has it become *THAT* "sexy," "contemporary," and "post-modern" to consider artists of the past as objects of historical curiosity? Who's becoming more cacademic, I wonder.

2- Boris Anthony

First of all, best of luck in this endeavor! Sounds great!.

I think the key word was "FAMOUS dead artists", connotating "artists whose work(s) are widely 'known' and have entered the public consciousness", essentially becoming little more than clich√ąd pop-cultural soundbytes.

As for curators, the idea being thatthey act in much the same way as a DJs (and electronic/techno/turntablists/etc musicians do today: drawing from an archive of work and through their craft presenting the material in a way not presented necessarily before. If you read Mark's comments on his site, he speaks of conductors. Being in my 20's i speak of Djs. Same diff.

You yourself in your craft of writing draw upon the full resources of the western literary heritage. Are you not also just remixing the words of the past into a version crafted from your being? Aren't we all.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

But finally, the point here was the mediocrity factor. I have heard mediocre DJs, and I've heard pure genius.


Thanks for clarifying, B. But it stands that we have a bone to pick with each other. Yes, I have--not unlike my peers and my friends inside and outside the academy--been brought up in the Western-Great-White-Dead-Man Tradition, but that's where it ends. We are not all robots, who regurgitate and speak tautologies. And not all of us have taken this so-called tradition as the hallmark of a particularly blessing education. Not all of us are fully weternized, B, despite what you may think in today's historiographical fiction that is modern nationalistic paranoia. And, of course, I apologize if I believe that figures like, say, Blake or Wordsworth, are still worth reading. And on that note...hm...I think you should explain yourself. What exactly do you mean by "Western"? I think you can open this up to discussion. ;)

4- Boris Anthony

Hehehe. N, first of all I attach no moral postion to my use of the label "Western". Furthermore, the aforementioned label is hardly appropriate anymore anyways, since it has lost it's geographic "marking" due to the fact that one is taught "Western" "culture" everywhere inthe world nowadays. (What constitues "western" and "culture" can of course be debated.)

NOW, my only (ONLY) point is that one's expression of one's experience is forcibly shaped by and influenced (and often directly so) by one's experience. If that experience includes Blake, Wordsworth or Homer Simpson (and in both our cases it's "and" and not "or"), then forcibly our expression WILL contain at least refrences, if not out-and-out quotes ("regurgitation").

I, like you, dislike regurgitation (did we not have this conversation 10 years ago?), but consider this:
When sharing one's experience of say The Simpsons, one MUST quote directly. Pop-culture is all about the quick-fix, no-bullshit, no-having-to-read-between-the-lines, "give it to me straight Doc". In "intellectual circles" (bleh), this is of course in bad taste and does not in anyway demonstrate your undertsanding of the experience (which is of course far more important).

Consider the impact on culture as a whole then, when the meaning is all but lost to most and denigrated as a second-class citizen of human experience, and the method is carrying itself along, parading as the lord and master.

Substitute "meaning" with "message", "method" with "medium" and go read this.

Just a quick post to add fuel to the fire on the subject of this concept of the "Western" tradition. I will begin by recounting an experience of mine from not so long ago ...

I was playing a game of Trivial Pursuit (a bastion of cultural bias) with some friends from university. It was the "North American Genus edition" and I cannot be sure that its contents are repeated the world over. Anyway, my team received the following question ... "Which country is known as the Cradle of Civilization?" - Now, being somewhat of a dilettante of ancient society and culture, I immediately, without consulting my fellow team members, shouted out "Mesopotamia!" in full expectation of receiving a slice of pie for my erudition. Not least because I own a book called "The Cradle of Civilization" about the Mesopotamian area. However, to my dismay the answer upon the card was ... Greece.

Now I know that for most people "Greece" would be their immediate response. Indeed, the other people at the party laughed at me because I study Classics (Greek language and culture etc). But as far as I am concerned, Greece was a backwater when the first cities were built. They were scrabbling about in the mud when the Sumerians (or possibly the Elamites) were inventing the complex cuneiform written language that was later rendered from a syllabic into an alphabetic script by the Phoenicians. These same Phoenicians then brought this alphabet to the Greeks - who had by this time developed a syllabic script of their own (Linear B), which they had been using for book-keeping, not poetry!

Anyway, apart from showing that knowledge is harmful to your chances of winning at Trivial Pursuit. I want to show how "Western" society is reliant on more than "European" culture. Indeed the above-mentioned link to the area we are on the point of bombing the hell out of is only a small part of a greater tradition, of almost global proportions (talking of bombing the hell out of Mesopotamia, did anyone tell the Americans they are about to bomb the "Garden of Eden?" Just a thought ...).

For example, the languages that we speak are all derived from (Proto) Indo-European. A proto-language that has been repeatedly proven to be the root of language (and culture) from the Celtic/Gaelic tongues of Ireland to the Vedic hymns in Sanskrit in India, and which even spread further afield as Tocharian A and B (now lost) both of which were spoken in the western steppes of China.

Also, as B mentioned this evening as we chatted at the bar, "Western" culture's basis of logic and scientific thought are thanks to the Persians and Arabs who thankfully preserved the works of Aristotle and Pythagoras et al. and even developed their ideas to new levels. This in turn enabled the European Renaissance upon their reintroduction to the "Western" Canon.

All this to say, "Western" culture is a bit of a moot term. Can someone tell me - What exactly are we "West" of?