It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment.
Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey
If there are three things that any education can help foster—methodology, discourse and networks—curating programmes typically offer only the latter two.
What is curatorial research? And what is a curatorial methodology? I founded the Curatorial Practice PhD at Monash University in 2014. Though new and at the time unprecedented in Australia, it is entirely modelled on the Fine Art PhD, which is now offered by more than two dozen courses in this country. And so these questions were put to me repeatedly. They often felt bewildering, the result of putting the square peg of curating into the round hole of academia. Curating’s entry into academia was an awkward and artificial event, but I believe this event continues to have tremendous potential, and I hope to tease out its implications and possible paths forward in the essay that follows.
As a graduate student in the United States I took a whopping four classes on art historical methods. The purpose of such classes is to introduce you to a field of knowledge that comprises a discipline, the logic being that in order to join a conversation mid-sentence, it’s best to know what’s already been said. It’s intended as a mapping, however abbreviated, of a territory new to the initiate. As this mapping occurs, it’s possible to begin to think your own commitments, and to locate your own position, within this field. This process could, and should, take a lifetime.
For five years, I’ve taught in the Research Methods coursework units at Monash, which are a requirement of postgraduate study. When I began teaching into these classes, artists pursuing higher degrees were taught a history of method, or historiography, that was appropriated wholesale from art history. Because of my own training in art history, listening to lectures by art historians Anne Marsh and Luke Morgan that limned the history of the discipline through its most notable protagonists was like putting on a well-worn coat, both familiar and comforting.
Giorgio Vasari’s biographical model; Giovanni Morelli’s connoisseurship; Heinrich Wölfflin’s period style, indebted to Hegel; Erwin Panofsky’s search for meaning through iconology; the challenges to the discipline put forward in the 1970s by the social history of art of T.J. Clark (and before, him, Meyer Schapiro), psychoanalysis, semiotics, structuralism and poststructuralism and the deep and continuing influence of theory has gone on for several decades now. This naturally includes the broader cultural context demanded by “visual studies” in the 1980s; and the levelling of the canon by discourses that insist on cultural identity and difference, including feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism and now decolonisation.
More recently, the discipline has had to contend with two major, related developments: the wild success of contemporary art, which has resulted in what is paradoxically called contemporary art history, and the emergence of dozens of curatorial practice MA programs around the globe, located not within the hallowed halls of university art history departments, but often within art schools. Curatorial practice’s entry into academia, which began in the late 1980s but gained real traction since the turn of the millennium, has troubled the discipline in productive ways, by collapsing the distance between object (or now, increasingly, artist) and art historian (or curator); by widening its frame to include the many institutions and infrastructures of art, from the museum to the biennial to that amorphous subject, the art world itself; and by writing a nascent history of exhibitions, not just artworks.
Yet the difficulty with “method” in academia, no matter the discipline, is that it has become a knee-jerk response to intellectual inquiry; an often unexamined, unquestioned means by which a research project is deemed suitably academic. It has consolidated, for students and teachers, into a few rutted pathways for how to go about a university degree. Such calcification of method, and method as a calcifying agent, was glimpsed by art historians Margaret Iverson and Stephen Melville, who write in their text “What’s the Matter with Methodology?” that “one of the major costs has been the reduction of all forms of theoretical reflection on art history to matters of ‘method’.”
Indeed, they recognise that the stubborn myopia of a focus on method has left art history (and, I would argue, other disciplines) with a “distinctly impoverished sense of its own possibilities”. What other possibilities have been occluded by such a relentless focus on method within creative practice? What lines of inquiry have been set aside, what alliances left unexplored, what forms of world making and unmaking have been neglected? Which weak stories need to be stronger? And which strong stories need to be weaker, as Donna Haraway once put it?
In October of 2009, the curator and writer Maria Lind published a one page statement in Artforum on “the curatorial,” which marked the first time the curatorial, as distinct from curating, was formalised as a term. Lind was in the midst of a short tenure as Director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, just north of New York City. Curatorial education was then very much on her mind. Lind was not the only curator or educator to use the term during this time, but she would go on to promote the curatorial in subsequent years, reiterating and reinforcing the term in public lectures, interviews, and published texts.
Her efforts paid off, as the curatorial became the preferred nomenclature for advanced curatorial activity occurring in and being theorised mostly in Europe, in what are essentially small and narrow but influential circles. Though Lind has since become ambivalent about curatorial education, the theorisation of the curatorial notably emerged from curatorial practice programs, and the positioning of the curatorial as a methodology, for Lind, or a philosophy, for Jean-Paul Martinon and Irit Rogoff, who co-founded the Curatorial/Knowledge PhD at Goldsmiths, motivated by a need to legitimise curating’s operations within its new academic setting.
Within this discourse, the curatorial was often ascribed its own subjectivity, its own agency. “At its best,” Lind writes, “the curatorial is a viral presence that strives to create friction and push new ideas, whether from curators or artists, educators or editors.” This is indeed the rhetoric of method: psychoanalysis interrogates subjectivity, consciousness, and desire; feminism critiques subject and object relations as they inhere at sites including the body and the gaze; poststructuralism exposes the motivated constructedness, rather than essentialism, of enlightenment and humanist values, and so on.
One of my teachers, Michael Ann Holly, taught me that the methods of art history were developed in a very different cultural milieu than the one in which we find ourselves today—some dating from over a hundred years ago. As such, they are deeply bound to their moment, and may not always suit our own—not only that, but they might suit the newly emerging discipline of curatorial practice even less. Darby English, who also taught me, once expressed the wild thought that concepts have lifespans, a riff on Nietzsche’s query into where our concepts come from.
The “Curatorial” and “Method” are two concepts that have a great deal of currency in our current moment, though they have their lifespans, too—some would say the curatorial, and curatorial education, are waning after a spectacular waxing over the past decade. But curatorial education could well become a home for some of the wildest and most extraordinary antidisciplinary lines of flight creative researchers are capable of undertaking right now—if not a place of enlightenment, then the curatorial could at least become a place of refuge within the university.
The PhD has traditionally been a training program for academia, specifically for professors. If it is freed from serving that purpose, then what should it do? The Curatorial Practice PhD at Monash, like the Fine Art PhD on which it is modelled, is practice-based. When I founded it five years ago, I envisioned a spectrum of projects from book-length dissertations to experimental or propositional projects in the field. I was interested in this program becoming a repository for two kinds of projects: a critical space for innovative or radical curatorial models, or scholarly work around exhibitions or politics of display.
I wanted to create spaces for retreat, to allow slippages from institutional research into what Stephan Dillemuth calls “bohemian research.” I wanted more and more thorough histories of regional exhibitions and spaces. I wanted this program to become known for allowing projects to develop that might not be supported by other institutions. Some of these things we’ve accomplished, and others not. Instead, I’ve increasingly had to think outside of art, or to art’s adjacencies, because that’s where the interests of my students increasingly lie. Many of them aren’t interested in art history, art theory or art criticism.
I’m not always certain they’re interested in art. Not only do they not seem to require disciplinary knowledge or a historiography of art history, but many of them don’t seem obligated to map a historiography of their own emerging discipline as curatorial practice. I see the landscape before me as symptomatic. It is, of course, one of the purest pleasures of being a teacher—attempting to recognise and articulate something you don’t yet understand. I’m not at all opposed to dispensing with most curatorial discourse, to be honest. It often feels like it has no grip, so vaguely smooth and blandly politically correct are its critical surfaces.
But rather than locate oneself within the disciplinary home of the curatorial, today’s curator increasingly finds herself operating more like a bricoleur, piecing together a wholly individualised theory of the world from the entirety of human (and, increasingly, nonhuman) knowledge, not bound by fences and free to manoeuvre according to a heady brew of personal formation, accidental encounter, and a new brand of identity politics. She is an expert in nothing more than her own line of flight. Not unrelated, I would wager, is the turn in Research Methods at Monash away from the mapping of art historical methods I outlined above in favour of a sampling of guest speakers, each modelling an individuated practice of research.
These are curating’s opposing tendencies. On the one hand, what curating should do is expand, move outward, become decentralised, antidisciplinary, non-hierarchical, deprofessionalised, and involve encounters with those from other fields. On the other hand, curating is sorely in need of more attention to art. It needs more hands‑on training with art, and how art behaves in a spatial context. It should be more, not less, specialised. It should take more, not less, care towards artworks. It should give more, not less attention, to artists.
Rather than impose a set of curatorial methods like a “disciplinary bazaar” on offer, a toolbox from which the curatorial student might pick and choose, I want to support both tendencies within curatorial education, in all their particularity and idiosyncrasy.I’m aware of the dangers inherent in choosing this path, and not entirely certain I can avoid them: that we might lose sight entirely of a cohesive picture of the “curatorial” within the very place, the university, that one arrives precisely to learn what the “curatorial” is. I find myself seeking solidarity with Irit Rogoff, and what she might call the singularising of knowledge, and Jack Halberstam, and what he might call the antidisciplinary.
Rogoff argues for an academia that insists on, and even protects, the imperative “that each project needs to develop its own methodology and its own structure”. Halberstam who is very much aligned with epistemologies of the undercommons, articulated by Moten and Harney and cited in this essay’s epigraph, writes powerfully that “knowledge practices that refuse both the form and the content of traditional canons may lead to unbounded forms of speculation, modes of thinking that ally not with rigor and order but with inspiration and unpredictability”. Halberstam’s argument for antidisciplinarity is an argument for granular storytelling, unruly narratives, for scholars seeking that which falls outside of or is illegible within systems of institutional classification—of which the university is one of the biggest and baddest.
Indeed, as my friend and colleague Helen Hughes put it, the Curatorial Practice PhD could be a litmus test for the kind of experimentation that is still possible within a university context. What should curatorial education do in the next five years, if not consolidate its methods? In recent years, we have witnessed a rise of authoritarianism alongside an increasing precarity for the most socially, economically and racially vulnerable among us. The former condition gathers strength by eroding social support for the latter, bonds long thought to be fundamental to democracy, not to mention our sense of equality and responsibility to one another. Not for nothing do we continue to return to the work of one of the last century’s great critics of fascism, Hannah Arendt, whose The Origins of Totalitarianism has experienced a resurgent popularity in these debilitating times.
With a planet in crisis and a sixth mass extinction currently underway, these conditions are likely to remain with us. We now need to chart the philosophical, ecological, and infrastructural terrain of a curatorial ethics for a warming planet. The word curator, as curatorial discourse repeats like a mantra, derives from the Latin verb curare, or to care for. I believe more and more that curators need to take seriously this duty of care, and I offer as a model and provocation what Arendt called, simply and vastly, amor mundi, or love for the world. With the increasing power, authorial voice, and sheer numbers of curators, abetted by the proliferation of contemporary art worldwide, it’s become even more urgent to ask what a code of conduct might be for this art worker, particularly when they are trained within an academic institution that offers, if not enlightenment, then refuge.
What institutional futures need imagining by the curator, and can be supported within the university? What models of art world degrowth need to be developed? What curatorial and artistic propositions for alternative social and environmental bonds need nourishing? What new relations of time, labour, family, domesticity, neighbourliness, and differently abled subjectivities need visibility? Rather than research methodologies, let’s call it, with Arendt, with Roland Barthes, Robert Duncan, and Chela Sandoval, falling in love. One of my students, Camila Marambio, introduced me to Sandoval’s extraordinary book, Methodology of the Oppressed. It was published in 2000, at a moment when methodology had not become as rigid as it is today, and scholars like Sandoval still spoke of a “postmodern world”.
The methodology of the oppressed is a method that seeks another way—what she calls “a hermeneutics toward love, a cosmopolitics for dissidence”. For Sandoval, Barthes’s “evocation of ‘falling in love’ summons up an alternative mode of being, not consciousness in its usual mode, but not unconsciousness either”. Instead, falling in love allows us to glimpse another consciousness, what Sandoval calls a differential or oppositional consciousness. Or, as American poet Robert Duncan once described the realisation prompted by his first encounter with the poet H.D., a moment not unlike falling in love: “I must be, the world must be, something more various and full, having more of flux and experience than the immediate terms of achievement around me disclosed”.
It is precisely in the moment of falling in love that we can break free from the strictures of hegemonic interpellations of how to be, how to act, how to speak, how to know—or, as it’s known in academia, method.
- ^ Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 26.
- ^ Maria Lind, quoted from an interview with Christy Lange, “Look & Learn”, Frieze 141, September 2011.
- ^ Margaret Iverson and Stephen Melville, “What’s the Matter with Methodology?” in Writing Art History: Disciplinary Departures, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 2–3.
- ^ See for example Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012; Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013; Beatrice von Bismarck (ed.), Cultures of the Curatorial, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.
- ^ Maria Lind, “The Curatorial”, Artforum 48, October 2009, p. 103.
- ^ Iverson and Melville, p. 7.
- ^ Irit Rogoff, “Practicing Research: Singularising Knowledge”, MaHKUzine #9, Summer 2010, p. 39.
- ^ Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, p. 10.
- ^ Robert Duncan, “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife,” in Collected Essays and Other Prose, James Maynard (ed.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, p. 222.
- ^ 10 Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 156.
- ^ Ibid., p. 144.
- ^ Robert Duncan in Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman (eds), The H.D. Book, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 43.
Tara McDowell is Associate Professor and Founding Director of Curatorial Practice at Monash University. She curated John Baldessari: Wall Painting, for MADA Gallery, Monash University in 2017 and the University of Queensland Art Museum in 2019. Publications include “John Baldessari’s Punishment Piece”, in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art (19:1) and The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess, MIT Press, 2019.