Before undertaking to curate the weekly word play content, allow me to dispense (for the very last time, I promise) with a wee bit of housekeeping.
From the advent of this column a little over a year ago, I’ve richly enjoyed mercilessly roasting its namesake with relentless weekly rhetoric.
“Shane’s Excellent New Words” also will be a regular feature at NA Confidential. That’s because a healthy vocabulary isn’t about trying to show you’re smarter than the rest. To the contrary, it’s about selecting the right word and using it correctly, whatever one’s pay grade or station in life.
To clarify for those who haven’t heard the story, the idea for this column arose when the city of New Albany’s corporate council tweeted (or maybe it was a Facebook comment, redolent of pique and crayon) to the effect that when Roger uses “big” words, it’s just to show he’s smarter then the rest.
Nah, but consider the source. When you’re suckling at the bond-engorged teat of the taxpayer, there are times when you can’t be bothered to think clearly.
Meanwhile, I’ve grown bored (not board, mind you) with the polemical device, so while the column name stays, the weekly prelude goes.
This week’s word is curate. At first, it may seem that the word’s noun and verb usages are different.
[noun kyoo r-it; verb kyoo-reyt, kyoo r-eyt]
1. Chiefly British. a member of the clergy employed to assist a rector or vicar.
2. any ecclesiastic entrusted with the cure of souls, as a parish priest.
verb (used with object), curated, curating.
3. to take charge of (a museum) or organize (an art exhibit): to curate a photography show.
4. to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation, as music or website content: “We curate our merchandise with a sharp eye for trending fashion,” the store manager explained.
It all makes sense considering the word’s origins in “care.” Both curate and curator can be said to be showing care, whether for people or things.
Origin of curate
1300-50; Middle English curat (< Anglo-French) < Medieval Latin cūrātus, equivalent to Latin cūr (a) care + -ātus -ate1
Related forms include curatic and curatical as adjectives, and the nouns curateship, curation and subcurate.
Speaking locally, a few years ago when City Hall unleashed Boomtown Ball on an unsuspecting downtown, the press release mentioned the fact of the band Houndmouth’s role in “curating” other participating musical acts. This marked the first time I’d heard the word used in this (shall we say, “contemporary”) context, apart from the more familiar description of museum organization.
From this evolution comes a relatively new usage, curatolatry. Writer Thomas Frank takes it from here.
The Revolution Will Not Be Curated, by Thomas Frank (The Baffler)
Making sense of curatolatry
“The era of the curator has begun,” declared the prominent art critic Michael Brenson in 1998. The figures who assembled artworks into galleries, he reasoned, were now “as essential” to exhibits as the artists themselves. Curators were a species of universal genius who “must be at once aestheticians, diplomats, economists, critics, historians, politicians, audience developers, and promoters,” Brenson wrote. “They must be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders, business executives, and heads of state.” And what a curator “welcomes or excludes” is what makes all the difference.
Whatever else we might think of this assertion, it was certainly prescient. Today the era of the curator is in full flower. The contemporary literature about the heroic organizer of exhibitions is large and enthusiastic, with adulatory new installments added all the time. In 2006, a prominent art writer saw a generation of bold young curators “armed with a vision of possibility and an image of the curator as a free agent, capable of almost anything.” In 2012, the New York Times marveled at the growing number of “programs in curating studies” and at how certain curators established themselves as “star names” in the art world.
Brightest among these stars, without a doubt, is one Hans Ulrich Obrist, a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the author of Ways of Curating and A Brief History of Curating, and the closest thing there is to an art-world superstar these days, his every taste-quirk fawned over by the press.
But it is in the broad world outside museum culture where the phenomenon we might call curatolatry (as in the worship of curation and curators) is really booming. Everyone wants to curate things these days—to choose what to welcome and what to exclude—whether they work for an art gallery or not. “Curator,” for example, is the name of a PR agency in Seattle. “Curate” is the name of at least four different software applications. “Curate” is a data-gathering firm based in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a kind of flavored water available at a grocery store near you. It’s also a brand of snack bars, whose maker explains the name as follows: “Curate means to bring things together to share them as a collection.”
Those who work with food are especially prone to thinking of themselves as curators. Chefs, for example, are said to be curating things wherever you look. There are countless internet personalities who refer to themselves as “food curators.” With a little searching, you will also encounter wine curators, beer curators, coffee curators, tea curators, spice curators, and cupcake curators.
The fantasy of curation can be extended to virtually any product category. Shops are often thought to be curated. So are rugs. And furniture. Cosmetics. Landscaping. Wardrobes. Music is eminently suited for the oversight of curators. So are TED talks. In fact, “curator” appears to be the actual job title of the chief officer of the TED organization, as it is of those who oversee TEDx events. It’s also a title of a radio producer at NPR.
And, of course, “curating” describes something that websites are supposed to do. It is the new and more benign word for what a short while ago was called “aggregating,” or what a less pretentious person might call “editing” or “sifting.” The web is a vast, chaotic, onrushing thing, the idea goes, and “curators” promise to sort it all out for us, welcoming and excluding as they see fit. That’s why what goes on at Pinterest and Tumblr and Instagram and Digg is often called “curating.” Above all, curating is what takes place at Facebook, where busily sifting “news curators” used to choose stories to be included in the hotly desirable “trending” category.
In that particular case, however, curation didn’t work out so well. Last year, Facebook’s staff of curators were accused of deliberately ignoring conservative news items that should rightfully have been deemed “trending.” The scandal dragged on for weeks, until eventually the company decided to delete its custodians of newsworthiness, replacing them with a computer program in August.
Here’s where our story of curatolatry takes a turn for the strange …