Saturday, May 22, 2010

Do you curate? If so, you rate.

My Brooklyn Heights Blog colleague, Heather Quinlan, recently posted about a "pop-up-store" to appear in our neighborhood. She wrote that the proprietor "drew upon her own experiences to curate the store", and quoted the proprietor as saying, "So I wanted to bring a really cool curated store to you...." The post drew the following comment thread:

Topham Beauclerk:
The use of the word “curate” as a synonym for wholesale buying is new to me. Phony and pretentious.

the where:
It’s a yuppie/brownstoner way of saying no tube socks which is code for something far more sinister and phobic.

Heather Quinlan:
I’m eating a curated ham sandwich right now.

David on Middagh:
Really? Mine has tube socks.

AEB:
No, I like the word and its use. Now I can say that every morning I curate my cats’ litterbox….

Andrew Porter:
Wasn’t it the Curate in Wells’s “The Time Machine” who went mad? Played by Tim Robbins in the latest film version.
Maybe curate was a typo for cutrate?

AAR:
A nice idea! Why jump all over it because of one word when a shop like this is the sort of thing many bloggers wish would come to Montague Street? Let’s support the entrepeneurial spirit even if the product doesn’t suit everyone.
I was familiar with two meanings of "curate". The first is as a noun, in the sense referred to by Andrew Porter. That is, as a priest in the Church of England who serves as a vicar or, in a larger church, as assistant to a rector. This is confirmed by Merriam-Webster Online. The second is as a transitive verb, meaning to perform the functions of a curator; in other words, to select the items for inclusion in the permanent collection of, or a special exhibit mounted by, a museum, to determine how and where the items are to be displayed, and to provide text and other visual or aural aids to explain or give context to the items. This again was validated by Merriam-Webster (follow the link above and click on the second meaning), which shows the date of first use of "curate" as a verb as 1909. The first use of the noun "curator", however, is shown as 1561. This strongly suggests that "curate" as a verb is a back-formation from the noun "curator". While the definition given by Merriam-Webster for curate as a verb, "to act as curator of", could apply outside the museum context, the examples given there both refer to museums.

So, I would be prepared to agree with Topham Beauclerk that the use of the verb "to curate" other than in its customary context is, if not "phony and pretentious", at least a stretch. But, then, I did a little more web research and came across this New York Times article from last October, which I missed, probably because it was in the "Fashion & Style" section, which I used to ignore but now know is essential reading. According to the author, Alex Williams:
The word “curate,” lofty and once rarely spoken outside exhibition corridors or British parishes, has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded, who seem to paste it onto any activity that involves culling and selecting.
Williams goes on to quote one of my favorite public intellectuals (despite his affiliation with the right-wing Manhattan Institute):
For many who adopt the term, or bestow it on others, “it’s an innocent form of self-inflation,” said John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.”
Williams notes that the "nontradtitional" use of the verb "to curate" (the "traditional" use, as we've seen, having originated in 1909) "took off" after 2000.

Finally, Williams asked a "traditional" curator what she thinks of this expanded definition, and got this response:
“Maybe the use of ‘curate’ to refer to extra-museum activities is just metaphorical, akin to the way we use the word ‘doctor’ as a verb,” Laura Hoptman, a senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, wrote in an e-mail message. “If we doctor a script, we are only theoretically operating on it.”

“It doesn’t really bother me,” she said of the trend. “Actually, I’m hoping its popularity will spawn a reality television show — maybe ‘Top Curator’? ”
Update: See Rebecca Goldman's cartoons in "Who Curates the Curators?" from Derangement and Description.

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