Rossen Ventzislavov on the Art of Curation

In 2014, Woodbury philosophy professor Rossen Ventzislavov published an article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism holding that curating is itself a form of art. Entitled “Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator,” the piece argued that curatorial practice is an extension of the artist’s creative process. Shortly thereafter, Sue Spaid – a philosopher and practicing curator – attempted a rebuttal of  Rossen’s thesis, distinguishing between the “performance” of an artwork within a curatorial setting and the artwork itself. In response to Spaid’s article, Rossen countered and a spirited debate ensued.

At the Institute for Contemporary Art in Downtown L.A., the debate was recently revived and extended. “Boxing Philosophical: Are Curators Artists, Too?” moved the dialogue from print to the public arena. Moderated by historian Patricia Morton, “Boxing Philosophical” provided a platform for Rossen and Spaid to re-examine their perspectives and expand their investigation into the nexus of artistic and curatorial practice.

Q: How did you get interested in the position that you took in “Idle Arts: Reconsidering the Curator”?

Rossen: Because of the internet and Pinterest and other modalities, there’s been a lot of conversation about curation as a broader range of engagement. We use the word more, such as when you say “the curation” of a retail store or “curation” of musical playlists. I wanted to take stock of this phenomenon, and try to redefine or reconsider it. I looked deeply into what a curator does and what an artist does and found the overlap. The thesis that comes out of these considerations is that the curator is an artist.

Q: Do you include the context of the way art is presented and described?

Rossen: Certain ideas emerge in the process of experiencing an exhibit. Conceptual art is precisely about cognitive value, delivering mental content rather than aesthetic. For example, there could be a sheet of paper that has instructions on how to dance. That’s not a beautiful object or something produced meticulously or by hand. The artwork then becomes the concept. The curator doesn’t tweak the paintings and repaint the face of the princess so she looks happier. That’s not the kind of intrusion curators do. Theirs is most often cognitive, by arranging works that give new meanings. That’s an important contribution and an art in itself.

Q: Is curation more important, the more conceptual the art?  Is curation separate from the era in which the art was produced?

Rossen: There are examples of very active and creative curating even in the past. But we live in a time when curating is much more pertinent than it was 100 years ago. There were fewer institutions, fewer people engaging in art. And, if you think about it, art was a diversion for the privileged. That’s not the case anymore. We try to democratize art. There’s street art, all of these ways of engaging with art that are egalitarian. We actually need the curator much more than we needed them in the past.

Q: Is it fair to say that in other eras art spoke for itself?

Rossen:  I use an example of a Matisse painting. Matisse is one of the Impressionist masters. Nobody takes a Matisse painting and throws it in a strange curatorial situation. A particular painting, “The Dance,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was initially displayed in the big Matisse room. When they renovated the MoMA, they moved it to the stairway, almost like a service area, where you take a breather from the art. At first, I was scandalized. But I walked up to the wall text, and it said that “The Dance” was commissioned to be in somebody’s stairway. The curator had the freedom to engage the history of the painting on its own terms, rather than lump it together with others for the sake of chronology. That is a very active curatorial choice, and it makes a difference in how you experience it.

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