Curator - Elitist/Populist - Plumber

Zane Fischer, a columnist for the Santa Fe Reporter, has a small piece posted on the Santa Fe Center for Contemporary Arts' website under the artMuse heading. It puts an interesting twist on elitist vs. populist debates and partially undermines our own arguments around art professionals.

Fischer's main argument is that the idea that judgment and opinion are arenas preserved for a cultural elite is false:

"There's a false dynamic in the world that suggests that judgment and opinion is meted out by the elite, while Joe Public is more tolerant and less picky. But in fact it's not elitism that breeds judgment, but familiarity. Who resists praise or critique of NFL or NASCAR?"

Fischer moves on to a comparison of a plumber evaluating an artwork and a curator evaluating plumbing. The notion is that each can learn from the other, and that neither should feel like they can't express their dissatisfaction with a particular work be it plumbing or painting.

She closes:

"Contemporary art is everyday, equally important, equally banal, plumbing for the soul. If it refreshes, say so. If it cleanses and renews, say so. If it smells bad, leaks or has inadequate pressure, say so. No special skills required. If no one complains, nothing improves. Be judgmental."

We admire the attempt to radically flatten the discursive fields between these two occupations, but there's a bit of trickery here. While it's true that the world of sports talk radio is radically populist in its acceptance of all manner of opining by "Joe Public," the art world does not share this sensibility. We wish there was an art world equivalent to the Jim Rome show - "Have a take and don't suck." Maybe LeisureArts will host a Jim Rome style "Smack-Off" in the future. The argument abruptly drops the sports analogy and takes up plumbing seemingly in order to make a comparison between two professional fields, although certainly differently positioned in terms of cultural prestige.

This leaves us with two more problems. The first problem is that we are no longer comparing a lay person's opinion vs. an expert's, but two experts of different fields commenting on each other's work. The second particularly devious problem is comparing an opinion about water pressure, to one about art. Although what level of water pressure is pleasing is subjective, the actual pressure is objective. In fact, most plumbing problems that a lay person can offer dissatisfaction with, are objective issues - the toilet either flushes or it doesn't. The same is not true of art, and thus the insidious comparison leads us to accepting that the curator, by virtue of their professional training, can offer "deeper understanding" of an artwork in the way a plumber can concerning water pressure. Unfortunately, Fischer's argument perpetuates the mystique of professional judgments issued by curators rather than really challenging it.

To summarize, LeisureArts believes a plumber can be a curator, but a curator can't be a plumber.