Curating as Ethics

Curating as Ethics
by Jean-Paul Martinon

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2020
322 pp. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0864-5; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0865-2.

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
October 2020

The problem with Curating as Ethics starts right at the beginning. Initially l was led to believe that this is yet another historical overview of curating, starting with its origins, as the image on the cover shows a fragment of someone opening a door towards a Wunderkammer. Reading the introduction however it becomes clear that Jean-Paul Martinon questions the current state of affairs of curating, surprisingly stating that it is “now [my emphasis] a practice without any form of institutional anchoring’ due to the advent of the so-called content or aggregator curator.” The old-school curator is defined by Martinon as selecting artists or artworks following specific institutional aesthetics, whereas the content curator is mainly interested in images, videos, or sounds with a quasi-immediate return in terms of finance or viewer numbers.

To attempt to criticise or at least critically study this evolution and to try and develop an ethics for curating is in itself praiseworthy. It’s mainly the way how this is done that I have a problem with. Although Martinon has been teaching on the curatorial course at Goldsmiths since 2015, he has as far as I could find, no actual experience in curating (exhibitions) as such and that shows. Of course, it can be argued that this is in principle not necessary for teaching on this subject which could be briefly, and too quickly, be explained as everything surrounding curating except for the actual making of an exhibition. But in this case Martinon develops such an otherworldly view on the practice, losing all possible connection with it, that it becomes indeed problematic.

In the introduction he extensively positions the problems himself. His strategy for inconvenient incongruities consists however mainly out of perverting them – yes, it’s awkward to choose Heidegger and his “polylogical” concept of the fourfold (gods, mortals, earths, skies) for the basis for a book on ethics, let alone, curating, but let’s just take the fourfold in itself ... Yes, it’s explicitly awkward to discuss gods as part of this fourfold, but let’s just equal them with mortals because “mortals exceed themselves beyond death throughout their lives, and this is why [...], they also happen to be gods. The crucial thing about this excess is therefore the never-ceasing supplementary process that always occurs in thought” (p. xvii). Referring to Jean-Luc Nancy, Martinon finally equals the ability to exceed thought with the name ‘gods’ (p. xvii). And that’s that issue solved. Only that it remains, as Martinon admits himself, a problematic statement to which he dedicates a considerable part of his introduction. Instead of at least briefly presenting Heidegger’s own intend with the fourfold, Martinon instead points to other literature on the matter, leaving the reader fairly barehanded. To explain his inside-outside way of argumentation, using a relatively random concept to start with, Martinon then introduces the idea of curating philosophy. Although I would argue that this is a fancy way of indicating what practicing philosophy actually means. It’s maybe because I am an actual curator that I’m not particularly shocked by it. Martinon however indicates that his approach to philosophy doesn’t follow a conventional structure but instead reads author’s texts explicitly outside of their domain: Spinoza outside Spinozism, Heidegger clearly outside of Heideggerianism etc. He then explains he takes this approach even a step further by “push[ing] the argument in a completely new direction. For example, the most antitranscendentalist philosopher imaginable, Quentin Meillassoux, is placed in dialogue with the least materialist thinker conceivable, Emmanuel Levinas” (p. xxi), which is in itself commendable and again not overly shocking as far as I am concerned. I am certainly not in favour of “reactionary pseudo- or postdisciplinary distinctions” where “curating is an indeterminable activity with diverse disciplinary heritages and little scholarly impact” and “philosophy is too dry, textual, and abstract for curating” (p. xxi). I frankly wouldn’t even know why this would be the case.

So, when Martinon argues that he lets curating and philosophy think through each other in a kind of incomplete, fragmentary way, connecting with the inherent disorder of life, this has the potential of becoming interesting. But at that point he has also already introduced the cringeworthy terminology of midwifery, stating as one of the key questions whether “there [can] be a type of ethics for a global contemporary practice such as curating that negotiates, like a midwife, the treacherous waters of the birth of the new in order to keep death and everything that stands for it at bay?” (p. xii). As someone specifically interested in the notion of care within curating, it might be strange to oppose to this, but it’s just that I really feel no association whatsoever with midwifing when I curate, nor with being a god for that matter, as Martinon suggests in his conclusion.

Following Heidegger’s fourfold, Martinon divides his book in three parts of 10 short chapters: Gods and mortals are combined to discuss a more abstract ontic-ontological structure of ethics, Earths and skies as parameters that are more related to curating and finally ethical issues under the heading of Deeds and ends. Where does this all lead to and, maybe more importantly, for whom has Martinon written this book? As far as the ethics, these remain extremely unclear and disappointing, mainly described as multidimensional since following Heidegger’s fourfold and thus not clearly identifiable. As for its audience, these are certainly not the content curators as I guess they couldn’t care less. Asking how this is all related to curating, Martinon pulls again the curator-as-god-card and “their fourfolding ability to chide time’s irony” (p. 238). “[C]urating’s transformative power, its ethical potential” is simply defined as “the acknowledgement of the work of time” (238-39). At this point I wonder whether Martinon has actually any real knowledge of curating. As if there haven’t been and still are curators or their predecessors that are fully aware about the work of time, without the need to be confronted with Heidegger’s fourfold. It does in any case not surprise me that Aby Warburg is nowhere near to be found in his book. Martinon’s divinizing (his terminology) of curators as ultimate fourfold players for who’s activity “no minimal knowledge [is] to be had [as] any curator can midwife this good [...] new fourfold [...]” (p. 239), now slowly starts to be irritating, exactly because it has so little connection with actual curating. It makes me despair a little bit more about the nature of curatorial schools if this is what is being taught there. If I spend an extensive, but nowhere near long enough review of this book, that’s exactly the reason why. For which Martinon will no doubt shove me into the field of reactionaries, but so be it. In the end Curating as Ethics mainly is a pleasant exercise in his new-found activity of curating philosophy. Which by the way would probably have been a better title.