Bitcoin entered circulation in 2009, touted as a new kind of currency whose value is set by computation rather than the “esoteric manipulations” of state banks and exchanges, and therefore a fair and transparent way to manage transactions. It is registered on a blockchain, a digital ledger of records hosted on a decentralized network and protected by cryptography. In the art world, blockchain technology has been put forward as a foolproof way of verifying an artwork’s authenticity and maintain records of its provenance. Boosters say it would make the art market less beholden to auction-house schemes and backroom deals. Start-ups like Artory, Codex Protocol, and Verisart are all developing blockchain-powered ledgers for authenticating art. But none will be effective without achieving a monopoly. “Codex envisions a world in which every artwork in existence is registered to the same distributed database, including retroactively,” Artie Vierkant wrote in a 2018 editorial for A.i.A.. “Its founders imagine that artists will take it upon themselves to aid such registration for the benefit of the third, fourth, or nth owner of their work.” There’s also the issue of the gap between the ledger and the work. Cryptocurrency transactions are entirely digital. A blockchain is perfect for tracking the ownership of digital art and collectibles—like the Cryptokitty that sold for $140,000 at a May 2018 auction—but it can’t attach itself to painting and sculpture without some auxiliary technology. Artist Daniel Keller satirized the problem in a tweet: “Dear Sir, I’ve broken into the certificate of authenticity smart contract for the Kandinksy painting that is hanging above your couch, so it’s mine now. . . . Please ship me the artwork at your soonest convenience.” —Brian Droitcour
Until recently—let’s say late 2015—cancellation was something that happened to sitcoms, flights, gym memberships, and dinner reservations. Now, its objects are more diffuse: people, brands, artworks, concepts. Kanye West is canceled, as are Tom Otterness, Kevin Spacey, Balthus, Lena Dunham, Jens Hoffmann, and Soul Cycle. Virtually all young adult novelists have been canceled at some point or another. Dana Schutz was canceled, but seems to have rebounded (in many cases, cancellation is really more like being put in the reputational time-out corner.)
“To cancel,” in the usual sense, connotes a relationship severed, an obligation nullified, plans called off. The meaning has not exactly changed, but the primary usage has switched from active to passive: now things “get canceled.” Cancellation happens by consensus: one person alone can’t cancel, only denounce. This kind of cancellation implies a change in status rather than state: something that was formerly considered valuable, respectable, or otherwise worthy of praise has been reevaluated and found wanting. There are often material effects that accompany cancellation—boycotts, job loss, the actual unscheduling of concert tours or exhibitions—but not necessarily. Critics tend to conflate “cancel culture” and “censorship”—the words are used more or less interchangeably in art historian Michele H. Bogart’s New York Review of Books essay “The Problem with Canceling the Arnautoff Murals,” on the controversial WPA frescos slated for removal in San Francisco, for instance—but they aren’t the same: canceling is a withdrawal of attention on ethical grounds, a call from below rather than an imposition from above.
“Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” asked a New York Times headline earlier this year, in an article about an exhibition of the artist’s work at the National Gallery in London that explicitly acknowledged the racism, colonialism, and exploitative sexual relationships with Tahitian minors that undergird his paintings. Nothing about the paintings is materially different today from when they first landed on museum walls and in art history textbooks a hundred years ago, nor is any of the damning information about them newly uncovered. What’s changed is how these facts are weighed: artistic brilliance is no longer an acceptable defense. —Rachel Wetzler
In her review of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Helen Molesworth wrote that “one of the most hallowed acts of curating is the creating of meaning through placement.” To curate, in her view, is to study art and articulate that research in an exhibition, building narratives and contexts through the arrangement of works. But “curate” has taken on another meaning. It now refers to the process of selection that happens on a blog or in a boutique. It has become a genteel way to say “aggregation.” And so the word pops up in places that, seen from the art world, can be amusing (or, if you take it too seriously, offensive): the “curator pant” sold by J. Crew, or the “book curator” who designs libraries to complement the interior décor of Gwyneth Paltrow and other well-heeled clients.
Words acquire new usages all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. But things can get messy when old and new meanings cross. “Curate” was first used to mean “aggregate,” I’m guessing, by digital marketing specialists with a superficial understanding of what it means to curate art. Then it got looped back into the art world to describe the online aggregation of images of art. Kimberly Drew is called a curator for her work on Black Contemporary Art, a popular Tumblr she founded. But many of the posts there are just links to museum shows. If she’s the curator of the art that appears on her blog, then who are the people who developed relationships with the artists, secured institutional support for their work, and gave it a space and a context? The effect of the double meaning of “curate” is to erase some curators’ work, and that’s a shame.
Of course, “curating” has been diminished from within the institution, too. Anyone who has seen multiple biennials gets the sense that curators organize group shows by picking things they like from other group shows, as if they’re compiling a Pinterest board. There are curators who may not “curate” their Instagram accounts but nevertheless do most of their “research” there. Any conversation about curation today has to address the treatment of art as content—a trend that, alas, seems irreversible. —Brian Droitcour
In 2016, Native activists at Standing Rock in North Dakota led protests against the construction of an oil pipeline through their land. The strategies and rhetoric of these activists reverberated throughout the art world. On Columbus Day of that year, activists in New York held rallies at the American Museum of Natural History and at the Guggenheim under the banner of decolonization.
The October 2017 issue of Art in America, focused on contemporary Native artists, included a roundtable in which curators and museum professionals offered their visions for what a process of decolonization could mean for art and cultural institutions. Curator Wanda Nanibush, Anishinaabe, defined the imperative broadly: “Decolonization involves unlearning and changing the base of colonialism in the concepts of private property, Manifest Destiny, ‘discovery,’ enlightenment, Eurocentrism, Cartesian dualism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, positivism, sexism, racism, individualism, extraction, classism, violence, and control. Decolonization should challenge all that is thought to be proper and normal in current settler colonial states. Decolonization involves a centering of Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and loving.”
For Ben Garcia, deputy director at the San Diego Museum of Man, decolonizing required a comprehensive approach to rethinking an institution’s identity and core functions. Citing Ho-Chunk scholar Amy Lonetree, Garcia argued that a decolonized museum would bring “Indigenous perspectives and voices into decision making at all levels of the organization; truthfully address the history and legacy of colonialism in the museum’s collections, exhibitions, and programs; and include the work and perspectives of Indigenous artists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other content experts.”
Decolonization would also transform a museum from a place of passive reception to an active site for creating knowledge. As Lara M. Evans, Cherokee, an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts wrote, “The most valuable assets aren’t the ‘things’ artists make, but the ways they share the knowledge that comes from making.” —Art in America