Walking through the Martin Kippenberger show at MoMA recently, I was reminded of an old theory of mine about music that relates to art in many ways. I used to believe that some conductors champion music that would fail without their direction. For example, a Beethoven or Brahms symphony still sounds like great music even when played poorly. But if a 2nd rate orchestra plays Tchaikovsky or Bruckner, it isn't clear at all that the music is great. It NEEDS the conductor. Most of you will never get the chance to test this out, but I swear that if you ever have the misfortune to hear a bad orchestra play a Tchaikovsky symphony, you'll wonder why anybody plays this junk. But if you hear the same orchestra mangle a Beethoven symphony, the power of the music somehow shines through and all you are left with is an awareness that the players are bad, not the music. I think conductors love this power to direct music that wouldn't stand without them.
If we relate the curator to a conductor - an intermediary guide between artist and public -- I think that some curators choose art that NEEDS the guidance of the curator to be made into great art. If the public views it without that direction, it isn't at all clear that it's great art. Would a public ever find their way through a Kippenberger show without curatorial guidance? Or Eggleston? Or Winogrand? I'm often struck by the seeming disconnect between the wall text and the work in front of me. This pile of newspapers in front of me is really talking about erotic subtexts and minimalist theory? This Duchamp-ian "readymade" is really a self-portrait that explores issues of gender equality and a search for personal identity? Really? Well, I think sometimes yes, and sometimes no. But in every case it is the curator searching for a way to make an argument for the art that a public would not find on its own in the same way a conductor leads you through music that would seem a jumble without him.
Now, I'm not necessarily making the argument that art which speaks without the conductor/curator is better. Sometimes you just need a guide, and sometimes even the most sophisticated, nuanced explanation doesn't disguise the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Still, as I ambled through the warehouse....ummm, I mean exhibition of the Kippenberger show listening to my audio guide, I wondered if anyone would find the resonances and references being described to me without that guide.