I had an interesting but dispiriting conversation recently with a curator arranging an exhibition for a hot artist. The curator was trying to work some edgy writing from a young author into the catalog to give it intellectual flair, but the artist and the dealer kept insisting on corralling bigger names “ i.e. people who write for the right magazines. At first I encouraged the curator to fight for that text’s inclusion. But then I broke down and said, “Maybe it’s better to choose another battle. Because in the end most people will just judge the catalog on the names of the writers anyway – they’re not going to read the essays.” The curator agreed, albeit with a bitter laugh.Bouncy Castle Midi Ferme
What purpose does a catalog serve today? In the old days, as I understand it, catalogs were the way in which those who missed the show could get some sense for it. But today it’s hardly the best way of transmitting such information. No, that would be an exhibition-specific website, with 1) its unlimited potential for showing images (and video, and multiple views of objects or installations), 2) the possibility of allowing virtual visits through the space so you can “see” how the works resonate with each other, 3) the option to add ancillary material such as reviews and articles discussing the show and, 4) instantaneous, eternal and inexpensive global distribution.
I’m not arguing against art publications. But too many catalogs today seem totally formulaic: As many glossy photos as the producers can afford; a meandering Q & A with the artist; and, of course, one or more tangentially related essays by the aforementioned big names.
Those essays often don’t seem written to be actually read, but rather to function as part of some elaborate validation ritual. Too often today, it appears to me, the catalog serves most as a metric for demonstrating the degree of gallery/institutional support for a show. That’s why you so often see the phrase “solo show (with catalog/publication)” in an artist’s bio. And that’s why galleries often have hundreds of unloved catalogs littering their back rooms. I get at least one unsolicited catalog a week in the mail – the wasted paper and postage involved in this exercise is pretty unconscionable. Also, frankly, I’m probably not as impressed by the fact of a catalog’s existence as I’m meant to be. Sure, it could mean the artist has reached a critical new stage of their work. Or it could merely mean that someone is trying to pump up their profile.
So here are the questions to the panel: Are these just fetish objects? Is it time to rethink the catalog in terms of how today’s Artworld actually works? Would art be better-served by being documented in a medium that’s more in line with the globalized reality of our lives? Or is the problem less in the medium than in the execution?