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The uses of freedom, part 3: the curator

July 26, 2012

[In part 1 of this series I stated as my null hypothesis the idea that “one should think and read, but never write.” Each post in this series will look at an activity engagement in which is incompatible with the null hypothesis, and at the various ways in which that activity can be justified.]

“Curating” is not a new phenomenon–consider the commonplace book–but it is only recently that it has become as popular as it is today. To start us off, here’s an article in the NYT about curation and what’s wrong with it. First, a definition: “curation,” as it’s being used here, is what happens on sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, etc, that allow one to gather pictures you like in one place, grouped by subject matter or theme or color or form or whatever you want. I was inspired to write about curation in this series by what the creator of Pinterest says about it:

Silbermann suggests that collecting online is a form of self-expression for people who don’t create. “If you walk around Brooklyn and ask people how they express themselves,” he said in a speech at New York University, “everyone’s a musician or an artist or a filmmaker. But most of us aren’t that interesting. Most of us are just consumers of that. And when we collect things and when we share those collections with people, that’s how we show who we are in the world.”

Or, at least, as the author of the article writes, people “think they are it.” Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.

Now, I have a Pinterest page, though I daresay it’s rather different from the ones most other people have put together. And I’ve put maybe more effort than I should have into organizing it and finding pictures for it. And now I have it; and now, it feels rather complete. There are a few boards that could use fleshing out, but for the most part, though I still sometimes post new content, doing so feels like more of the same. I am, it seems, not particularly vulnerable to the “addictive yearning” these sites prey on:

This is, I think, what these sites evoke: the feeling of being addicted to longing for something; specifically being addicted to the feeling that something is missing or incomplete. The point is not the thing that is being longed for, but the feeling of longing for the thing. And that feeling is necessarily ambivalent, combining both positive and negative emotions.

Well that does sound unhealthy, doesn’t it. She ends up comparing the way these sites work to advertising stripped of its attempt to sell something, and it’s thoughts like that that make me see something deeply wrong in the way capitalism interacts with art…

When photography was introduced it promised to make every man an artist by taking the technique out of it–all that was left was the decision of what to include and what to cut out. Sites like Pinterest seem like a step further in the same direction; now you don’t even have to know how to compose an interesting photograph, you just need to be able to recognize one and add it to your collection. But just as most photographs aren’t actually artistic, most pinboards aren’t either.

Some are, though. The difference, I suspect, has to do with attention to the thing being created versus attention to the things being put into it. A photograph is only any good if the photographer pays attention not just to how the thing he’s photographing looks, but to what the photograph itself will look like. Similarly, a bad pinner will just see pictures he likes and pin them; a good one will pay more attention to how they ought to be grouped, and will, if necessary, cut one out, if it’s a cool picture but there’s no place for it. So it stops being about the unquenchable desire for more, and becomes about the desire to create order out of chaos.

The perhaps unfortunate side-effect, though, is that this sort of collecting and curating can be fun to do, but at a certain point, you finish. You either keep piling up more of the same, and so shift from caring about the grouping in a creative way to caring about the individual pictures in a fetishistic way, or you slow down and eventually stop. At least stop expanding the boards you have. (The implied premise of these sites–that the collection need never be complete–seems akin to the implied premise of U.S. television shows that they should go on, and on, and on, until they are canceled. Both assumptions seem to me perverse.)

The best way to improve Pinterest, in my opinion, would be to make it possible to split a board in half, placing some pins on one new board, some on another. Or even to allow sub-boards. This would make it possible for the “clothing” boards with thousands and thousands of pins to actually be interesting–you could try to sort what you’ve put there, try to figure out the sorts of things you like and why you like them and how they group together and what sorts of things are underrepresented but that you would actually find interesting now that you think about it and what sorts of things are overrepresented and actually kind of boring and you should expand your tastes. As it is, you just have a grab bag of “stuff I like.”

I don’t think curation is necessarily escapist “addictive yearning” the way the NYT article suggests. Nor do I think escapism is always bad. As Tolkien said, if you live in a prison, why not dream of being free? But if curation is about defining your ideal world, define it–add limits,  lines, borders. That would be a way to explore your freedom, not abuse it.

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