On Expertise, Curation & the Possibility of the Public

Mark Hutchinson

on expertise

In his book Terrors and Experts, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips comes at expertise from a psychoanalytic point of view. Psychoanalysis, Phillips claims, is in a particularly good position to tell us of the pleasures and terrors of expertise: of our need for experts and the damage that experts can do.

Phillips starts off with the stark question of what the Freudian idea of the unconscious does to expertise, to being a skilled and competent practitioner of anything, including psychoanalysis itself. It was not psychoanalysis that first put forward the idea that we are opaque to ourselves: that we are subject to our own misunderstandings and misdirections. Psychoanalysis, however, formalised these ideas, so to speak. It gave a vocabulary and a structure within which we could tell convincing stories of our fallibilities, deviances and opacities: of the ways in which our desires go astray. If the expert has an unconscious, then how are we to know the ways in which the expert's expertise has been led astray? How are we to judge the unconscious influences on the expert's practice when the expert, by definition, is in no position to judge them him-or herself? Phillips introduces us to two Freuds. First, there is the Enlightenment Freud. This is the Freud who aspired to get psychoanalysis recognized as a science; who craved respectability; who presided over training other analysts (Freud of course, was not trained); who established institutes. For the Enlightenment Freud, psychoanalysis was expert knowledge of the workings and misworkings of the mind and particularly the unconscious. The analyst was someone who knew how to provide the so-called zpatient with a cure for unhappiness: someone with a set of conversational tools to use on the psyche. Someone who could remind the patient of who they were and what they wanted.

The second Freud, Phillips calls the post-Freudian Freud. This is the Freud Phillips describes as an ironist of the Enlightenment project; a Freud who recognises the slipperiness of words; who knows the limits of self-knowledge; who is an expert on the impossibility of expertise. For the post-Freudian Freud, psychoanalysis was not about imparting knowledge but engaging in a conversation. Here Freud dispensed with the idea of a complete or sufficient self: if the self is fragmentary, multiple and opaque, then there was no object for self-knowledge to be a knowledge of. Psychoanalysis needed to become a conversation about what cannot be solved by knowledge: an attempt to find good ways to bear our incompleteness. If psychoanalysis came to embrace the idea that people very often do not and can not really know what they are doing or why they are doing it, then psychoanalysis does not escape from this idea. It is easy for analysts to congeal into schools, learn orthodoxies and initiate specialist vocabularies: to wallow in their own expertise. But turning psychoanalysis into any kind of authority is to turn against the ways in which psychoanalysis is fundamentally anti-authoritarian. In the process of transference, the so-called patient turns to the analyst as an expert: as someone supposed to know. The irony, of course, is that the patient is seeking one kind of authority to cure another - for what is the cause of a patient's suffering if not some kind of imposition or restriction from some kind of perceived or real authority? The patient wants to be free of something. So the analyst is invested, by the patient, with the authority to provide answers. But what happens, or what should happen, is not that the analyst provides answers but that the patient and analyst together should talk themselves out of the need for answers. The job of the analyst is to disabuse the patient not only of the idea that the analyst is in a position to know the answers but also of the idea that there are answers to be had at all. Psychoanalysis is unreasonable. It is not only a process without compensation, it is against the very possibility of compensation. At the end of the process, with the dissolution of the transference, the patient is left with nothing. The return for his or her investment of much time and money is the realization that the analyst does not know: the acceptance that there is no Master-figure to guarantee meaning; that there are no guarantees at all.

Phillips concludes his preface with:

"The psychoanalyst and her so-called patient share a project. The psychoanalyst, that is to say, must ask herself not, Am I being a good analyst (am I wild enough, am I orthodox enough, have I said the right thing)? But, What kind of person do I want to be? There are plenty of people who will answer the first question for her. Faced with the second question, there may be terrors but there are no experts."

on curation

I have been dwelling on psychoanalysis because I want to take seriously Phillips' claim that psychoanalysis can be informative about expertise in general. If today's workshop is about curation and "publicness," then the curator is figured in this relationship as a kind of expert. Described in the publicity for this event as a "key negotiator" between art and the public sphere, the curator could be thought of as something like an expert on art's mediation by the sites of its display. The idea that "negotiation" is necessary implies a marked difference between the private sphere of the production of the art object, on the one hand, and the public sphere of consumption, on the other. The gap between the two becomes the specialist niche in which the curator operates: the area of curatorial expertise.

What, I want to say, follows if we start to think of the expertise of the curator in a similar way to the expertise of the psychoanalyst? There are different ways in which the curator can be seen as an expert: perhaps on practical things such as systems of display; or perhaps on discursive things such as being able to talk to artists in interesting ways. But what I hope the preceding talk of psychoanalysis has shown, is the dangers of expertise: the ways in which expertise can be both a cover story for authority and a defence against the terrors of contingency. It is a constant danger in art, as elsewhere, that professional practices and discourses contain both ideological and arbitrary closures. I am suggesting, amongst other things, that expertise is always about what it leaves out. Expert ways of doing and talking contain absences, lacks, divisions, exclusions and so on: the presentation of coherence is also the suppression of that which does not fit in.

Doing something properly, Phillips remarks in a parenthesis, is a way of not doing it differently. If expertise can always be a defence against the terror of contingency, what, we might ask, might be the contingencies that curation is fearful of? What is suppressed and unacknowledged in curation?

I want to give two possible answers to this question. These are aspects of the same process. Stated baldly, they are: (i) all manner of possible experiences and accounts of art negated by arts dominant discourses and accounts of itself; and (ii) the position of curation within the totality of art's social relations.

So in more detail:


Expertise in any discipline, I want to say, is a protection against the absences, ills, lacks, divisions, exclusions, negations, contradictions and silences upon which that discipline is built; negations which need to be suppressed and silenced in order for that discipline to maintain its authority. Expertise can be like a symptom. Take obsessivecompulsive disorder: whatever else one might say about obsessive-compulsive people, they tend to have very clean and tidy homes. These positive characteristics are normally considered a virtue of some kind. But for the obsessive-compulsive, this positive content is the negation of mess and dirt: an attempt to banish the unbearable. In art, there is unbearable mess and dirt, too. But this is not physical stuff: it is the many and varied ideas, experience, modes of attention, and so on, that are systematically denigrated and silenced within art. It is not that some people are excluded from art; it is that so many ways of being are negated within art.

and (ii)

The idea of expertise removes the curator from inhabiting a set of social relations. The idea of the curator qua expert can allow curators to think of themselves as bearers of knowledge, rather than subject to the determinations of political economy. The curator is constituted by, and subject to, a discipline, a history and institutions. To think of curators as experts of display, reception and interpretation can be to obscure the fact that they are collaborators in art's social relations. The curator is always dependent upon the practices and knowledges of others.

Thus, any critique of curation will have two questions, or two aspects. (i) How can the individual curator transcend the limitations of curation as it is presently constituted? And (ii) How to address the question of how art is organized socially? In relation to the first question, we could go on to ask: How can the curator be more than, or other than, an expert? Or, to put it another way, how can the curator embrace the uncertainty and contingency of the post-Freudian psychoanalyst as opposed to the self-confidence of the Enlightenment Freud? - how can the curator cope with the knowledge that knowledge is always tainted by unconscious desire, if not outright complicity with the market, art's institutions, art's histories, a conception of art's social value, or a conception of art's public, or so on?

In the post-Freudian analytic situation it is not only the so-called patient who has to bear the contingency of having no guarantees - the same goes for the analyst. This means, amongst other things, that the analyst must always be open to doing something else, which is to say being someone else: to being transformed by the analytic encounter. What would a similar transformation mean for a curator?

Here we could paraphrase Phillips directly:

The curator and her so-called public share a project. The curator, that is to say, must ask herself not, Am I being a good curator (am I wild enough, am I orthodox enough, have I said and done the right things)? But, What kind of person do I want to be? There are plenty of people who will answer the first question for her. Faced with the second question, there may be terrors but there are no experts.

I think the implications of this idea are a lot more radical than they may sound.


In relation to the second question (that of social relations), I want to say, if the curator, qua expert, marks a de-totalizing split within art, culture and society, then the radical critique of curating needs to reinsert the curator back into the cultural totality. The curator is always already embedded in social relations. The task for any would-be radical curation is to do justice to the social relations of curation, within curation. It is necessary to make something of the possibility of open, reciprocal and dialogical collaboration with others. But this possibility involves the abandonment of any fixed ideas as to what curation might be: it is to embrace the idea that what curation is and can be, is open to transformation in practice.

The political task for curation, in overcoming the de-totalizing split inherent within curation, is not to formulate some alternative, positive model of curation. On the contrary, if the de-totalizing split inherent in curation is the negation of certain experiences and so on (the disavowal of the possibility of certain practices, approaches, interpretations and so on), then the urgent task is to remove these concealments, refusals and denials, hitherto present in curation. The task is the negation of these negations.


on the possibility of the public

The difficulty of talking about art's public role is that we might take the public to be something about which we can have knowledge. That is, it would be a mistake to think of the public in terms of epistemology rather than ontology. If the temptation of the expert is to look at the public as an object of knowledge, we should insist on the public as a collection of subjects.

The trouble with the very idea of the public is that it can act as a kind of fetish. The idea of making art for a public, or for a public site, can use the idea of the public to sustain a tired and positivistic model of the value of art. The unifying idea of the public can be a negation of the particularities and differences between and within people. The fetish is characterised by loss: the stripping away of complexity and contradiction.

It needs to be asserted straight away that the public does not exist: there is no authentic or ideal public to which the artist or curator can look. So-called members-of-the-public do not, and should not, share commitments, beliefs, experiences, modes of attention and so on. Extrapolating from an essay by Art & Language, Dave Beech has recently spelt out how we need to consider a whole alphabet of cultural rivals, spectators A-Z, when thinking about art. In a culture that inculcates a particular type of response to art as valid and proper (let's call this the response of Spectator A), his point is that spectators B-Z are normally considered rivals to culture, rather than rivals with different cultures. That is, the dominant discourses of art inculcate proper procedures and protocols for dealing with art. These discourses violently exclude alternatives to their own accounts, not as alternatives, but as invalid, ignorant and non-cultural. It needs to be reiterated that the public are multiple, diverse, fragmentary, contradictory and so on. As is every individual.

Nevertheless, there are different ways in which the idea of the public is invoked in talk about art. Here are three.

  1. The public can be ignored: the artist, or curator, can assert the primacy of the artwork as an autonomous and independent creation. Such an attitude preserves the idea of the public sphere in contrast to the private sphere of art production. By dismissing the claims of the public sphere as irrelevant to the making of art, this attitude preserves the sanctity of individual creation. Or, in other words, the artist is thought of as a kind of expert at making art. The public are irrelevant because their response is only counted to the degree they bow to, and learn from, the artist's expertise.

  2. The public can be pandered to: the artist, or the curator, can place art at the service of a particular community or public site. In other words, the public can be given primacy over the art. Here the boundary between the public sphere and private sphere is maintained but the hierarchy reversed: art is seen as subservient to public needs. Here, the public are interpreted as experts in their own needs: an expertise the artist is expected to learn.

  3. The third option is to attempt some kind of synthesis between the public and private spheres. Here the artist and the public, perhaps mediated by the "negotiations" of a curator, enter into some kind of dialogue. This involves the artist acknowledging that his or her work is always determined by the circumstances of its production. In this model, we might say, the artist and the public recognise each other's expertise. Practice here is reflexive, in a way that it is not in the two other conceptions of the public considered above.

However, the trouble with all three options is that they maintain the difference between, and separation of, art and the public. Even the third option maintains the separation of specialist areas of activity. All three options avoid the difficult task of thinking about how art and the public are, and might be, reinvented, or transformed, in practice. This is to think about what art, and indeed the public, might become: might be made into. It is worth pointing out, that there can be no experts on the future.


The idea of transformation and change is easily appropriated and emptied out. What needs to be avoided is what Slavoj Zizek calls interpassivity. This is changing things all the time in order to stop things from really changing. Zizek says:

If, today, we follow a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space - it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological co-ordinates: those who "really want to do something to help people" get involved in (undoubtedly honourable) exploits like Medecins sans frontieres, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are all not only tolerated but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly encroach on economic territory (for example, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions, or use child labour) - they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit.
That limit, of course, is the questioning of the hegemonic ideological co-ordinates: the questioning of "the capitalist system, in the way the political space and state apparatuses work."

It is not hard to see interpassivity at work in art. And it is not hard to see how concerns about the public can be a way of changing things all the time to stop them from really changing.

Zizek's point is that the public sphere is always already structured by what he calls " hegemonic ideological co-ordinates." In other words, the public sphere is never separate from the political space. Any attempt to act in the public sphere, even in the relatively obscure realm of art, is going to be formed in relation to political determinates of the public sphere.

So what might a radical form of agency be like - one that avoids this idea of interpassivity? According to the philosopher Roy Bhaskar, agency is the unity of theory and practice, in practice. Agency is not just changing other things, it is changing the conditions out of which it is possible to act. That is, the act of agency is to transform ourselves and our own conditions of possibility.

Radical art is a form of agency over against a trade in meaning or in objects. So radical art cannot be about the role of art in the public sphere because the idea of a role implies that what both art and the public sphere might be, are identifiable and stable in some way. Agency implies the opposite: that what might make up both art and the public sphere must be continually made over and transformed. Radical art must remove the constraints that determine what proper art might be.

When talking of curation, I said that it has to manage without guarantees: without appealing to anything to give it meaning or justification. In the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, this is to say without wanting to be seen, or be recognized by, what he calls the big Other. The big Other is a Master-figure in relation to which the subject acts. Perhaps the epitome of this relationship is the fundamentalist, for whom every action is judged by an omniscient deity: the fundamentalist's cause is not his or her own but that of a greater authority. This is in contrast to the radical revolutionary, for whom, precisely, there is no big Other: whose actions are forged out of an understanding of the contingency of the present.

What would it mean to manage without the reassurances of some big Other: without guarantees, without legitimation, without compensation, without anything? A radical critique of the limitations of art must impugn the divisions between art, artist, curator and public: remove the conditions that make certain things seem impossible within a particular practice. Radical agency is self-transformation. In art, the most pervasive form of the big Other is the idea of Art itself. The idea of the public can be another form of guarantee for artist or curator: a constituency to which to turn, explicitly or implicitly, for validation. What, I want to ask, would it mean to think of art practice as the search for collaborators rather than as the search for an audience?