The Word Police

You know by now if you’ve read many posts here, I’m a museum professional who in a lifetime career had studied and pursued other things. I credit my father with being a member of the “word police.” He insisted that my brothers and I refer to whatever we were speaking about by their proper name, not as “things” (oops, I did it above!). Our speech should be clean and correct. This was one of the skills I tried to pass to my museum studies students as a way to activate critical thinking skills.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the wholesale hijacking of the word, the very concept “curate.” When I was learning my museum skills, “curate” and “curator” referred to a set of skills associated with the tangible collections in the museum. The British term for this worker is “keeper.” That’s because s/he not only researches, organizes, and creates the exhibits which the public comes to see, but also digs deep into what the museum “keeps,” being familiar with the collection, knowing what belongs, what doesn’t, what the weaknesses and strengths are. In small museums (the scale of institutions where I often worked), this person is responsible for the reams and reams of paperwork (now much done digitally) associated with the legal status of the items in the collection. They may also be in charge of the storage, care and welfare of the collections which the public rarely sees.

In 2014, “curate” made the List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English, etc. etc. and so forth. The reason given for this drastic recommendation because it was “a pretentious way of saying ‘selected …” and “enormously overused.”

In fact, a recent attempt to create a new so-called “curatorial” MFA at the University where I taught, had the goal of training independent curators who would ply their skills only creating exhibits. The department leadership was urged to guide the students to the basic museum studies courses including Curatorial Practices to expand the professional knowledge. Not one student enrolled in these courses. Hmmm …

curated drinks, among other things (there’s that word again!)

A colleague and I frequently share new non-museum appearances of “curate.” I think a book has also written analyzing the now widely accepted usage. But enough of beating a horse which is out of the stall and now long dead! I frequently read now that new museum exhibits are “organized.”

The headline about a new exhibit at one of our local museums caught my eye and awoke the “word police” – Outsider Art. The article (reviews of art exhibits in our area have devolved into expanded press releases, another word change!) ends with the following sentence: “[The artist] himself is something of an outsider in the art world.” The report supports this observation by the fact that the artist “funds all of his work and negotiates contracts with several galleries …” Hmm … What happened to starving artists? What artist gets financial support to pay for his/her work?

What is the term “Outsider Art”? A number of terms are used to describe the amazing body of visual art produced by so-called self-taught, untrained artists. They include: “Folk Art,” “Visionary Art,” “Outsider Art,” In Jamaica, scholars call these talented individuals “Intuitive Artists.” “Naïve Art” is a term used in Eastern Europe. “Outsider Art” has an interesting evolution from “Art Brut” coined by Jean Dubuffet and used to refer to the work of artists with disabilities or suffering social exclusion to describe untrained artists in general.

I see two schools of work in the body of work by many untrained artists . One – art from a community or family which expresses the aesthetics of that community or family and which was learned in an informal setting – including the proverbial “grandmother’s knee.” It is not frozen in space, influences in materials and imagery come from the world in which the artist lives.

Hmong embroidery
Easter eggs

Second – aesthetic expressions by individuals with no formal training, not associated with community heritage, etc. Some artists such as Grandma Moses preserve the memory of their communities. Others are like Simon Roda, who created the enigmatic Watts Towers in LA which have no association with family or community.

Embroidery, Nan Drinkwater, Howe, OK
Painting, Sharon Hardy, Sebring, FL

The artist who was termed an “Outsider Artist” in the recent review that set me spinning is Sterling Roda. Look him up! He’s educated at the The Pennsylvania School of Art and Design with BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Our local journalist needs the word police …

Don’t let me go on about punctuation – commas and periods – appearing outside of quotation marks. I’m not sure who was driven crazy, my students or me …

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