I was struck recently by the reaction provoked on an online forum recently when an amateur (i.e. non-degreed) organist posted a rather extensively researched set of his findings on historical organ registration practices.  One highly-learned member took him to task for errors, omissions, and other original sources that might have been considered.  A document that was mostly correct, and tremendously educational to most people, was being derided as insufficient, and not of scholarly standards.  While no doubt accurate at some level, the critique devastated the author, who had put years of effort into trying to improve his own and others understanding – purely for the love of the art.  This author ran into a Curator, but was not one himself, and felt demeaned by the exchange.

As I considered what had happened, I realized that there are two active ways to actively participate in a Museum of Art:  be a curator, or be the creative whose work hangs in the museum.

The reality is that curators serve a very valuable purpose, and I’m not seeking to take anything from their earned positions of expertise.  There are people in the world, who by training, expertise, and demonstrated accomplishment function as the “keepers of Western Civilization”.  Extensively educated, formally certificated, and institutionally placed, they assemble concerts, installations, exhibits, and performances of the core masterworks of Western Civilization – their collected opinion even defines these masterworks as such.  They ensure that performance, criticism, and scholarship align with everything that we know and have studied in the past.  The bar for excellence is exceptionally high, as it should be – they have chosen to document and represent the pinnacle of 400 years of human artistic endeavor.  Their opinion is by no means monolithic, and spirited debates range throughout the community of experts, but the discourse is at a very high level of learning and background.  Casual opinions hold no sway in this court of opinion.

In the world of fine-art music, it is this way.  If you don’t have a Ph.D or at least a Master’s degree from a reputable institution, it is difficult to amass the background and depth to have one’s opinions taken seriously by the curator-class.  There is simply too much material that must be mastered – it really does take several years of dedicated study under master teachers.  And, without proper credentials, certain source texts and resources are not readily available or even accessible (and may reside on another continent, or be held in private collections).  On the performance side, only a handful of performers tour the globe performing the great masterworks.  Of the tens of thousands of conservatory graduates world-wide every year, only a small fraction will ever work in a professional orchestra or as a full-time performing musician, where the chosen few provide museum exhibitions of the great masterworks.    The major orchestra’s core audience are museum-goers at heart, people who wish to see the great works of the past, and maybe be introduced to something new, but not in too great measure, or in too extreme a way.  So the curators design and perform programs to that end.  Mostly “canon” works, with a dash of something new.

And yet, in visual and musical art, the curators typically never create the art that they display.  Curators study, catalog, and discuss the work of others, but not their own.  In music, classical performers are curators in the main.  Yes, they perform at exceptional levels of expressive artistry, but most classical music performers never write anything, except perhaps a cadenza.  They do not add to the canon – they merely display it in its best light, much as an art historian might study the best lighting and display techniques for a painting.  The issue is relationship to the canon of Western civilization.  Curators don’t add to it.  Creatives do.  In any age, it seems the creative artists, while aware of such things, and perhaps even knowledgeable in them choose instead to make something new, rather than perfect the display of the old.  Eventually, the curators recognize this and the artist may be asked to “exhibit” in the Museum of Western Civilization as a “new artist’.   This is beauty pageant at its finest – and fraught with all the attendant subjectivities.  Given enough time and enough popularity, or significant enough communal acknowledgment, new artists are admitted to the Canon of Western Civilization.

There is no morality attached to either choice – both are vital roles for the continued exploration of what we know as Western Civilization.  Those who wish to master the great existing works of Western Civilization may well be best suited by pursuing the formal education and path that leads to the established expertise of a curator.  It is likely the only way to be “heard” – there is no international career opportunity for amateur classical performers.  For anyone who doesn’t desire, or can’t pursue the formal path to artistic orthodoxy, it makes more sense to directly follow one’s artistic passion early and often – striving to do something different, unique and truly creative.  On this path, adherence to Orthodoxy is one choice among many, and not a primary concern.

The creative path is non-linear, disjoint, and has many different milestones than the clear and well-worn path to curatorship in the arts.  But it is the way to make it into the history books (even if you don’t write them).  Which path makes the most sense for you?  Are you chasing it?  Would you rather write a history book, or be the person written about?