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Art by Christopher Blay

PaperCity, a luxury Dallas mag, recently published an interview with Michael Auping, curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

A snippet of one of his answers promptly went viral.

“A few years ago, a museum asked Shaquille O’Neal to curate an exhibition,” Auping said, referring to Kazaam. “That’s like asking me to play for the NBA. It really is. That’s a fair analogy. And I bet I would last longer in the NBA than Shaquille O’Neal would, curating a show of really important art.”

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I thought it was pretty funny and commented on it with the title “Epic Art Battles of History,” referring to the popular YouTube series about rap. My friend Morgan Chivers, not one to shy away from a healthy debate about art, jumped in. Below is the extent of our social media convo. I think art lovers might find it (some of it?) illuminating. At the very least, it’s fun.

Chivers: The first part of the analogy is fair, but the lasting longer part? No way. Both are jobs (obviously) requiring years of training to excel at, but it would be far simpler to have mediocre curatorial skills and feel your way through putting together an exhibition than it would to be mediocre (and relatively short and decades older than the other players) and feel your way through even one game of professional sports.

Blay: I think the gist of the argument is that although they are equally permitted to be in both spaces, it would be just as absurd to ask a curator to play in the NBA as it would be to ask a basketball player to curate an exhibit. It diminishes both professions to assume that either dude is interchangeable in those spaces.

Chivers: I get the gist, and I don’t think everyone can be trained to do anything. People obviously have differing proclivities, and training obviously matters (a lot). But the analogy is, contrary to the re-doubled assertion, not fair. I don’t know when he said this, but Auping is currently two decades older than the oldest NBA player (who played only one game and missed all six shots). Shaq actually has curated art exhibitions and probably will again. While we might engage in ivory-tower debates about the “importance” of the art or the exhibition, I do not understand the cultural or academic value of such obvious hyperbole.

Blay: I think the value lies in educating a public that is increasingly suspect of expertise and experience. You need look no further than the rhetoric of our national politics. The cultural value is insisting that we clearly and forcefully repudiate the idea that education and expertise [constitutes] an ivory tower “establishment” that should be replaced by inexperience and zeal.

Chivers: I agree with you completely on that! Anti-intellectualism is rampant cultural suicide. … My issue with the way he approached this is that the wildly hyperbolic and unsupportable analogy bears none of the hallmarks that education and expertise in serious academic discussions aught to: Overstating one’s case with crowd-pleasing bluster is exactly what we find distasteful about inexperience and zeal, right?

At the core, I think Auping is right. Shaq curating was a media spectacle more than an earnest desire to bring together and powerfully display important works of art and that the attention thus garnered by that museum ultimately damages the cultural standing of museums and professional curating. But the analogy is easily dismantled by the educated and is off-putting to the general public who are infatuated with professional sports/celebrity and already wary of the self-importance of modern artists. …

Blay: Well, you know, the best way to settle this is to have Michael Auping play Shaq one-on-one, then have Shaq curate a one-week exhibit in the Modern’s focus gallery, and televise that shit, and let’s vote on who did it best. Alright, I’m hanging up and calling Shaq.

What do you think? Is contemporary art that precious that essentially anyone can curate an exhibit?

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