A few days before my book on Curatorial Composing was announced by Cambridge University Press, a composer friend had asked on Twitter whether we have reached ‘peak curation’. I have a book to sell you (only £17, or £15 for the e-book), so of course I don’t think the term is already dated, but there are also good reasons for that. For one, the term has been around for two millennia, so unless all words become redundant through over-use then the task is really to use them more precisely – and I think at heart that’s exactly what the Tweet was aiming at. If anything, the term is becoming more not less necessary. I’ll briefly suggest why that is to show the stakes involved.

I’ll put this very bluntly. In my lifetime (I’m 50) the question of musical – and artistic – value has become imperilled and curatorial practice offers perhaps the best way of addressing this.

As I was doing my degree and Masters in the early ‘90s the idea that classical music was the privileged site of musical value came under fierce critique. It was suffering ‘terminal prestige’, as Susan McClary put it. Arguments raged and polarised positions were adopted – broadly along the lines of ‘inherent value’ of musical works based on (usually ill-defined notions of) aesthetic quality, or of a kind of ‘external’ or ethical value of the ways musical practice addressed the social, political, and economic domains of cultural life. This has become further interlaced with questions of equity and representation, with the classical tradition in particular belatedly facing its White, male, ableist, and heteronormative norms centred in the Global North. In short, the fires are still burning.

This also has so-called ‘real-world’ effects. I’ll give an example from early in my working life. I worked for a time for a region of the Arts Council, not as Music Officer but on lottery funding and strategic issues such as arts and health. The Music Officer had no interest in the classical tradition and could be highly dismissive, such that new work unconcerned with commercial imperatives effectively had no advocate. It’s not that I was flying the flag for ‘contemporary classical’ music – a term I dislike; my opinion was more that if you’re going to dismiss something then it’s important to hate it properly, which means you have to understand and at some level respect what it is you’re dismissing.

In the years since then, I’ve observed that as public funding for music has supported a much wider range of musics – a broadly positive move – the assessment of ‘value’ has been eroded. On the one hand, value is equalised to a more generic notion of ‘quality’ usually based on an artist’s track record. On the other, much greater emphasis has been placed on ‘public benefit’, commonly expressed in terms of relevance, of representation, and of the metrics of how many people engage with or are exposed to the music. As a consequence, funding decisions increasingly appear pragmatic, emphasising worthwhile and measurable conditions of diversity and inclusion over immeasurable and uncertain considerations of value.

Put differently, the values we increasingly live by have been reduced either to market principles of monetary equivalence (exchange value) or to instrumentality (use value).

A ticket to contemporary jazz can then be equated with the price of a pair of boots, whilst artistic life begs its cause by insisting on its contributions to economic growth or social regeneration, exposing it to comparison in outcomes with public investment in education or ‘defence’ industries. By contrast, the kind of value that the concept of art and the field of aesthetics were designed to articulate – universal, Idealist, anthropocentric – has retreated from public conversation.

I’m surely not alone in having glanced across at the gallery arts with a degree of envy at the amount of money that floats around there. I could tell you stories of that, though you’ll no doubt have your own. Anyway, I’m not ashamed of that envy, though I’m not proud of it either. Like most musicians and composers, I’d like to earn a living. We might think that by adopting the term ‘curator’ it might be possible to invoke the sense of value that seems to persist more securely within the gallery and biennial, but this has two fundamental problems. First, the literature on curating treats music as out of bounds, beyond the pale, akin to ‘curating’ restaurant menus. Even sound art and performance art, both of which have gained traction and acceptance within the formerly visual arts, are barely mentioned. Second, all is not well within the gallery world. A few select artists may get fat from the art market and the support of elite institutions and curators, but the vast majority earn broadly similar amounts as musicians i.e. poverty wages. Many practitioners have abandoned the term and discourse of the ‘curator’ as the artworld’s distinction from the ’real economy’ of neoliberal power has worn vanishingly thin. Gregory Sholette has called this ‘bare art’, an art whose veil of mystique no longer hides the immodesty of what is exposed beneath. In sum, the model of aesthetic autonomy separating ‘art’ from ‘life’, production from reception, has been collapsing, taking with it the conventional understanding of ‘the curator’.

In this situation, the art market and art’s institutions continue to function as if everyone knows what art is, but only as long as that assumption goes unquestioned. Art is adapted to and accommodated within a political economy that continues to destroy the public sphere on which the notion of art itself is premised. Artists are made to compete for funding and critical attention like athletes, as if the quality of their work could be measured like the race to a finishing line. Self-consciously detached from the political world, arts organisations have been favoured recipients of support from toxic industries (from tobacco to oil) keen to cloak themselves in respectability and glamour.

Four positions present themselves and may overlap. First, the universal value of art can be reasserted on the basis of an unquestioned greatness of the canon, with perhaps a sprinkling of diversity to avoid the impression that it remains the preserve of dead white straight men. However, I have not yet met an argument in good faith that truly validates this. That bird has flown. The genie is out of the bottle. Art is historically conditioned, not fixed for all time, and it is highly questionable whether the historic conditions that gave rise to the modern notion of art in the 18th century continue to determine the question of art today.

Second, it is possible to dismiss the idea of art altogether. Music just needs to compete in the marketplace and the attention economy along with Netflix and escape rooms. Spotify provides an exemplary model for this, perhaps, where all music is equally available, each musician competes for ‘followers’, and vanishingly few artists earn a living from it.

A pragmatic position, third, might hold that there are simply many kinds of art and all are equally valid. This is broadly the status quo, but as the art theorist Peter Osborne has pointed out, this empties the problem of art of the very question of value that its concept implies. The critique of relativised value, each to our own, still holds.

The necessity for a fourth option remains acute. We need a public conversation and practice of art that does not fall back on re-heated arguments that it provides a moment of transcendence within a world of tears, but that can be adequate to grasp both the value and the necessity of challenging and difficult work such as Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger. The paradox that the number of young people wanting to study and practice art has increased exponentially at the very same time that the possibility of earning a living from it has declined precipitously demonstrates that a fundamental difference with the values of the neoliberal marketplace continues to provide hope for another possible lifeworld. As Sholette observes, ‘If [art’s] institutional power persists in attracting even its opponents, perhaps it is because we love it, or at least the unselfish image it projects, more than it could ever love itself.’

This brings me back to the curatorial, which I think offers a fourth position. One of the most thorough philosophical accounts – Jean-Paul Martinon’s Curating as Ethics – emphasises the value of all values as its basis: life itself. Let’s not forget that the term derives from the Latin for ‘care’ (cura), a complex term that also generates its ambivalent counterpart, security, or being ‘without care’ (se-cura).

What has music to do with any of this? Well, you’ll have to read my book and let me know what you think! But for now, I’ll just note two aspects of this relation. First, music is universal, or at least I’m not aware of any culture that has dispensed with music in its broadest sense. (That is a distinct proposition from the idea that there is one kind of music that is universal.) Second, music like life concerns above all things a feeling for time. Whilst the value of time can be rendered in terms of exchange – the basis for wage labour – it remains uniquely precious. How much is your next hour worth? What price would you put on another year’s life for your mother? Does this time only have value when it is put to use, when it is productive, or when it is deployed to tick off a bucket list?

In the book, I’ve written about John Cage because he was fundamentally concerned with the musical feeling for time – something that Pauline Oliveros also picked up, as I’ve written elsewhere. Cage dissolved the last vestiges of traditional ‘autonomous’ value for classical music stored in the ‘musical work concept’ and began to compose with the time of experience itself. Heiner Goebbels does much the same but with different techniques and concerns, bringing music closer to language and bringing audiences in the presence of meaning. I develop much of the argument from my experience of his production of Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, and in particular a section that featured 100 sheep and a zeppelin.

They are not the only ones. I briefly mention Oliveros and Jani Christou, for example, both paradigms for the curatorial work of documenta14. More broadly, I recognise at work for many composers and musicians now a musical concern for the articulation of time and for ways of making it present by composing frameworks of experience distinct from concert conventions or other pre-fabricated models. I find this encouraging.

I hope, then, in at least a small way that my book might offer ways of thinking about compositional practice and musical (and artistic and more-than-human) value that might stimulate, offer motivation, and provoke thoughtful reconsiderations of how the values we live by might be realised in the structures designed for teaching, researching, financing, and practising them.

Ed McKeon is a curatorial producer, lecturer, researcher and writer with significant experience across a wide range of contemporary music, sound, and arts. He is founder and Director of Third Ear Music and collaborates with contemporary musicians, composers and artists to produce new work in the borderlands between music and other disciplines.