On methodology inside curation and the impossible dichotomy between realism and postmodernism

By: Doreen A. Rios

  Sherman, Cindy 2011,  M·A·C Fall Colour Look #1,  photograph, viewed November 2016

 Sherman, Cindy 2011, M·A·C Fall Colour Look #1, photograph, viewed November 2016



This essay addresses three concepts – methodology, realism and postmodernism – pertinent for the development of curatorial approaches. 

In the first chapter, I’ll talk about methodology – which can be defined as a series of rules for regulating a certain discipline – and how it intersects with curatorial practices. Moreover, I’ll provide an example on how curatorship has used methodology to establish statements inside an exhibition. In the second chapter, I’ll discuss the concept of realism – this means the search of absolute truths through art – and the implications it makes about the way we develop as a society. In the third chapter, I’ll examine postmodernism – by this I mean the movement that relies on discrediting all theories – as a creative force and how it has filtered through contemporary creation. I conclude the essay with a procession of ideas on whether the study of this concepts is useful for contemporary curation or not. 

Methodology inside contemporary curation

Methodology means using various systems of research to obtain knowledge about a certain topic. These systems are performed in a way that the researcher can obtain as much information as he can. The methods used for making an investigation can be either quantitative – this means everything that can be measured by numbers – and qualitative – this applies for everything that possesses a quality –. 

The term methodology has been constantly linked to sciences due to its disciplined regime of research, particularly that one regarding quantitative methods. However, it’s important to point out that areas such as anthropology, ethnography, art and curation have also approached methodology as a way of nourishing their investigations. Usually for arts and curation, qualitative methods have a closer proximity to the expected outcome, yet this doesn’t mean that qualitative methods should be put aside. 

A great example of the use of methodology for producing a richer curatorial approach was the exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th century art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, (1984) held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and curated by William Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Professor Kirk Varnedoe of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. This was the first exhibition to put together tribal and modern artworks as a way of making a tight connection between the aesthetics of artists like Picasso, Klee, Matisse and Gaugin with ethnic pre-industrial crafts. This specific exhibition relied in ethnographic methodology by using interviews and active observation as a key element for gathering information and continued to match dates and techniques for creating a seemingly impossible dialogue between both of the central elements of research. 

Realism or the search for absolute truths

The idea of realism has been around since the first human-made depictions of life, and little by little it has approached science as an ally. The notion that some events and situations are determined by something we aren’t conscious of has been haunting men since for centuries, a consequence of this is the deep study of phenomena in order to reveal all of its “mystic” truths.

An example of this way of thinking is Structural Marxism, where its followers subscribed to the idea that every component of society – for instance, economy and politics – has a structure thus if they discovered that structure they could have an absolute truth on the way this components work. They believe that there is possible to have truths that work independently of any individual mind, therefore they are universal. This movement embraces the belief that reason is the best way to achieve knowledge. 

See for example Descartes notion that nothing gets in between you and your mind, this meaning that you can question everything that surrounds you, but yourself. Therefore, realists tend to critique certain situations by filtering them through logic and finally achieving a closer approach to the truth. 

There is a sense of development in motion inside every creation made by realists because they are convinced that progress can only be achieved by discovering the absolute truths. The realist possesses an exceptional technique and has and inclination for the depiction of sordid environments; the artist tends to critique social injustice with the precise representation of reality, with all its flaws and cruelty. 

Postmodernism or the impossibility of structures

Regardless of the various definitions of postmodernism, it seems as if the idea itself of giving it a meaning goes against the beliefs of the movement itself. However there has been a series of explanations that have given shape to the notions behind postmodernism. 

Postmodernism was formally developed throughout the 1920’s, even if some of the ideas that surround this topic have been around since late 19th century, in reaction to modernism. As Dr. Gary Aylesworth (2005) puts it “[…] postmodernism is the strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty and the univocity of meaning.” Also, many times using the latter in an ironical way or as an act of resistance. For example, Cindy Sherman questioned identity through a series of self-portraits where she disguised herself as various fictitious characters, by using repetition and difference she implied that there’s no such thing as a fixed self-identity. 

Hegel, for instance was as a big inspiration in terms of fighting against the idea of immediacy. Hegel claimed that neither language nor thought can – deeply – relate to the world immediately because there are various complex ideas in between every interaction we make. This reflects in the postmodern notion of not taking ourselves for granted since we’ve been mediated by concepts and language that are given by society. In this sense postmodernist thinking affirms that language imposes a structure on us but it’s not able to tell us anything about the structure itself. See for example Derrida’s proposal in his famous statement “everything is a text”, where rather than reducing everything into, literally, a text he claimed that once you realize that the way you think about reality revolves around language, there is nothing that could actually exist outside of it; therefore, the only way to fight against this given ideas is to question every single one of them. 

We can identify four main concepts inside postmodernist thinking: relativism, scepticism, logocentrism and liberation. Relativism refers to the idea that there are no absolute truths, postmodernists defend the notion that every opinion is equally valid and that every individual belief matters, no matter how controversial this might be. On the other hand, very close to relativism, is scepticism – which can be defined as disbelieving the claims of ultimate knowledge (Visual Thesaurus 2016). Logocentrism is the idea that reason is the tool, used by powerful entities, to oppress and disempower other, less compelling, groups. For instance, while talking about world history one could argue that it has been oppressing multiple social groups since most of the history books were written by Occidental white men. Liberation is the final component of postmodernist thinking and it’s the ultimate response to the rational structures imposed by powerful groups – as the name implies this has to do with fighting against this social constructs by exposing the metanarratives used to oppress as well as discrediting the notion of the absolute truth by valuing instead authenticity. 

In conclusion, one could argue that postmodernism is challenging social imposed structures rather than being an enclosed concept in itself and that somehow it is “the illegitimate child of modernism trying to kill its parents” (Carson, 2008). 


Regarding methodology, I truly do believe it’s a necessary concept to adopt by curators since the field can no longer continue to make superficial approaches on artwork and the way it is displayed. I’ve come across a great number of exhibitions lacking content and I believe that has a direct negative impact in the viewers’ experience. Definitely an organized research on cultural phenomena can lead to innovation inside curatorship as well as to enhance the statements behind the exhibition itself. The notion of following a series of steps for researching on a specific topic can also lead to create new intersections between concepts, which can result in a much richer way of curating. 

In terms of realism I think the concept should be understood as a way of engaging with a practice that has existed for centuries but not necessarily as a relevant idea inside the contemporary creation I’m interested in. There is a chance we won’t ever be fully able to leave realism behind and it’s important in a way of recognizing certain notions of art itself but I feel there’s been said everything there is to say about this topic. 

On postmodernism, I think that even if it feels that we’ve had enough of it there’s still a lot to learn in term of curation. There’s an interesting side of postmodern thinking regarding the way artwork should be approached and personally I believe we can take this concept to whole new levels of experience. 

This essay addressed three concepts – methodology, realism and postmodernism – pertinent for the development of curatorial approaches, concluding with a procession of ideas on whether the study of this concepts is useful for contemporary curation or not.


Battcock, G. (1975) Super realism: A critical anthology. New York: Plume Books. 

D’Alleva, A. (2012) Methods & theories of art history. 2nd edition. London: Laurence King Publishing. 

Danto, A.C.C., Horowitz, G., Huhn, T. and Ostrow, S. (1998) Wake of art: Criticism, philosophy, and the ends of taste (critical voices in art, theory, and culture). Amsterdam: G+B Arts International. 

Foster, H., Krauss, R. and Bois, Y.-A. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. 2nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 

Pickering, M. and Griffin, G. (eds.) (2008) Research methods for cultural studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 

Rose, M.A. (1984) Marx’s lost aesthetic: Karl Marx and the visual arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Stangos, N. (ed.) (1994) Concepts of modern art: From fauvism to postmodernism. 3rd edition. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson. 

Bibliography Aylesworth, G. (2005) «Postmodernism», Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2. 

(No date) Available at: moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/6082/releases/MOMA_1984_0018_19 [http://moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/6082/releases/moma_1984_0018_19] (Accessed: 3 noviembre 2016) 

Sherman, Cindy 2011, M·A·C Fall Colour Look #1, photograph, viewed November 2016 

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