Lots of arts organizations have blogs on their websites. Most aren’t very good, and they’re difficult to maintain well. There are many out-of-work critics. And less and less arts coverage in local press. So why not critics-in-residence?
Yeah independence. But let’s suspend for a moment the idea that criticism’s highest calling is simply to inform consumer choice. If instead the idea is to promote informed and interesting commentary, then who has more of an interest in this than artists and arts organizations? If readers knew that a critic was in residence rather than being paid by a local news organization, they might read the commentary differently, but so what? Would you rather read PR boilerplate that nobody believes or the observations of someone trying to engage with the art, even if they’re paid to do so by the institution?
Our ability to judge news sources is much more sophisticated now that it used to be. There is value in a Yelp or Amazon review even if it’s not vetted. If the critic in residence was clearly labeled as such, the conflict is transparent and readers could make up their own minds.
There are critics in the traditional press who pander. A critic in residence who pandered wouldn’t have much following. But what kind of statement would it make for an arts organization to invite a critic to be really critical and help spread that criticism? Maybe a festival with a beginning and end would be a good testing ground.
Of course there are big ethical issues. But art critics already write catalog essays for museums. Music critics write program notes. Newspapers take ads from arts organizations. Rules have been developed to define the ethics of each situation. Why couldn’t there be a critic-in-residence protocol that helped promote intelligent discourse and didn’t compromise the reader, the critic or the institution?
I’m not arguing that critics inside arts organizations (hmnnn… embedded critics?) is any kind of substitute for the Times review or NYRB essay. But the definitions, forms and conventions of journalism are being prodded, poked and reconsidered, and the idea maybe deserves some consideration before being dismissed. Currently there’s no ethical standard for artsbloggers, yet some bloggers have big influence. If there were standards, who would set them?
While I’m on the topic of institutions criticizing themselves in public, I’ve always loved The Stranger‘s long-running Public Editor column, which trashes the contents of each week’s issue. Not only is it fun reading, but it declares that The Stranger doesn’t take itself too seriously.