Faculty Artist Evaluation, Artistic Freedom, and Audiences

Artistic freedom is sometimes held up as an absolute requirement for any serious artist. Yet for university artist-professors, colleague and peer evaluators, as well as audiences and donors, frequently have agenda that restrict that freedom.

While freedom of expression is essential to artistic quality, that freedom is limited. Absolute artistic freedom does not exist any time the artist needs or wants financial support, good reviews, ticket sales, or positive evaluations to get or keep a job. Anyone who has control over rewards or recognition desired by the artist will have some impact on the art produced.

Sometimes this impact is explicit, as when a composer accepts a commission for which the performance medium or duration is stated. At other times, a more subtle control may be seen as simply a fact of life. For instance, a composer does not need a marketing director to point out that not many people will pay $50 a ticket for a three-hour opera of atonal music set to a text in an ancient foreign language. To deny the fact of some influence when money, critical acclaim, or a good evaluation is sought is like refusing to believe that rocks are hard or that water is wet.

This is hardly a recent phenomenon. I know of no evidence of a halcyon time in the misty past when artists could produce whatever they wished, totally on their own terms, with no regard for those whose support made their work possible.

Some argue that today's artist-professors should be evaluated only by colleagues (in the artist's own department) and peers (in other universities). Presumably, if only artist-professors review the work of artist-professors, evaluations will be untainted by commercial considerations and other extraneous motives. That is, artistic freedom will be protected.

This position poses two interrelated problems. The first is that the most significant limitation on artistic freedom may well come from the colleagues and peers themselves. Unfortunately, faculty reviewers have occasionally been known to be petty, jealous, and even vindictive. Suppose Salieri had been Mozart's evaluator. Worse yet, imagine how a committee of Salieri and his cohorts would have evaluated Mozart's work.

I have personally known faculty committees to reject an otherwise qualified candidate in some traditional field of music for no good reason other than the candidate's side interest in jazz. I have known young teachers who were afraid to reveal their interest in music theater, or rock, or country music, because they knew their senior colleagues would disapprove. Untenured assistant professors have confessed to me their reluctance to speak out on artistic or educational issues for fear of retribution in their tenure review. Marginally qualified senior professors have been known to engage in campaigns to prevent the tenure of a talented and energetic younger faculty member who might become a professional threat. A system in which only faculty artists evaluate faculty art suggests relationships so closed as to seem ill-advised if not outright incestuous.

This is not to suggest that colleague and peer reviews are frequently corrupt. Sometimes they may be, but that is certainly the unpleasant exception. Most reviewers, most of the time, are motivated by the highest professional standards. Moreover, beyond evaluating artistic quality, senior faculty have an obligation to help a department maintain its sense of priorities. No department can afford to take up every new idea that comes along, however valid it may be. Higher education is properly chastised when it promises more than it can deliver. This is no less true in the arts than in other disciplines. The point still stands, however, that on occasion colleague and peer review can become a source of pressure to conform to the expectations of the artistic/academic establishment and thus restrict the artistic freedom of the individual artist.

The second problem, however, is pervasive and more difficult to deal with. When colleagues and peers are the only evaluators, artists can easily come to have too little concern for effective communication with audiences. Art is not the concern only of the university or artists; it is important for the society as a whole. When an artistic metaphor "clicks" (or "resonates" or "works"), our individual dreams, hopes, and aspirations somehow form a spiritual bond with the myths, beliefs, and values that sustain our society. Artists thus not only speak to individuals but also reflect and shape the culture. Because they form the links that connect artists with the larger society, audiences are central, not peripheral, to the arts. For these connecting links to be strong, artists must know if they are "getting through" to their public. It therefore seems appropriate to ask that evaluation of university artist-teachers take into consideration the power of the art to communicate with an audience.

And yet we cannot escape the fact that consideration for audiences carries with it some limitation on artistic freedom. When an artist seeks financial support, either in the form of grants or box office success, he or she is subject to the temptation to produce works that will continue to attract the needed dollars. The possibility exists that the artist will drift close to an anxious and misplaced effort to seduce the audience with glitz and schmooz. About the only good thing to be said for the "art" produced by such artistic philandering is that it usually doesn't last very long. On the other hand, it is hardly philandering for an artist to take a genuine interest in what some portion of the general public is able and willing to comprehend.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that artistic freedom is unimportant. Artistic freedom is the single most important condition for the arts to flourish. Without that freedom, it is difficult to imagine valid, or even interesting, art in any medium. However, artistic freedom is inevitably limited whenever artists must depend on the assistance of others in transforming the images of the mind to the concrete realities of time and space. Peers and colleagues, as well as audiences, have legitimate interests in the arts. We should be grateful for anyone who is sufficiently concerned with the arts to want to have an influence. The goal should not be to try to do away with the interests of various groups, but to engage those interests vigorously and guide them in the service of art. A vital art is a collaborative venture involving artists, evaluators, and audiences.

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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

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