'99 THESES 

Ruminations on the dilemma faced by arts critics

"Live outside. Come inside." The phrase rings like a Zen koan. "Live outside. Come inside." As fundamental as breath, as the heartbeat. "Live outside. Come inside." A contained brilliance, like the wisdom hidden inside your mother's most important admonition: "Chew with your mouth closed." "Live outside. Come inside."

Although Zenlike in its resonance, the phrase is actually attributed to a late-20th-century Hebrew sage, Sandy Koufax. The Dodger legend, the unhittable lefty of the 1960s, one of those athletes who always seemed separate from those players around him, possessed of a nobleness not unlike DiMaggio's, the Super Jew excelling in the Gentiles' summer game, who left that game at his peak, who would not perform on Yom Kippur with a World Series game at stake, who, as he aged, always remained the handsome athlete, bronze and compact, who at 50 learned the split-finger in Dodger training camp and struck out boy/men half his age -- such personages reach a point where they speak the essences of things.

"Live outside. Come inside." In baseball parlance, as Koufax conveyed the few essential words to Al Leiter one spring, this dictates the pitcher's proper approach to his craft. The pitcher lives on the outside part of the plate. He locates the ball away, away, away. The pitcher grants the batter the inside part. (All great pitchers are arrogant -- Koufax, Gibson, Clemens. They believe they control the game, which in essence they do. The game begins when the pitcher delivers the ball. The language of baseball acknowledges the pitcher's predominance -- a game is won or lost depending on how many runs the pitchers "allow"). If the pitcher risks moving into the batter's half of the plate, he'll be taken outside the park. But if that batter begins to lean over the plate to better rap that outside pitch to the opposite field -- getting the pitcher where he lives -- that's when the pitcher must come inside with the high heat, backing the batter off the plate.

"Live outside. Come inside." The directive contains within its chiseled eloquence an epigrammatic appeal that carries beyond the ballfield. Koufax's genius extends beyond the tutelage of Al Leiter, as the genius of any artist's craft serves as metaphor for other parts of life, as when thoughts of DiMaggio's endurance through pain inspires the fisherman to hold onto his catch in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (or the way thoughts of Willie Mays inspire Woody Allen to greater feats of lovemaking with Diane Keaton in Play It Again, Sam).

"Live outside. Come inside." It's a phrase about balance, about exits and entrances, about boundaries, about integrity, about relationships.

These thoughts pester in the dark days of the year, far from summer, a time when many people contemplate why and how they do the things they do.

How does a critic, commentator, reporter of a local arts scene maintain integrity and critical acuity in that small, overly familiar group who make up that scene?

"Live outside. Come inside."

One needs to cultivate an outside observer's eye with an insider's knowledge. One maintains a stance that is both distant yet approachable, generous yet not too familiar, appreciative without being beholden. Every arts writer works to negotiate the balance. Do you go to the parties? How friendly can you get before judgment becomes clouded? It's hard to avoid. It's a small town; everybody needs like-minded friends.

Yet criticism suffers (and, in kind, the arts suffer) when those who write about the arts become too personable with their subjects. Most of the time there's nothing unscrupulous about this relationship (though the potential resides, coiled, sleeping, dangerous), but it becomes more difficult to write honest criticism of the band you've been drinking with or that artist you met at the party who was so infinitely charming. Best -- and this is the serious critic's lot -- to live outside.

Naturally, inside/outside are not precise distinctions, and rules governing the separation of critic and artist are generally unworkable, especially in a small town. Civility is the best guide. Rule 1: It's good to be nice to each other. Rule 2: In writing, be bold.

Artists, arts organizations, presenters come to the media in the posture of need. It is easy -- can even be a relief -- to dim critical awareness in favor of serving the needy. Underlying this relationship is an arts-booster mentality: Art is important and necessary and good for people and must have support, or civil life as we know it will deteriorate.

This is a mantra anyone involved in the arts has recited, but it is only partly true (especially evident if one lives outside the faith). Put the word "good" in front of "art" -- good art is important, etc. -- and the recitation becomes less rote and attains some relevance.

There is a disarming of intellect (for those involved in making or presenting the art as well) when those writing about the arts become promoters. This is where Koufax's equation goes out of balance, when people begin to live inside, when the arts writer scribbles promotional material that is not wholly sincere, doing good for something other than good art. The writer's prose turns maudlin and clichéd. Critical acuity is dimmed. Politeness reigns, with pats on the back and busses on the cheek and praises given as the ranks of mediocrity are buttressed once more. The inside is a cozy place, but it is no place to live.

"Art lives upon discussion," Henry James wrote. It is enlivened when that discussion is keen, passionate and unrestrained. That happens in an environment where the critic comes inside to take part in the discussion, curious and intrigued by this activity that has enticed him or her from the outside life. Otherwise, one becomes a booster, resulting in a benign discourse that doesn't make for a very interesting read -- or for a very lively arts scene.

Outsiders are always threatening, of course, because they say what they mean. They fail to give honorable mentions to less-than-honorable work. They don't write press releases for the chamber of commerce for the arts. They write about art rather than Art, meaning that the individual work is brought into focus rather than some vague abstraction. They dispense with the idea that art is a corrective and good for all: "Go see the art and you're going to grow up strong and tall. Swallow it all down, now." Interesting people never want what's good for them.

"What's wrong will always be wrong," wrote the poet Richard Hugo. What grinds a critic down is mediocrity, which is the general state of everything. Consider what first drew you to art, enticed you inside the movie house or theater or museum or concert hall or club. You came inside to experience something extraordinary. You discovered paradox: You came inside to actually be transported outside, beyond what you had known.

But critics have to go see lots of stuff because that's the job: another flailing of the canvas, another frustrated attempt to bring life to the stage, another demonstration of musical chaos. How one survives the continuum varies -- to feign exuberance or to just turn bitchy and mean. This is why that outside life is so important, the place that sustains and appeases. Koufax did not pitch that World Series game on Yom Kippur: His life outside kept his perspective and values clear. He knew what a game was, and he knew that when his arm began to deteriorate it was time to leave that game.

For art isn't life; it hardly is a life. Lots of people have gotten lost suspecting otherwise. A couple of years ago in an RFT interview, the performance artist Laurie Anderson admitted that she didn't go to see art in New York (her local scene) for about 10 years (those years being the indulgent '80s, not by coincidence). Throughout that time she was engaged with her art but removed herself from that amorphous entity called "the art world."

In the critic Dave Hickey's invaluable collection of essays Air Guitar, he writes of the jazz legend Chet Baker. In the 1950s, Baker was movie-idol beautiful and was being targeted for Hollywood as another James Dean. But Baker was into junk, got busted for it and blew that fame away.

As Hickey notes, Baker's life is defined as "tragic" in "the popular ethos." Found dead in the street beneath his Amsterdam hotel room in 1988, Baker's obits were sprinkled with such phrases as "wasted talent" and "lost opportunities."

Yet Baker "lived fifty-eight years, recorded sixty albums, played ten thousand gigs for millions of people, and died with gigs left to play," writes Hickey. "Finally, by refusing to have a career or to make history, he managed to do both, and in the end achieved the rarest of prizes. He had a life in the arts ... in real time."

Like Koufax refusing to pitch on a holy day, or knowing when it was time to quit, aware that those "worlds" (the sports world, the art world) are thin bubbles with only so much air to breathe.

So when the critic comes inside -- to the theater, to the gallery, to the club -- it is a new experience each time, somewhat alien, somewhat extraordinary. One is not invested in the protocols of community (that much-abused word) but in the experience itself. One can warm to the pleasures and displeasures of that experience. And afterward, outside, one can deliver the high heat.

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