Those Who Candide
Okay, I know this is probably a tired observation and all that, but forgive me, I haven’t slept in four days.
WHY I HATE ‘CREATIVE’ PEOPLE, CHAPTER ONE HUNDRED BILLION
Watching the Olympics reminds me of something that’s been true since the dawn of competitive athletics: you don’t have to be good at a sport, or even have ever participated in a sport, to be a good coach or trainer in that sport. It doesn’t hurt, of course, and many of the best instructors and observers of sport have been competitors, but there are innumerable people out there who are gifted at making athletes better despite having no aptitude for athletics. There are short, nebbishy men who championship-winning basketball coaches; there are lead-footed intellectuals who helmed World Series winners; there are doughy women with muscles like a canned chicken who have led gymnasts to Olympic gold; there are obese lunks who never threw a punch who cranked out one heavyweight champion after another. Very few weightlifting coaches are capable of lifting anything close to what their proteges can lift. I knew a fencing coach whose bum leg robbed him of the ability to do the quick movement and footwork the sport demands; he never competed on any level, but under his tutelage, champions emerged.
Though there are a few angry hold-outs who resist the idea that they can learn anything from those who “never played the game”, athletes are usually the least likely to have a problem with this scenario. If a runner is being pushed, guided and disciplined effectively, it doesn’t usually matter to her whether or not her coach can match her speed; it matters only if the instruction is getting results. The guy who taught me to throw a forkball had never thrown one, or any other kind of pitch, but I didn’t care; all I cared about was that it flummoxed most of the hitters I aimed it at. Athletes tend to give credence not to the origin of the advice they’re given, but whether or not it’s effective (this can be a fault as well as a virtue, but that’s the subject of another column). They recognize, as a rule, that they are not born knowing everything about their sport; their greatest assets are their physicality, their dedication, and their talents. Most of them, and certainly the best of them, are perfectly accepting of the notion that someone who lacks their physique, their determination, their ability, can nonetheless teach them something they don’t already know. They’re the ones who are going to get all the glory, after all, when all is said and done; it won’t rob them of their acclaim if a scout, a coach, a trainer, a family member, or even — quelle horreur! — a member of the press teaches them a trick, instructs them in a technique, or shows them how to correct a weakness they might otherwise have missed.
When it comes to our self-identified ‘creative class’, though, many of them are absolutely allergic to the notion that they have anything to learn from anyone, but especially from anyone inexpert in their art. Of course, the arts and sport aren’t the same, as the former lack the rigorous and objective standards of success and failure that define the latter. But in both fields, anyone can benefit from an open mind and a willingness to absorb the knowledge and perspective of others. So why is it that artists and not athletes are the fiercest advocates of the moronic adage that those who can’t do, teach?
All my life, I’ve heard this nonsense. Writers bristle at any criticism of even obvious flaws in their work that does not come from other writers. Artists huff and puff that no one who cannot draw or paint has the authority, as if it were a moral imperative, to teach them something they don’t know about art if they can’t do a better job themselves. I’ve heard musicians suggest on more than one occasion that people with no musical ability dare not pass judgment on music, any more than a beast without a soul dare entertain dreams of heaven. That this is patent nonsense should be clear enough; if music were only for musicians and art only for artists, every culture would be impoverished to the point of nonexistence. Rare is the great writer who didn’t learn the building blocks of his craft from an inferior; great artists become great by being better than their teachers, not from being worse. And yet, if anything, the Internet age, which was supposed to liberate art from the constraints of provincialism and cliquery, has only seen an increase in this attitude that if you aren’t a ‘creator’ yourself, you have no cause — indeed, no right — to comment on those who are.
In a way, this is related to the recent de-specialization of the critic, and its transformation into a nonprofessional, nonessential position in the artistic community. We’ve moved past the point where critics are accused of being failed artists to the point where they are no longer considered artists at all. Lost is the notion that criticism is itself a unique art, and its best practitioners those with an essential skill, related to that of trainers and coaches, to analyze and understand the work of those whose abilities they cannot duplicate; instead, they are increasingly perceived as unwanted intruders, unjustified hangers-on, habitual can’t-dos. This is not just arrogant and ignorant, it’s shockingly self-destructive. Not every critic means well, of course, but the best don’t want artists to fail. They want them to be better. Artists are free to ignore everyone’s advice, and to wrap themselves up in the comforting illusion that they possess a magical gift akin to sorcery that no interfering muggle can hope to understand, but they do so at their peril. There is a term for a boxer who thinks he doesn’t need the help of a trainer, a hitter who scorns the advice of his coach, a tennis player who eschews guidance of those with more experience, and that term is not “world champion”.