If the first priority of good performance art is to be visually interesting, the second lies in the courage of conviction. From the Kipper Kids to Karen Finley to Dan Kwong, the artist must know themselves and their work sufficiently well that they can breeze past the likelihood that they may at times look ridiculous. The artifice of performance is a universal; any club singer knows they had better rehearse their material and any stand-up comic knows they must be prepared to deal with some wise ass in the audience. Performance art knowingly strides into territory that invites unpredictable responses; that is often a central part of the point. What is often regarded as a gratuitous attempt to grab attention for its own sake is most likely a serious exploration of genuine give and take.
That's what I found striking about basketball star LeBron James' lard-filled televised announcement last night. His so-called "Decision," on its face, shared that quality of performance art. Turned out that the set and the camera editing were less than pedestrian, as though some amateur director was telling a high priced production staff loaded with state-of-the-art equipment what to do. Oh yeah, that is just what happened.
The real show was entirely in the star's face. Far from starry-eyed, James was shit-faced. He was back in that game five against Boston. That look not only told the whole story, thus making the rest of this otherwise waste of an hour into a reality show drama of the highest order. It turned it into something wholly other than what I assumed it would be when the infomercial was first announced. It could only be a happy valentine to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, capital of Rustbelt, U.S.A. Whoopy.
Boy, was I wrong.
In about two seconds this guy went from the lovable superstar athlete and leader of a serious NBA title contender to a complete asshole. Fittingly, it was equally clear that even before he uttered those karmic, fun in the sun South Beach syllables, James knew exactly what he is letting loose, though it is equally clear he does not understand it. If he gains the championship(s) for which he is attempting to take an insurance policy to acquire, a guarantee of sorts, this man's inner life has been seriously emptied (perhaps there never was much there anyway). From last evening forward (not to take a darn thing away from his new employer and former Showtime coach here in L.A.) this man now cuts a pathetic figure.
At a minimum, contrary to one line he mouthed, it will certainly not be sweet for him should he even be so fortunate enough to get there. Many will take delight should he never achieve that goal; most would have had he chosen otherwise. Setting that aside, he loses even if Miami wins the next seven championships. The full time sportswriters have already made the obvious points ad nauseam: he is from now on, neither a character guy, nor is he a leader. And that face tells us that he gets this, he knows what he has traded to get something he thinks he must have. That cost will made it harder, but he has only an inkling how steep that price will be personally. It may or may not play out in the media, but in his life he will pay and pay and pay. Heck, his now former franchise, had arranged a trade to bring new teammate Chris Bosh to Cleveland. Bosh had the courage to say "no." If he says "yes" James clearly stays in Cleveland; but this is not on Bosh. Bosh leads. James follows. How awkward.
The talent won't go away, but the inner core, if it was ever truly there, has been significantly damaged. James repeatedly said that this is "a business," and now, for him, it cannot ever rise to a purpose higher than that. How sad.
If James were a performance artist the appearance would have seemed silly at first blush, but we would have come away convinced by his authenticity. Our respect, moving forward, would have been secured. The bland love note to his home town presented in a dumb televised format would have rung true. Even a Laker fan would have shared some warmth if their run of success was ended at the hands of the Cavaliers. Now that would have been worthy of a work of art.