Tropes of the Times

When Did Inside and Outside Get So Chummy?

Outcasts can be allowed a break. For example, the Times noted, the snobbish Lord Byron "had some compassion for outsiders . . . provided they were picturesque." And they are always welcome in the arts. The Times' 2003 crop of outsiders included David Bowie, critic Alfred Kazin ("an eager outsider"), photographer Bruce Davidson ("the outsider's insider"), and Yoko Ono ("I always had such a feeling of being an outsider"). Indeed, comedians who remain strangers to the fringe are doomed: One critic noted that while "the best monologists are outsiders who thrive on skewering the status quo," Bob Hope was an "inveterate insider who treasured his access to the powerful"—and whose jokes lacked edge.

Alas, 2003 will go down as the year the Times introduced "Fashion Insider Ken" and used "outsider décor" to describe an actor's habit of collecting found objects. It was the year the Times promoted a collection of "outsider art" (defined by Christie's as work made by "insane, institutionalized, unschooled, and other 'culturally isolated' individuals"), first calling the work a hard sell, then asking why it couldn't be sold, then explaining why heavily hyped outsiders might turn into sellouts. Finally, it was the year the Times' Guy Trebay reported that because mainstream marketers have learned "how to bottle the subversive, the margins, the fringe," there are no outsiders left to co-opt.

Now all that remain are faux outsiders, the ones who drop the insights as soon as they get in the door. One hopes the Times will get better at screening the two-faced cliché. As R.W. Apple Jr. asked about Howard Dean recently, "Is he an outsider still, or is he an insider? On tour last weekend, he sometimes sounded like both in the same day."

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