The Art of Sport, the Sport of Art

3 06 2011

This last semester at Boise State University, a student posted many fliers with a drawing of a person, shown from behind, wearing a baseball cap, hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans and holding up a foam “#1” finger.  The only text printed on the flier read “BSU Art Student.”  Not long after they were put up, a student (or possibly multiple students) started writing “Sports > Art?” on the sweatshirt of the figure.

I do not know who posted the fliers or what their motivations may have been.  In a university art department, anything could be and often is accepted as art, and this may have been part of a public spaces assignment or could have just been one student’s silent visual protest about something.  The addition of the text, “Sports > Art?” leads me as a viewer to think that the fliers are a protest about, or at least a calling to question of, the places of both sport and art in the hierarchy of the university.

BSU is a school that is currently more widely known for its football team than any academic program.  It is easy for students and faculty to see the elevation of sports in an academic setting as unfair to the purpose of the institution.  And, certainly, there is a good deal of indignant jealousy concerning the amount of money that is allocated to football when compared to what is spent on the Art Department.  In the past few years, BSU has constructed a multi-million dollar indoor practice facility, an even more expensive luxury skybox addition to the stadium, and made equally expensive renovations to the blue field-turf on which games are played.  Meanwhile, the Art Department is spread across five buildings on campus, uses and re-uses aging equipment, and has made budget cuts similar to all academic departments in almost all state schools in this economic downturn and conservative fiscal climate.

It's a $36 million shoebox stuck on the top of a football stadium!

But my purpose here is not to whine about the unequal amount of funding for academic departments compared to football.  To the contrary, I argue that football at Boise State is doing a lot to keep the university growing both physically and in stature.  Campus has been in a near-constant state of construction for the last four or five years with remodeling and additions to existing buildings and construction of new ones.  Some of the construction money comes from income the school receives from television deals and football bowl games.  Much more of it comes from private and corporate donations, often from people and companies in the Boise community, who have come to support the school through their familiarity with the football team.  The entire city of Boise turns out for games and is attached to the school because of it.  This year’s BFA senior exhibition didn’t bring out 30 thousand people and close to a million more via television, but every home football game does.

Familiarity with the football team translates to recognition outside of Boise as well.  When a person applying for a job has “Boise State University” listed on their resume, there is a strong chance that whoever is reading that resume is aware of the school because of the football team.  This might not translate into a high-paying position or even a job offer, but it will translate to more recognition than, say, a degree from “Jackson State University.”  Coincidentally, that is a name I just made up.  A quick Google search tells me that a school by that name actually exists.  Do you know anything about it?  Probably not.  If  you aren’t from Boise, did you know anything about Boise State when you started reading this blog?  Maybe.  The chances are certainly higher.

The intersection of sport and art is more than simply a relationship of monetary benefit or prestige through recognition.  The stereotype is that fine artists don’t like sports—that they are too mainstream, to bourgeois for those involved in high culture to bother themselves with—that they have supplanted religion as Marx’s “opiate of the masses”—that they serve the same purpose of distraction as Roman gladiatorial games or Jerry Bruckheimer movies.  But art and sport accomplish many of the same things, and employ people with similar attitudes and aims.

The phrase, “The art of _______,” is unhelpful.  You can put anything in the blank—basketball, cooking, tying flies, marmot wrangling—anything you want, and it always unclear what is actually meant.  I suppose it means that whatever the activity is, if there’s an “art” to it, it takes some creativity or improvisation.  It could also be attached to ideas of beauty or taste.  But contemporary art doesn’t universally attach itself to creativity or beauty, and the art that I am advocating with this blog is concerned with interactions over any notion of so-called “artistry.”

This isn't the kind of art I'm addressing, but it is beautiful!

My argument here is not that there is an art to sport, but that sport is art.  It works in the way performance art works.  The athletes perform the action:  they run the race, they shoot the ball, they make the tackle, they tag the base.  The fans respond to the action and interact with the athletes:  they cheer the home team, they boo the visitors, they get anxious in close games or during foul shots, they are sad if there is a loss, they are elated with a championship win.  A sports fan is more invested than a viewer watching a film or TV show.  The fan will continue the relationship to the point where, when the team wins or loses, the fan will say “we” won or lost.  That is a kind of investment and relationship that most artists only dream about.

Accepting sports as art is dependent on accepting the idea that art is no longer something that relies on object-making.  It also requires the acknowledging that art isn’t a direct, didactic form of communication.  Accepting sports as art is accepting Kaprow’s definition of art as a series of meaning-making activities.  Founder of Ferus Gallery and former director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, Walter Hopps, defined art this way:  “Art offers the possibility for love with strangers.”  You can see this at sporting events on a regular basis, from fans patting Reggie Jackson on the back after a World Series home run to my own personal (and surprisingly primal) elation when Eastern Washington University won the FCS National Football Championship.

Fans cheer both FOR players and WITH players.

Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably, what is accepted as capital-A “Art” is more akin to sport than artists may want to admit.  Here I am speaking about art that is a commodity; it is object-based, it is artist-defined and driven, and typically centers around a didactic transmission of meaning.  In this art world, competition for sales, prices, and recognition is as intense as any professional football game.  Artists are normally perceived as being self-driven, though many have rivals (real or imagined) whose work or status they are motivated to surpass.  Jean-Michele Basquiat repeatedly said he wanted to box Andy Warhol.  While there was hero-worship, most definitely, Basquiat was a competitive person and wanted to “beat” Warhol (and other established art-world figures) at his own game.

Basquiat pursued his fight until it actually happened, in the form of a gallery show.

The notion of art as sport is all the more apparent in situations where the competition is blatant rather than latent.  The Turner Prize is awarded to one young British artist each year.  Four artists are nominated.  Three lose.  Due to the subjective nature of art, the competitions for art are based on the evaluations of judges, jurors, curators or critics, in short, experts.  This is similar to sports like diving or gymnastics.  Although, however expert the judges may be, their judgments are subjective.  For athletes, this brings up the idea that gymnastics and diving are more art than sport.  Basketball is objective; the score relies on how many times each team put the ball through the hoop.  It isn’t reliant on whether the judges thought the shooter kept his knees close enough together.

In some circles of competitive art, this objective/subjective relationship with respect to determining a winner is seen as something to be overcome.  This attitude is readily apparent in the world of Slam Poetry.  Last year at the National Poetry Slam finals, teams were not announced by their actual names (which is typically where they are from—something like “Team Boise”), but by arbitrarily assigned letters:  A, B, C, etc.  Also, the names of the poets performing were not announced, so it was simply, “Up next, Team A!”  This was done in an effort to keep the judges from taking into account where a poet was from, how that team was doing in the competition, or any other personal feelings in their judging, and basing it solely on the poem itself.  This does not, and did not, work.  Last year’s Nationals were held in St. Paul and the winner was, wait for it, St. Paul!

All art is judged in some way. At slams, it's simply put into numerical form.

The fact is that no matter how objective you try to make the evaluation of art, it is a subjective enterprise.  Everything about a performer, from the second they step into the venue, is part of their performance.  This includes what they are wearing, how they walk to the stage, their interaction with their teammates and with poets they are competing against, the way they cheer or boo scores, and yes, even where they are from.  All of those factors go into how they are interacting with the audience which is where the art truly is.  It’s not just the individual performance, it’s the entire relationship.

The same applies to the relationship between athletes and fans.  Everything about the athlete influences how the fans react and build meaning with them, from their play on the field to the way they dress at press conferences to their relationships with their families.  Tiger Woods lost his connection to sports fans not because of anything that happened on the golf course, but because of marital infidelities.  In the wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement this week, the highlights shown on ESPN are equally on- and off-court, a monster dunk followed by a press conference where he asks to be addressed as “The Big Aristotle,” or simply a shot of him walking down a hallway wearing a huge fur coat.  He looks like Chewbacca.  It’s amazing.

In both sports and art, the execution of the work is not the entire story.  It’s not even half of it.  The impact is found in the interaction between artist, performer, or athlete and the viewer, audience, or fan.  That relationship is the art, and it happens in sports, in art, and many other places where you might not expect it.




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