August 16, 2008

Beijing 2008 Olympics: Sports vs. The Arts

I've never been a huge fan of professional sports. I watch some hockey, a little baseball, world-cup soccer when the bandwagon beckons. Individual, amateur athletics are more compelling. The Olympics, for example. I love stories of underdog triumphs. Countries I once knew only by name now headline the news when one of their athletes excels. But is the spectacle of individual prowess authentic? The big guns like China, Russia, the USA--all funnel millions of dollars to their athletic programs. Canada pours money to its athletes as well. Sponsors come forward, athletes become walking billboards, smile for the television while holding fast-food. Over dinner the other night, my friend Colin raised the question, what benefit does society glean from the success of athletes? What if the same emphasis and funding went to musicians, writers, playwrights, poets, sculptors, painters? Would society benefit more?

Ambiguities like national pride, inspiration are the cursory response. One might suggest most people prefer sports to the symphony, or a play, or a trip through the art gallery because sports are cooler. The very sentiment of these words is manufactured. We've been trained, almost indoctrinated, to place high emphasis on the physical capabilities of people. Pop culture demands it. I don't deny the lure either. But why is a person's ability to paddle a canoe faster than another, or throw an orange rubber ball through a metal hoop, or smack a circular piece of rubber with a carbon stick an instigation of national pride or inspiration? Because it's easy to absorb. Mindless, void of creative thought or process. And what's even more damning is that ascriptions like art form are used ad nauseum in an attempt to intellectually elevate the base.

Perhaps this is a sign of a declining society. If such grandiose support were put forward to the arts, it might prompt equal passions amongst viewers over time. But this too begs another question: would that very same coercion then exist in the arts? Would they become a commodity, an engine for mass consumption? Commercialization of various art is nothing new; bubble-gum music, books, television, prints of nature paintings are more accessible than those weightier efforts of the lesser-knowns. Most of it is utter shit. So perhaps funding causes more problems than it solves. Perhaps a component of artistic merit is the artist suffering his/her way to success. And success then is seen in completely different terms.

Admiration is due to those amateur athletes who work themselves to the bone, carving a niche for their talents. Artists do the exact same damn thing. Refinement, effort, agony. And I know I'm over-simplifying too. Many athletes have artistic interests. And with their newfound fame, they have the chance to be successful with them too. Here comes yet another book from a retired athlete about personal triumph over adversity, a torn hamstring now a metaphor for every day life.

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Anonymous said...

I guess this is more an "each to his own" maybe? On the other side of things switch the words athlete for artist, and ask why then. Not to trash on your blog. Sport is just as much involved (in most cases with exceptions) as the arts, most athletes spend their entire lives dedicating to them as do artists of any sort. Mindless, maybe but maybe that is what average joe needs after working crap jobs and need a getaway from answering stupid questions and dealing with stupid people all day long. The last thing I want is more stimulation of the mind (coming up with answers to satify the stupid public) after a day/week/year/life of work. Some pure unaltered (again mostly) excitement and emotion brought to me is the way to go. Now if the $ went to neither sports or the arts and just supported society as it should and people still followed their passions without the allmighty dollar... then I would agree.

harpoon said...

Gotta disagree, dude. I think emphasis by some is placed on physicalities of people because it's simply tangible to them. There's an art inherent in molding your body and mind to a sport, there's loads of strategy involved, and there's art inherent in that. I've seen people moved to tears by shows of athletic prowess and have been moved myself, but have also been similarly moved by film, music, books, etc's all the same thing if it emotionally resonates with you.

I don't agree with the anonymous fella that it's mindless, it gets a visceral reaction out of you at the best of times so it's valid. Simple as, really.

Personally, the Olympics are alright, it's the OIC that I hate. And I won't get into the whole thing about it being in China that pisses me off...

Harry Tournemille said...

Interesting comments, both of you.

To the anonymous person, my post doesn't disagree with your ideas completely. I too applaud and acknowledge the effort and involvement of athletes. I just argue that an element of conditioning over time has prompted such a mass emphasis. Your funding thoughts are sound to me; I don't know whether public funding benefits athletes or artists. And it is a matter of personal taste, to be sure. I've always been more impressed with individual accomplishment over teams.

Harpoon, I too have been moved on several occasions by impressive physical feats as well. I mean, I love watching MMA, so I'm not completely void of enthusiasm for sport. I don't doubt they're legit, though I suspect the body-mind molding you speak of is more a "determination" thing than an exercise in creative process. Again, it's the emphasis placed on one over the other. If we had been conditioned over time to be more intellectually involved with our sources of entertainment, would we still be as dogmatic with our loyalties to sport?

Thanks for the comments.

harpoon said...

I don't agree that we're not conditioned one way or the other in terms of what we appreciate, looking around me, I think we're presented with a broad palette and we tend to lean in certain ways. The almighty dollar is more there for an exceptional athlete in certain sports (football etc) than the arts, but money does come in abundance to some, and hopefully enough to make a living for others.

I'd say the determination in exercise, the technical perfection, has some creativity in the processes involved in getting there. And in some sport there's a ton of creativity, such as football (soccer) when you see guys picking out amazing passes...

Harry Tournemille said...

Not sure I grab your double-negative in the first sentence. You don't agree that we're not conditioned? Does that mean you agree we are conditioned? Just want to clarify. A broad palette may exist, but surely somethings are far more accessible than others.

A person's inclinations are always based on conditioning; causal chain upon causal chain that leads one to lean a certain way, make a particular choice. Your proclivities for futbol do not derive from some random need to watch people chase leather globes on a pitch of grass.

harpoon said...

sorry about the double-neg, was feeding a baby while typing.

I guess it's a societal condition versus an upbringing of being exposed to everything, and that's where I'm not sure I agree that we're conditioned to like athletes over artists.

Maybe that's my skewed perspective though, and that kind of puts me running in a gerbil's spinning wheel, so to speak!

Conditioning is a selective thing to a degree though, and in this day and age I believe we're not as narrow as before. It's all right there, it's just where either us and/or our peers and parents point us initially.

I can't stop my kids from liking hockey if they do though I dislike it, but they'll have a helluva futbol surrounding at home. I'm curious to see which way they go.

Sam said...

Re: Athletes vs. Artists:

Why not both?

There is a branch of entertainment that involves both the physical exertion and training of athetes and the creative and improvisational talents of the artist.

This type of entertainment features talented people who through discipline shape and sculpt their bodies in service not of a gold medal or trophy but the enjoyment and pleasure of their fans.

Success in this type of entertainment requires the willingness to train harder than any athlete, yet, instead of subordinating one's personality to a team or an Olympic committee, rather to enhance one's personality to mythic proportions, to become the embodiment of good or evil, to strike a tripartite balance between sport, entertainment, and the theatre of the absurd...

Sometimes one must shake one's head in awe--in AWE--of the untapped potential of the World Wrestling Federation.

Harry Tournemille said...


Sam said...

Yeah, it's tongue in cheek. But it's true, isn't it? The great pro wrestlers, guys like Bret Hart and Kurt Angle, are the equivalents in their field of Robert DeNiro and Daniel Day-Lewis, aren't they?

Sometimes I think the less people praise something as an art the more chance to actually create art there is. Like, if Shakespeare knew he was writing for the ages rather than churning out entertainments, would he have come up with the same body of work? Now everyone treats graphic novels like art, but on the whole they were more enjoyable when they were seen as low-class and trashy. And wrestling is like that. Just wait until Darren Aronosky's movie comes out, and people start viewing wrestling as serious. It will happen.

Harry Tournemille said...

Aronofsky's making a wrestling movie? I'll probably see it then.

I think I was using "arts" in about as loose a way I could muster. I was trying to comment on how people's interests are probably more guided or conditioned then they think. Big business in sports, therefor we're more likely to be bombarded with it. But it would be nice to see other avenues of "the arts" awarded such attention. Not necessarily funding...

And I consider graphic novels art. Still got boxes of comics and graphic novels at homes.

Anonymous said...

One more from Anon (although you know me quite well, this topic just is interesting to me) Dont you find it grossly overdone in the "art" world when paintings from well known dead artists go for millions or first drafts of authors or...whatever. The best of the best are overpaid no matter the occupation. That is still a form of conditioning. Being told that a certain artist is worth that much is just plain stupid as is some moron that is good at catching a leather ball. Again on the other side amatuer atheletes in Canada have to have side jobs in alot of cases just to afford life. Im biased on sports and you are slightly more biased on the arts but both are a good thing for society, without the balance I would be terrified of my childrens outcome.

sam said...

There's big business in art, too. The Dark Knight is art, and it made a shitload of cash. The Rolling Stones make art, and ditto, shitload of cash.

And there are sports that get little to no public funding--women's football, women's baseball, women's basketball, etc.

There are always going to be things that appeal to a lot of people, and things that are caviar for the generals. It's inevitable. I don't think that's conditioning, I think it's meeting a demand.

If you take any sport, and take away the money and stadiums and whatnot, there'd still be people playing for the fun of playing, and people watching. And LMF's trying to make a buck off them. Pretty much a given.

Harry Tournemille said...

Sometimes the demand is conditioning though. The effects of media on a person's choices have been well documented, I'd say.

But agreed that both arts and sports have a place in society, positives and negatives alike.

Harry Tournemille said...

As a final note, 'cause I believe this conversation is dying down now, while I find merit in both sports and the arts, the latter is far superior to the former if only because it can achieve so much more.

You can take the old protest songs of Bob Dylan or the slew of paintings both church ordained and not--all saying something important, a call for change, an outrage at perceived injustices. Poetry, novels, film, even some television have the potential for the same--and there are spectacular examples.

Sports do not do this. We can celebrate athletic achievement, marvel at skill and obsess about particular teams, but to me that amounts to the expected response. Art--great art, that is--will always try to move beyond that.

Dave Hume mentioned mankind's greatest flaw as the restless appetite for applause. I like to think there's a way to create something worth more.