Art and Sport

Artist and art critic Peter Hill reflects on the boredom factor of sport and how the Basil Sellers Prize has got it right.

" Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."
-George Orwell, The Sporting Spirit, 1945.

Some of my best friends in the art world love sport. Jon Cattapan (St Kilda), Doug Hall (Collingwood), Danny Moynihan (Richmond), Douglas Gordon (international soccer). I don't get it. For me, the boredom factor set in during early childhood and has never gone away. As Groucho Marx once said, "I watched a cricket match for three hours waiting for it to start."

The 'Venice Biennale' is often described as the 'Olympic Games of the art world’, so who better to ask than Doug Hall, commissioner of the Australian Pavilion for the 2009 and 2011 biennales, about the relationship between art and sport?
“I must admit I wear thin at the implied assumption that sport and art are the natural enemies of each other,” he tells me over a glass of Jimmy Watson’s Chardonnay. “I got Joe Bugner to launch Jeff Koons’ massive tome in Queensland Art Gallery - 'GOAT (Greatest of all Time)' and it was a huge success. Also, one point that’s touched on but not nailed is that for many Aboriginal communities there are three things that matter: family, land and AFL. I know this from personal experience and from artists like Michael Nelson Jagamarra telling me so (he’s a Geelong nut).”

As I sit down to type up my thoughts on ‘art versus sport’ I scan the daily papers and reflect on what friends have told me. The front page headline in today’s 'Sunday Age' (September 19, 2010) is “How Footy fuels state economy” and it begins, “Australian rules football boosts the Victorian economy by $1.64 billion each year, with gambling now the fastest growing of football-related spending, according to a report on the game’s economic impact.” Now, call me naïve, but that sounds a bit like saying “rock music has become one of the most profitable contributors to Australia’s state coffers through the sale of alcohol, crystal-meth, rolling tobacco, and marijuana.”

So, sport is good for the economy. Yet, and I have the torn page beside me as I type, four days earlier 'The Age' reported that “Plummeting revenue has contributed to a massive blow-out in the taxpayer cost of hosting Melbourne’s [pinched from Adelaide] grand prix.” Back in 1998 the government shelled out a meagre $3.2 million (how far could an arts organisation make that go?) while in 2010 the cost to taxpayers has multiplied by a factor of 15 to $49.3 million, and the total cost was $80.3 million. This is more than quadruple the budget for the world’s most prestigious visual arts event, the 'documenta' in Kassell, Germany – and 'documenta' makes a huge profit for the Geelong-sized city on the back of high-end cultural tourism.

Germany loves its visual arts in the same way that Australia loves her sport. On the night that the 'documenta' opens there is usually a 24 hour continuous television news program about the event. Pick any night of any year and there will be serious discussion about the visual arts (and dance, theatre, and music) on most German news bulletins as well as stand-alone documentaries later in the evening. (By contrast, pick any Australian TV channel on a weekend and all you will find is sport, spread across five free-to-air channels and a multitude of subscription services). As Craig McGregor said in 'Profile of Australia' ‘National heroes are drawn from the world of sport, not the world of ideas’.

Yet even the UK, long proud of its literary culture and disparaging of the visual arts, has done an about-face over the past two decades, to the point that the visual arts appears to be one of the cornerstones of the economy courtesy of the young British artists (yBas). I recently read an article in the 'Guardian' in which a home counties bank manager said he had advised his son to go into the creative industries, rather than banking, if he wanted a sustainable, long-term career.

I guess what I’m looking for is a bit more balance. Buy any state or national newspaper and there will be a daily, separate, pull-out section on sport with a plethora of voices making often conflicting points and opinions. If you are lucky, you will get a single voice making a single point on the visual arts (or dance, or theatre) just once a week in the same paper – perhaps 1000 words in total. And that single voice has probably been saying the same thing for the past twenty years, much to the annoyance of his (sadly it is usually a ‘he’) constituency.

My favourite read of the week, anywhere in the world, is the Review section of the 'Australian Financial Review' that can be pulled out of the newspaper every Friday (why can’t it be every day, like the Sports sections in newspapers? God, wouldn’t that make cultural life worth living again?). And what makes it so good is not just that it has an intelligent editor as gatekeeper – unlike much of what passes for information provision on the web – but that editor draws on the skills of fellow editors around the world at 'The New York Review of Books', 'Prospect, Foreign Affairs', 'Harpers', 'The Guardian', and 'The New York Times'. It is like having your own personal search engine, out there scouring the world for the best critical thinking of the week, and all for less than the cost of a latte. In fact, I often front up to a lecture theatre of students and tell them I have the most advanced information device in the world in the back pocket of my jeans – way ahead of what an i-Pad can yet do. And I pull out my folded copy of the Fin Review’s ‘Review’ section. "I can slip it in my pocket, go for a walk, and then find a café or a wine bar and immediately engage with it without having to switch it on or boot it up. And it’s so light. I’ve picked up heavier feathers walking on the beach," I tell them.

Preparing to write this article last Friday, I was so confident that I would find something of value relating to ‘Art and Sport’ in that day’s edition that I bet myself a double malt that I would succeed in my quest. I won, and am enjoying it now.

Sure enough, in the 'Australian Financial Review' (Friday 10th September, 2010) Richard Evans reviewed a book about Hitler’s SS by Adrian Weale (Little, Brown) called 'The SS: A New History'. In it he tells us that the SS was originally conceived as a special bodyguard for Hitler in the 1920s but grew to its full and terrifying strength under Heinrich Himmler in 1929. He turned it into “a racial as well as an ideological elite.” But Hitler and Himmler disagreed about the projected image of the SS. Evans tells us that “The pseudo-Germanic religious cult that he (Himmler) introduced into the SS, with sun-worship and the mystical invocation of Wotan and Thor at SS wedding ceremonies, for example, was ridiculed by Hitler, who devoted a speech in 1938 to emphasising the supposedly secular scientific basis of Nazism.” Putting his case both clearly and bluntly Hitler said, “We do not have cult sites, but sports arenas.”

This struck a very low and deep chord with me. I had just been to see the Basil Sellers Art Prize at Melbourne University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. Hosted every two years, this was its second edition. It is planned, in the words of its very generous sponsor, that it will run across a ten year period “to encourage Australian artists to embrace sport in their work.” So far those Australian artists, 31 in total, have included Daniel Crooks (who won the $100,000 prize in 2008), Selina Ou, Anne Zahalka, Shaun Gladwell, Vernon Ah Kee, Juan Ford, Gareth Sansom, Ponch Hawkes, Phillip George, and this year’s winning art team of Tarrryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont.

When the prize was first announced the word on the street was that it would either glorify sport uncritically or, even worse, encourage artists to warp and bend their honourable art practices, established over many years, in order to ‘fit’ the requested theme – as they might for a big ‘art and landscape’, ‘art and portraiture’, or ‘art and digital technology’ prize. I’m delighted to say that this has not been the case. I estimate that at least half of all the entries so far have been highly critical of the culture of sport, and the other half have unearthed hidden passions for particular sports within the hearts of the selected artists. I have no problem with a respected gallery like the Ian Potter supporting such a competition as I have no problem with a respected journal like Artlink devoting a long essay to the topic.

So let’s look at this year’s winners from Perth, WA, in relation to Adolf Hitler’s praise for the creation of ‘sports arenas’ over mystical cults.

Writing about this video work (and, it’s worth noting, both winners of the Basil Sellers have been users of new technologies), Chris McAuliffe draws parallels in the catalogue to Busby Berkeley musicals and “the aesthetics of the movie musical.” He describes 'Gymnasium' (2010) and its “subtle note of nostalgia” as presenting scenes of “fresh-faced athletes performing rhythmic routines in a slightly archaic gymnasium. The athletes wear simple unbranded clothing; there are no space-age fabrics or lifestyle Lycra. There are no treadmills, work-out machinery or video screens only wooden beams, elegant movements and an almost folksy atmosphere.” Yet a little later he conjures up a different side to what many would take to be a harmless, even mind-numbing, pursuit. “These seductive visual effects have their dark side,” he writes. “Familiar to us today in orchestrated political rallies and staged event openings, the synchronisation of individual performers into a single entity was integral to fascist aesthetics in the 1930s and 40s. The alluring visual effects of Nazi propaganda – which Susan Sontag dubbed ‘fascinating fascism’ – suggest a sinister subtext in sport. As Sontag argued, qualities that are valued in sport – control, submissive behaviour, extravagant effort, endurance of pain – are also foundations of militarised societies. Gill and Mata Dupont suggest that Australians’ national affection for sport and our tendency to embody our national character in national teams carries with it the risk of mob politics.”

When those of us who prefer the arts to sport start whingeing about the topic, personal narrative, often linked to childhood memories, begins to inform the issue.

Take Robert Nelson in 'The Age' (18/8/10) in his review of the current Basil Sellers. “Only one annoyance cruels my daily bike ride to work,” he begins, “and it isn’t the cars. It’s a pain in the right elbow caused by having regularly pounded a tennis ball in my youth. To me it’s sad that doing something so useless can compromise a lifetime of doing things useful...Sadly, sport is unsustainable, and after 30, most of the ‘sporting nation’ is more of a car-to-couch nation.”

I ducked out of competitive sport much earlier, although I have always enjoyed cycling and swimming – in a very non-competitive way. Healthy exercise is very different from competitive sport, without a whiff of the fascist arena about it.

Growing up in a wet and cold Glasgow in the 1950s and 60s the last thing I wanted to do was spend Saturday mornings running around on a sodden rugby field or skinning my knees on a frost-hardened turf. But there was an even more important reason for playing so badly during the compulsory weekly sessions that I would – I hoped – not be picked for the team. Saturday mornings were when children’s art classes were held in the wonderful Charles Rennie Mackintosh Glasgow School of Art. It was the high point of my week. The building seemed to breathe creativity from every pore of its soot-covered skin. No way was rugby going to get in the way of making art.

I started going to sculpture classes there at the age of seven and later switched to painting, which I continued throughout my teens. So, on Wednesday afternoons I would throw the rugby ball forwards, I would miss-kick whenever possible, I would wander aimlessly at the back of the field daydreaming of Jack Kerouac, Graham Greene, and different ways of escape. To me, art and sport were polar opposites, as they were for my soulmate Barry Humphreys.

But here’s the strange thing. While most sports seem so ancient and their rules so rigidly set, for those who invented each sport it must have been quite a joyfully creative act. “How long shall we make this cricket pitch do you think?”, or, “How many holes did we say we’d have on this golf course? Is fifty too many?”, or “How long should we make a game of soccer last? What about seven hours? And maybe we should use some kind of net at each end. We could even make the pitch a square and have four nets and four goalkeepers.”

“What’s a goal?”

Yes, the early rule-setting days of any sport must have been fun and have encouraged ways of flexible thought and playfulness. That’s probably why the game of Quidditch seemed such fun to the young-at-heart readers of the Harry Potter novels. They were joining in, or at least observing, the creation of a new sport – and it was magic.

Sport today performs the opposite function. At its best it appeals to those with a love of rules (think your local ticket collector on trains or buses), a propensity for rigid thinking, and an over-competitive, extremely tribal, spirit.

At its worst – and I’m thinking of Rangers and Celtic in my home city of Glasgow – it fosters a form of colour-coded bigotry. Green scarves versus blue scarves. Catholic versus Protestant. Rival supporters facing each other off from either end of the ground like opposing armies. By contrast, I must say that I’ve been delighted to see family members wearing opposing footy colours wandering around the Art Gallery of New South Wales together, or the NGV, prior to that afternoon’s kickoff.

As Robert Nelson says elsewhere in his excellent review, “Sport socialises us to accept physical effort in exclusively institutional settings, with the promise of an exciting contest and excelling over others. The idea of simply striding to the railway station or pedalling to work fills Australians with dread, because there’s no artificial fix of adrenalin that mobilises us for the heroism of competition.”

Or as Ronald Conway said in 'The Great Australian Stupor', “To be indifferent to sport was to be un-Australian…this judgement…succeeded in terrorising great numbers of young Australians out of any more creative spare-time interest.”

But that ‘spare time interest’ has increasingly involved sport’s close cousins of sex, and booze, and rock and roll. There are some fantastic darkly ‘anti-sport’ images in the current Basil Sellers Art Prize by Ponch Hawkes which Dr Mark Pennings and Professor Robert Pascoe, who are writing a social history of Australian Rules football in colonial and Edwardian Victoria, highlight in the catalogue:

“Bonding rituals are a case in point and are commonly associated with male team-mates in sports like rugby league. In one of Ponch Hawkes’s images she neatly reverses a scene of male into female bonding as the male victim of group sex sits forlornly on a bed while a group of smug sportswomen stand around drinking beer… At the other extreme, as Noel McKenna suggests in his painting, a celebrity like Lara Bingle attracts enormous media and public interest because of her connections to Australian sportsmen, engendering a situation in which the media spectacle becomes far more important than anything to do with sport.”

And so much of sport appears to be about turning healthy bodies into side-show entertainments. Leaving aside those idiots who advocate that sportsmen and sportswomen should be allowed to take performance enhancing drugs so that it becomes a battle of the pharmaceuticals, even those who play by the rules end up looking like pumped-up freaks. In the swimming pool, or on the marathon running track, they put themselves through this masturbatory, repetitious, routine (training from 4.00 am in the morning for God’s sake) – for what? To shave one hundredth of a second off the nearest rival’s time. And often to end up permanently injured as a result.
But perhaps there is some good news. In the September issue of 'The Art Newspaper', Clemens Bomsdorf wrote from Scandinavia:

“In the future more big business will be run by women, which will be good news for museums”, according to Pernilla Warberg, the chief executive of Kultur and Naringsliv, the organisation that aims to marry Swedish commerce with culture.

“Women bosses will increasingly channel corporate sponsorship to arts organisations rather than lavishing it on sporting events as their male counterparts often do”, she said. “It is the people at the highest leadership level who decide on sponsorship and these spheres, even in Sweden, are male-dominated. Men usually prefer football over arts,” said Warberg. “With more and more women taking over key positions, the arts can look forward to increased interest in sponsoring them.”