State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Why I don’t like that “art should be sports” argument

Since everything we consider a leisure activity is now in a competitive sport-like format as entertainment, from cooking to home renovation, we have adjusted to a not so subtle idea that competition is no longer the realm of keen and zealous types who want to spend their destiny in the pursuit of winning. Everything is up for grabs now in terms of winners and losers. How perfect that our entire culture and economy have simultaneously metastisized into this stratification where we now identify ourselves in the contexts of “doing well” or “surviving”. You can no longer be both or swing between the two.

I have been thinking about sports and its enormous impact on our culture since hearing from a member of the Ontario Arts Council express their admiration for how it’s institutions and organizations have deftly navigated the worlds of politics, community and business. I have heard this “art should be like sports” argument before.

But sports isn’t like art. You don’t win in art. You don’t lose either. In sports both exists in order for the perfection of body, strength and ability to transcend our own vulnerabilities. I like sports, especially those activities like running which seems to make us like animals – going fast and swift seems to be less about modern humanness to me, it seems more primal.

The aspect of sports that art administrators often site as good examples for art are such ideas as community involvement and how amateurs turn professional. I completely agree that there is something very special about a baseball field and people coming together to watch a game. I believe this is an important part of our culture.

I get nervous when someone thinks that using such an event as an analogy for how the arts can succeed is a good idea or wants it used as a model. Art can’t possibly replicate the winning and losing paradigm. Aside from its subjective nature, it doesn’t have a moral centre from which a good story about heroic ideals can be sprung from. In many cases art can represent dissent, subversive ideas and have revolutionary tones. Though art has been used over the years politically (The Nazi’s Olympia being an absolute synergy of art/sport/politics), it sits most comfortably in that elusive part of our culture where innovation and experimentation is housed – like science.

Refenstahl’s Olympia is a blend of the sinister & the beautiful and still argued over whether it is art

Art isn’t science either but as an institutional example of success I believe that using a science analogy works better than sports. Artists and scientists aren’t completely unlike athletes, they need a community, funding and strive for some sublime understanding. But their work can dwell in the difficult, inexplicable and down right impossible for periods of time until it is ready to be adjudicated by society. We all watch athletes work on their capabilities publically – big difference.

I understand why the arts officer wants to make the sports analogy work; sports is huge business and makes money. Subsidies that go into sports are deemed investments. Subsidies that go into art are deemed, well subsidies. But they are investments too. And we languish in mediocrity, and render futile the biggest engagement with the arts in civilization by not seizing the opportunity to change this narrative.

I still have hope. Canadian Artists’ Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens or CARFAC as it is more widely known has a template for how much artists should be paid for their exhibitions, workshops etc. Most artists/galleries/institutions follow this template and artists get some remuneration for their efforts. They could be doing more but I have a feeling they know this.

One of the many bills before Parliament right now could see artists getting royalties from the resale of their works. I am unsure how this would help contemporary artists sell their work – my suspicion is that it might turn buyers off taking a risk and sticking to very conventional purchasing. But… it is a bill before the government drafted by CARFAC. We need to do this more. We need to get them the ammunition to make such things like this happen.

Culture including science, art, and sports as well as economics, politics and the environment do seem to be converging and I don’t want to sound like some old bird talking about how things used to be better, they weren’t. In fact this convergence could be a good thing for engagement with a public that wants more from all of us. Success at convergence however won’t happen by truncating what art has to offer so that it fits into our current obsession with the simplicity of winning and losing.

Image from Leni Riefenstahl / Tumblr

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3 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. Sport also is not a challenge to watch. You don’t need to educate an audience to watch a sporting event, but the arts are very different – they are dedicated to pushing the envelope of the mind and that can be a real stretch for the public, though they embrace that in the right context. I completely agree with you too that art is not about winning or losing. Great article!

  2. Again, hats off for another highly pertinent article. I have been unfamiliar with the activities of ‘CARFAC’ and I wish there was a similar organization in the States. Also again – about artist royalties; in my opinion it isn’t about artists selling more work today or tomorrow, but more importantly about communities of artists and their families establishing some sense of longer-standing security..

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