Art As Sport

Adam Petty Fencers Photograph Courtesy of Getty images

Adam Petty
Courtesy of Getty images

Sport and art have been identified as activities that occupy distinct cultural spheres. I believe that this divide is narrowing. While viewing the current exhibition held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, In the Flesh, I paid homage to great champions of figurative art: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Pablo Picasso. It was as if art was a game, being played out in the arena of the art gallery. Similarly, I could have been attending the Sydney Cricket Ground watching my heroes of the Australian Cricket Team: Michael Clarke or Brad Haddin. Some still believe that sport has largely been associated with popular mass culture, and art as ‘breathing the more rarefied air’. However art and sport are both subject to drugs, political activism, scandal, legal issues, snobbery, government intervention, hero worship and mass commercialisation. The arenas where sport and art are played out are similar in two important ways. They both require a participatory and a spectatorial aspect. There are the artists and athletes who produce the entertainment and the viewers who benefit from this.  Before the 19th century it may have been said that you wouldn’t go to a football match the same way you would go to an art gallery however these days the spectator is very much at the forefront. The current exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Italian Masterpieces, is an example of a show which has mass appeal due to its popular content, accessibility and mass marketing. These strategies are also employed within the area of sports events. Cricket chose to further enhance the game with the introduction of the ninety over, a day game, adding to the enjoyment of the spectator. The satisfaction of the spectator is paramount in the planning of both a sporting and art event. An art exhibition will be marketed in much the same way as any sporting event. Newspaper advertising and online marketing will be used for any major sporting event. The expectations are common for both. Tourism numbers will be noted, sales figures for associated marketing material, and ticket sales will give an accumulated tally for the success of the event. Some might argue that sports are physical and arts are cerebral, however the line is blurred. Any athlete can spend as much time thinking about how to improve his performance as an artist would perfecting a technique. The idea of excellence is common to both. Excellence requires a creative mind. Famous golfer Arnold Palmer is said to have invented the concept of “attacking golf”. Tennis was further enhanced with the development of the serve and volley game in the 1940s. Even within the rules of a sport there is room for flair, and creativity, which is often viewed as the sole domain of the arts. Whether viewing an art exhibition or a game of footy, the crowd is excited, emotionally charged and thoroughly engaged with the spectacle. Both art and sport suffer from those that take a superior stand, and artists such as Ken Done and Charles Billich are often dismissed because they are seen as too commercial. Many within the fine art community cannot forgive Ken Done for practising in the commercial world of design and then crossing over to the serious world of painting. It was Brett Whiteley who famously said “I’d rather take methadone than Ken Done”. When Art Monthly featured a Ken Done print on its cover in November 1995, a number of readers actually cancelled their subscriptions. Snobbery within the sports arena is also prevalent. Within the game of Australian rugby, rugby union takes top position followed by the game of league. One commentator wrote in the online publication The Roar, that “rugby league vs rugby union is like checkers vs chess.” Art and sport in the 21st century are ‘products’ to be marketed and sold to the public. Sport and art compete on a level playing field vying for the ‘spectator’ dollar. The consumer is definitely the winner in the competition for attendances to games or events. To achieve the level of excellence required within both arenas the players require intelligence, strength and creativity. I believe that this is common to both art and sport.  There are many patrons of the arts who might attend a game of cricket in the morning and attend an art event in the evening, applying the same set of emotions to both. Sport, like art, has been shown to adapt to attract spectator numbers. Art galleries since the advent of ‘block buster’ events are attracting a more varied audience. As the divide narrows the audiences will benefit.