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Why Sports Are Surging But the Arts Are Not

Post #1777 • July 15, 2016, 11:36 AM • 9 Comments

[Update 7/17: Greetings David Thompson readers.]

Via Artsjournal, Barry Hessenius asks, Sports Are On The Rise, While The Arts Are In Decline. Why?

When I was growing up kids played football, and baseball and basketball. Not every kid of course, but perhaps most. I'm not talking about being on the team and excelling. I'm talking about on Saturday mornings or after-school afternoons or summer time—in the street, at the park or a playground, on someone's lawn. By playing the sport we got to know the rules, the nuances of the game and could understand and appreciate what performing at a high level meant, even if that wasn't the level we performed at. It gave us a foundation on which to watch professional football, basketball and baseball on television (or sometimes in person) and to understand the finer points of strategy, play calling and execution. We had a local or regional team to root for, and we were glued to the tv when they played. We were groomed to be lifelong supporters. ...sports has succeeded in being part of kids lives to an extent that arts have not.


Kids who make art over time, and have parental involvement at the earliest stages, will arguably be like the sports fans later in their lives—interested, committed and supportive; not necessarily artists, but appreciative fans of the arts. That's hardly new. As a field we have known that for a long time.

There are innumerable challenges to making that a reality, including the fact that while sports now enjoys a legacy of parental connection, as well as unparalleled media attention, the arts do not. Thus it will be incumbent on us, as part of our strategy, to address how we get parents involved in the making of art early on—so as to complement our efforts in the schools. We must also devise ways to make access to the making of art outside of, and in addition to, the school settings.... And we have got to figure out how to capture some kind of sustained media attention that involves the public as an audience. Art news, criticism, analysis and other coverage like sports news, analysis, and commentary is essential secondary coverage, but by itself it isn't the same as direct audiences for the performances—whether art or sports.... Possible? I don't know.

From my 2015 interview with Walter Darby Bannard:

Painting survives because of its restrictions. I like to compare it to games. If you go out and play a football game and people get a bat and say, “let’s use this instead,” you’re going to have an audience that says, “I don’t like this.” They want something that has conventions and supports those conventions.

Imagine being one of those kids who grows up playing baseball, and has the talent and ambition to pursue it at the college level. From first through twelfth grades you play with your friends and schoolmates, participate in leagues, admire heroes of the sport, buy your favorite pro team's merchandise, memorize statistics, analyze movement and strategy. You show up at college throwing a 70 MPH fastball and hitting .300. At tryouts your coach looks at you and frowns.

Listen, kid, he says. I can tell you're a serious player with a lot of ability. But baseball at the professional level is no longer about romantic, elitist notions of skillful throwing, catching, and hitting. Baseball has moved on. The big thing right now is hybrid practice, incorporating non-baseball elements like bowling and Twister into the game to make it more open. Let's explore that.

Since you're serious about baseball you listen to your coach and practice accordingly. Coming out of school you're recognized as one of the important emerging Twister Bowlers of baseball. Twister Bowler Baseball is of interest to relatively few people, but they're rich, and since you're male and in your twenties they invest in your work with the hope of reselling it later, or at least garnering recognition as visionaries with discerning, newsworthy, edgy taste in sports.

After a brief spell of stardom you get a tenured job coaching baseball yourself.

By now I hope the problems here are obvious. Hessenius notes at the linked essay that The heart of the sports complex support over the past fifty years has been the farm team system, and that the arts have lessons to learn from that fact. I can only speak for visual art, but there the continuity between the creative acts we engaged in as children and what goes on in the lofty regions of the professional world, by design, have little or nothing to do with each other. A painter I know in grad school—someone deeply thoughtful about materials and surfaces—was told by his department head a couple of months ago that she thought it was important to transcend the romantic idea of the artist working alone in his studio and contemplate how to become a better global citizen. Art that succeeds in doing this sort of thing, or appearing to do this sort of thing, wins praise for raising serious questions about this issue or that one.

Baseball hasn't spent a hundred years smashing its own conventions. Baseball players don't endeavor to turn hitting into a critique of late capitalism. Baseball doesn't call upon fans to comprehend discussion full of coinages by PhD students trying to impress their dissertation committees, or implicitly punish them for having bourgeois values. Audiences instinctively and rightly hate this kind of pretentiousness.

I know from prior experience that I am now obliged to point out that I am not a traditionalist of any sort. I'm one of the few critics I know who will give the revivalists the time of day, but I recognize that hardly any of them are breaking ground in the way that we expect of advanced art. That most of the vaunted innovators are also not breaking ground doesn't excuse them.

Rather, what we need is a massive shakeup of the professional system, and in that I include the universities, about which its denizens can protest all they want but there's no such thing as academic radicalism. We also ought to recognize that the critical community is largely stuck in conversation with itself. This conversation is often only tangentially about art and thoroughly divorced from non-expert aesthetic experience, even among newspaper and magazine critics who ought to know better. We should open it.

So are those changes possible? In fact they may be rudely thrust upon us, with the fortunes of the universities and traditional media looking as bleak as they do. I believe that there is room for something new to sprout from their rubble.



Ryan McCourt

July 15, 2016, 11:56 AM

...I recognize that hardly any of them are breaking ground in the way that we expect of advanced art.

Maybe it's the in the way that we expect part that's the key phrase, here. How much breaking does the ground still need at this point, anyway?


John Link

July 15, 2016, 3:41 PM

When I read about your Twister Bowlers of baseball I almost fell out of my chair laughing. And went beside myself in many other places too. You do get it right, here, there, and everywhere.

I may be missing something or not reading you correctly, though, when you talk about the massive shakeup of the professional system and the expectation that advanced art break new ground. I can't disagree when you say the professional system has not broken new ground for a long time. That's obvious. Nor that it deserves a total shakeup. But I have come to doubt that embarking on such a project would do any good.

Art has been pulling the rug out from under our feet lately, for a long time, actually. With the Impressionists, newness, or something resembling that, came to the forefront. However, each Impressionist's work shared enough characteristics with others in the group so that it could survive quite well under a conventional, unifying label. With Action Painting (later known as AbEx), newness had so many variations it seems artificial to lump them into a movement, except to say what they all had in common was breaking their own particular plot of new ground, with a vengeance. It was newness on steroids. The difference between Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still just did not exist in the Impressionists nor in any other well-labeled movement in the history of art. I sense they got lumped together as Action Painters because advancedness could no longer tolerate one artist's work looking much like anyone else's. Everyone had to break their own specific ground or it wasn't breaking any ground at all. Instead it was derivative or plagiaristic.

But idiosyncratic extremes could not survive when literally hundreds and thousands of artists embraced Action Painting and set up camp on 10th Street. In a very short order we had the dreaded 10th Street Touch, unifying what used to be near anarchy. However, it had the virtue of being visually intelligible, like movements are supposed to be. Unfortunately the 10th Street artists were not very good and soon came to be recognized as such and still are today, so much so that it is a devastating criticism to say someone's work suffers from the 10th Street Touch. This means tasteful, another bad ass accusation. It means pretty, which is beyond the pale if you want to break new ground. It is also derivative, lacking in freshness, provincial, and other mortal sins against seriousness.

Everyone who was anyone recognized that the 10th Street Touch could not be the next step after AbEx. Instead it was Minimalism, then a much larger project, which I'll term Pop-Art-In-General, that took on the job of continuing serious art for the professional. Minimalism setup certain restrictions around the expression of raw talent, somewhat in the tradition of Still. Pop-Art-In-General reveled in restricting talent, like a pig that finally found the ultimate sty, by ignoring it, by making it utterly beside-the-point. The rest is history—too easy to deprecate, so I won't. Pop-Art-In-General quickly became where the pros were to be found: Twister Bowlers, piss pot lovers, political activists, conceptual theorists... fashionistas of every flavor. Each of these and other sub-camps was occupied by thousands of wannabe famous artists, and the professional system devised effective methods for elevating just the right number from each group to exactly that status. It is a prosperous system and it looks a lot like the professional systems of the past (except for how large it has become), the same systems that gave us Donatello, Rembrandt, Rubens, Matisse, and so many other Masters.

It has taken me almost 50 years to suspect and perhaps recognize that breaking new ground is neither a sufficient nor a necessary characteristic of serious, successful art. To use the old Scholastic distinction, it was merely an accident of certain serious, successful works of art. The more important but still accidental characteristic of art since Impressionism, I think, is that it was against contemporary professional art. The reason it was revolutionary was that it wanted to overthrow the powers-in-charge. That is what is essential to any revolution. Breaking new ground was simply one of the means, and sometimes also took restricting talent as a method to achieve that. Look at Still and how he denied his hand and how nasty he was, for instance. In-your-face pictures, to say the least, by an in-your-face artist who challenged everything and everybody in power during his time.

But what is so very peculiar about today's revolutionary art is the abject fact that it seeks to keep the reigning system in power, not overthrow it. It is relentless in pursuing that goal. The powers-that-be love it. What kind of revolution is that?

The 10th Street Touch, on the other hand, embraced talent, even if the artist did not have much of it. Breaking new ground, of course, was not part of its program; it sought to protect ground already acquired. In terms of our professional system, it looks so out of date that even those who oppose today's system don't give it any love. But my eye has been telling me for a long time that the 10th Street Touch preserved the importance of talent, one of the necessary conditions for making serious art. I have had quite a bit of difficulty coming to grips with this experience. It has hung around like the proverbial elephant in the room. Quite stinky too.

Figuring out art is not as simple as listing necessary and sufficient conditions, then executing them. But giving short shrift to a necessary condition to the extent Pop-Art-In-General has, that leads to... well, people with eyes know what, even if they don't agree as to the cause. The Malice of Art, as Clement Greenberg called it, has snuck up on us again. The 10th Street Touch that even he often rejected (but with definite qualifications, see Post Painterly Abstraction, where he said it was not intrinsically bad), today points in the direction of saving art, not diluting it. That is pretty difficult to chew, much less swallow. But when I look at John Ferren, an artist I never much liked, or David Simpson, who showed great promise that didn't come to pass, I can both chew and even swallow compared to Richard Prince and all the other usual suspects.

The 10th Street artists, lowly rear-guardists that they were, hundreds even thousands of them, turned out to be the vessel where one of the essential ingredients of serious art set up its hideout while a scorched-earth opponent had its way with professional art for fifty years (and counting). Darby Bannard recently told me that when Greenberg was looking at and liking his '60s minimal stuff, he also saw Bannard's '50s work, which exhibits lots of 10th Street Touch. He told Bannard, that's what you will be doing 10 years from now. Darby can, if he will, explain the specifics better than I can. But I get the point. If you want to be good more than you want to be advanced, then let your talent have its say. I'm not really sure even Still denied that. Second-generation Louis didn't break through into the clear air until he profoundly unleashed his. Relentlessly fretting over new ground for 50 years has gone nowhere.



July 17, 2016, 1:27 PM

I don't want to make too much of the metaphor, though these points are entirely reasonable. If you are not making art solely to amuse yourself, you are under some obligation not to repeat existing forms slavishly. As I have written before, to maintain goodness, to remain in the experience of goodness, you have to do something unlike the good art that already exists. That requires breaking new ground, although it may be true that it's no longer necessarily desirable to do so in terms of style or technique or conception, as in the past. What does that leave? The temperament or sensibilities of the individual artist, given form. That may be of interest.


John Link

July 15, 2016, 2:32 PM

Franklin, we may be talking about the same thing, only using different words. Your breaking new ground may be my originality. I view them as distinct, but not incompatible.

It is peculiar to art of the last hundred years or so that originality has often been associated with a quantifiably different look—the breaking new ground look. When Picasso ripped off African art, the difference between his stuff and that of others could easily be described as breaking new ground and accompanied by observable pointers to the differences. But Picasso was original too—by that I mean powerful, compelling.

When Duchamp introduced his Ready-mades his work could also be described as breaking new ground, quite comfortably so, because it departed from what had been done in the past even more than Picasso. The problem was that Duchamp was not original, but dumb, idiotic and preposterous as only modern taste can relate to, which was powerful, but in a negative way.

I have heard it argued that Jean-Paul Riopelle was more original than Jackson Pollock because he did the all-over before Pollock. I don't buy that because Riopelle so often descended into the mess when he painted and when he rescued the work from that, he did it by the same lame crutch that Pollock used on his very late Blue Poles which was done when Pollock's inspiration was fading. At his best, Pollock did not make a mess, but rather soared into the clear air, air cleared by his originality, not his quantifiable differences with other AbExers. These differences were probably defined by Riopelle anyway, even if Pollock never looked at his Canadian competition.

Did Raphael break new ground? Maybe, if we count pretty as something new. But that is a negative word in most critical vocabularies. Beautiful? Well, yes, but I don't think he had the market for beauty cornered enough to claim that as something new. But original? The consensus of taste says yes.

It is fair to ask me to define what I mean by originality. Unfortunately, I can't. At times, I can see it, but that is all I can say. Perhaps the three examples above explain it somewhat.



July 17, 2016, 3:41 PM

Originality is one of those words like innovation that is nearly out of gas as an art term, but in the sense you mean it I completely agree. The sensibilities of the individual artist, given form might do as a definition for it.


John Link

July 17, 2016, 6:01 PM

I hope not to get into a quibble over words. Yet, this discussion is stimulating, to me, at least, as is your original post. Whatever one thinks about characterizing the causes, it is clear the arts are not surging, especially visual arts. Since I am, by nature, wordy, I will continue a little more.

You, at least, offer a valid definition of originality. It meets the highest standards set by Aristotle: One major genus (sensibility), a sub-genus defined by a specific difference (artist's), and a final specific difference (given form). I am confident it will be of value to many of your readers. I like it too, especially given I can't come up with any definition at all. But, except for artist, these words are about qualities and qualities are hard to stick my finger on. Perhaps Pollock's sensibility remained with him until the end, what he lost was the capacity to give it form. That's as good an explanation as I can think of. However, I am more mystified by the decline of Pollock's art than that. The Deep fascinates me; it is so far below what came just a few years before. Just as I am mystified by how the fashionistas got the upper hand in American-type painting. The older I get, the more bewildered I become.

Artist's sensibility, for many, connotes something semi-divine, super-human. While Homer had his gods starting war, getting jealous, fighting each other, hurling weapons, hatching plots, and having sex, none of them made art. Their role was to rule the universe and indeed, their methods do seem like the methods of those who run the world. Homer, a human, was the artist: a man among men, to paraphrase Wordsworth, not a ruler. Artists make paintings in the same general sense that masons make walls. Some paintings, like some walls, are better than others. Making art has been a specifically human activity for at least 20,000 years. There is nothing about the term that necessitates the divine connotation, but it looms over it rather relentlessly. I have a tough time understanding it in the pure sense because of this connotation so I steer away even though it does describe something that I have experienced.

On the other hand (isn't there always an other hand?), originality seems like a pretty good word, one more likely to endure than innovation and/or breaking new ground. Its out of gas-ness, which I well understand as relevant, is because it has been confused with the latter terms, or so it seems.

Originality has long been productively associated with the best art. Sometimes it too can be a red herring, of course. I think it was Corot who, when confronted with authenticating a fake, said it was good enough to be one of his. (Or is that a myth?) What does that clarify about originality? At best, just a little. But the larger red herring is innovative/new/whatever. Originality in some sense or another is essential, those words are not. I certainly hope they die out and soon.


Lou Gagnon

July 17, 2016, 7:58 PM

Several years ago my daughter participated in the Virginia Governor’s School for the Visual and Performing Arts (a state funded residency program for rising high school juniors and seniors).

At the “Adjudication Process” (argh) students were invited in for a quick drawing exercise. Before the exercise the Director (a Ph.D. and chair of an art department at a state university) asked if anyone had ever heard of Wayne Thiebaud. My daughter was the only one who had. There was a poster of Thiebaud’s ‘Cakes’ on the wall outside the “Adjuication” room and we make the time to look at it every time we go to the National Gallery.

My daughter was very excited after the drawing exercise and could hardly contain her enthusiasm while we waited several hours for the portfolio review. When she exited the portfolio review she was nearly in tears and wanted to leave immediately.

As we were driving home she finally explained what happened. Two professors hovered over her both asking questions at the same time but not permitting her to answer. When they came to a design and color exercise in her portfolio they told her that she needed another art instructor that the one that made her do this exercise was wasting her time. I was the instructor. She chose the exercise specifically to study Thiebaud.

I asked her if the Ph.D. Professor offered an explanation for why Thiebaud’s ‘Cakes’ was a good painting. She replied “He said because he makes the paint look like icing.” When I asked if she had ever seen a frosted hot dog she smiled.

When we got home we went to my studio and I mixed up two opponent hues of paint with a little white to show how Thiebaud used color to make atmospheric unity in the background, table and shadows on the table. I then showed her several diagrams that demonstrate the structure of his composition. We later went to the National Gallery to see the painting again so she could make up her own mind about it all.

After overcoming second thoughts, my daughter attended the residency. Two of the professors noted that craftsmanship was as important as the idea while the third (Mr. Ph.D.) stated that all that mattered was the idea. He also offered this gem: “All shadows are two dimensional.”

Regarding the above discussion I tend to lean on these:

“Originality is more concerned with sincerity than with peculiarity.”—Harold Speed

“Novelty is a concept of commerce, not an aesthetic concept.”—Eva Zeisel

“Everything we like from the past... is because of its form not its content.”—David Hockney

There’s a lot more to say about the state of art education—where and how it starts. Will you be writing more about that?



July 18, 2016, 11:18 AM

Lou: that's a horrifying anecdote. I'll bet that her experience is somewhat common for young artists in her position.

Much of what I had to say about education, I said here. But that doesn't rule out more. I'd like to see more anti-institutional education and making it happen is going to take a lot of independently-minded effort.


Alan Pocaro

July 19, 2016, 11:14 PM

Only those without eyes could fail to see the numerous and aesthetically inexcusable excesses of the the capital-A Art World. Indeed, there is a sort university-museum-gallery complex that exists in many major cities where a few chosen artists get hundreds of shows while hundreds of artists never get a single show. Is it fair? No. Is that the only art world? No.

The most successful artist I know has never been featured in a major art magazine, shown in New York City, and to my knowledge, has never had a review of a single solo show over the past few years. Yet he paints full-time and supports a family on his efforts. Of course, I'm defining success purely in financial terms, others may select the barometer that suits them best.

The point is that there are various decentralized art worlds that one might reasonably engage with at virtually any level. For every lousy MFA show or stack of junk piled high at a contemporary art center, I've seen at least as many, if not more, good exhibitions of painting of all stripes (and some of just stripes).

I proudly write art reviews for a free biweekly Chicago magazine whose circulation and readership probably exceeds that of Art in America, a magazine I haven't read in years. I check Painters Table, Abcrit, and several other artist-run websites every week. I always peek at Franklin's Twitter feed and I marvel at the fluidity of his ink portraits of passengers on the T. The capital-A Art World, the fashion industry as Darby Bannard has described it, is suffocating under the weight of its own irrelevance. We need to focus our energies on celebrating the work that means something to us. Bugger to the rest of it.

Finally, as a professor at a state-subsidized university, I'm saddened to hear about Lou's daughter's run-in with conceptualist ineptitude. But my experience has been that there are different programs for different dispositions. Where I teach (Eastern Illinois University—shameless plug) our department is dedicated to skills, technique and craft, ditto for my alma matter Miami University. If you're more into making junk and justifying its existence with a dissertation-length artist statement, there are schools for that and they're usually, though not exclusively, found in major urban centers. I would advise that anyone considering studying art at the university level think long and hard about it, and then, rather than value the school's reputation, meet the professors that teach there and see if their philosophy squares with your own.



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