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.
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.