Monday, October 04, 2010

Art and Sport - the Remix

In 2002, when Manchester stage the Commonwealth Games they also had a cultural programme to go along with it, called, if memory served, Cultureshock. I recall going to a couple of interesting debates on the role of city in the 21st Century, and I've no doubt that having a cultural programme leading up to what is the 2 weeks of the games itself, was entirely positive.

Yet, I feel a slight uneasiness about the mixing of "sport" and "art" coming up to the 2012 Olympics for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ministry responsible, the DCMS, with the "culture" "media" and "sport" in its title, is a difficult mix. Government departmental divisions are occasional obvious (Health, Education) and occasionally not (Higher Education sits next to "Business"). There will be times, when that mix is potentially beneficial, and other times when it is toxic. It probably accounted for the Olympic landgrab of quite a bit of arts funding - after all, they're the same department aren't they?

Secondly, leading up to savage cuts across the public sector, the last thing art and culture needs is a muddied water. When a (privately owned) football club such as Portsmouth FC goes into massive debts, and its restructuring leaves not only the taxpayer but St. John's Ambulance out of pocket whilst paying all football debts "in full", one has less sympathy for a badly run business than for the fans and the creditors. Fans of football clubs pray for both a private benefactor and the taxpayer being the bank of last resort. Yet, there will be few parts of the subsidised arts that are so profligate as football. Though football may not be particularly profitable, it generates and then obliterates vast sums of money every week. Yet, outside of professional football and Formula 1 few sports are cash rich, or universally supported.

Imagine having a cultural event, say the Booker Prize, and then asking the sports community to have a "sporting" event alongside it. Absurd! Yet, that's what culture does with the Olympics. There are some good reasons - such as the international nature of the Olympics, and the need to culturally connect with all these different communities - and, the political reasoning, that as the Olympics is in London, the whole country must find some way of celebrating. Having said that, it is hard to say what the Cultural Olympiad projects are, other than high profile arts projects. The connection between the sport and the art is tenuous at best, and facile at worst. The Anish Kapoor statue on the Olympic site is a grand folly, though like many public art projects we'll likely come to love, or at least tolerate it.

It seems to me there's a difficulty in the relationship between sport and art, and its the mixed messages of "participant" and "entertainer." The majority of Olympic sports, even at the highest level, have poor crowds outside of major tournaments - they are, to all intents and purposes participatory, even at the level of excellence. Those excellent gymnasts, rowers, shooters, handball players may well be admirable, but its only once every 4 years, as participants in a big jamboree, that they become "heroes" on a parr with footballers or boxers. It will be rare that you find an elite athlete who has much of a cultural life. Footballers in the past liked easy listening rock, and now winebar friendly r & b - Beckham married a Spice Girl not a Turner prize shortlistee.

Where the confluence does exist is as passive viewers - whether at a stadium/theatre or 2nd-hand via TV. The NT Live series of events, "Proms in the Park" and other public art events deliberate ape the live football experience and the "fans parks" of the Olympics. Yet, these too seem contrivances. Great art is too non-negotiable to be packaged for the terraces - the "experience" though sometimes shared is more often a personal one, between a person and a painting, a reader and a book. The art launch is a social event same as footy in the pub, but with wine instead of beer, and even less interest in the product than a rainy Saturday in Stoke or Bolton.

When I was in school "games" and "art" were the preserves of the less intellectual students - but it was only the former that was compulsory. I hated games with sadistic Mr. Ricketts (a great name for a games teacher!) insisting we play Rugby or go on Cross Country Runs, but loved playing football after school, or, in the brief summer term, learning high jump or playing cricket. In later life, as a writer, and someone who works with the arts, I'm amazed how often people have screwed their nose up when I've mentioned the football results - yet this summer in Norwich had the great pleasure of watching South Africa with a South African poet and novelist.

It seems to me that like sport, part of the confusion is our dual roles of "consumer" and "participant." For reasons of both physical and cultural health we encourage participation in art and sport for our children; yet later on in life, going to an art gallery can have you criticised as effete in working class circles, or being a season ticket holder can draw sneers from the middle classes, even though we all take on different personas depending on where we are and who we are with at particular times. Whether we are painting a picture or watching a football game on Sky Sports, going to a gym or listening to a CD, the only connection is of "leisure." Excellence in sport and art rarely, if ever has anything in common. And it is excellence, whether in football or theatre, which we are willing to pay for, talk about. The rest, the slothful mediocrity of much art and sport, is there as pastime, as leisure option, as an "experience" rather than an "epiphany."

The remix of art and sport shouldn't even be tried. They are birds of a different feather - that some of us, the lucky some, I guess - find equally, but differently valuable ways of spending our time. Any other connection between them is expedient at best, and opportunistic at worse. We shouldn't try and pretend otherwise. Certainly sport at its best can be described as "poetry" as "theatre" - yet it doesn't attempt to be anything that it's not - whilst art only occasionally takes its inspiration from sport. Occasionally, The Fall's "Kicker Conspiracy" or "Theme from Sparta FC", or Don DeLillo's "Underworld" its a worthy pairing, but more often than not we're left with a contradiction - DVDs of David Beckham's most memorial goals, and piles of the Spice Girls unloved 3rd album.

No comments: