Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Art and Athleticism

Nothing draws me to the television faster than the Olympic Games.  It’s not grandeur or the pageantry; it’s not the magisterial music written by John Williams (although I am a HUGE fan), and it certainly isn’t the treacle that passes for “biographical sketches” of hometown athletes overcoming some gargantuan struggle.

No, it’s the competitions themselves.  Whether table tennis or judo, indoor cycling or synchronized diving, I just LOVE to watch finely tuned athletes compete at the highest level of their sports.  Last night I watched one of the most incredible games of soccer (football? what?) between Canada and the US and there was hardly a player left standing at the end of the match.  They’d left it all on the field and it showed in their faces—some grim and disheartened, and others joyful but exhausted.

Early last week several stories were served up on NPR about how the modern Olympics under the leadership of Baron Pierre de Coubertin had included poetry and art competitions as well, starting with the 1912 Stockholm Games.  They stopped them after the 1948 London Games evidently because no one cared and, based on the few samples that I heard, the poetry and art was really amateurish or, to stay in context, “not of Olympic caliber.”

Why, I wondered?

Some art forms lend themselves very well to competition. Why isn’t there an Olympics for dance, for instance?  Fox has figured out, with the genius of Nigel Lythgoe, a stunningly successful formula for “So You Think You Can Dance?  Why can’t that competition be adapted for an international stage?  The dancers on that show are probably as close to committed to their art as Olympic athletes are to their sport.  The entertainment value is just as strong, if not stronger.  And sharing multicultural experiences on a grand scale has to be at least as important to the world’s psyche as sharing the 100-meter dash or the marathon, doesn’t it?

Baron de Coubertin’s foray into an Olympic Art competition sounded doomed from the start.  First, in his world-view, nothing was more grand than the gifted amateur, sacrificing everything in the pursuit of Olympic excellence.  The fact that this attitude towards sport doesn’t work as well for painting and poetry seemed lost on him.  Gifted amateurs can still put up a spirited and entertaining sports competition.  But for the most part, art and poetry requires a much more nuanced approach, a level of sophistication on the part of the creator and the audience that is probably not going to be found in the broad popular context of an Olympic Games.  And let’s just say that except for Poetry Slam competitors most poets, like painters, tend to shy away from competitions.   Listening to the NPR report I had to admit that  nothing could have sounded more pompous and self-conscious than de Coubertin’s own  “winning” poem (anonymously submitted!) that began, “O sport!...”


But what if we COULD pull it off, what then?  Judging play writing couldn’t be any better or worse than judging gymnastics or figure skating.  Same with singing, dancing, acting, playing the bassoon or a myriad of other artistic pursuits, right?  Some countries might dominate in some areas for years at a time.  I bet Great Britain, for instance, would be a dominant player in play writing competitions, much like Jamaica seems to be dominating the sprint competitions.  What’s the matter with that?

It would be entertaining.  It would be exciting.  It would be worthy of an Olympian effort.  And it might just change a whole lot of people’s attitudes towards the arts…

Why not?