Arts and Athletics
7. Stadiums and Arenas
Whenever I have the good fortune (literally, fortune, as buying tickets to pro sports games in NY isn’t cheap), to attend a live sporting event, I like the idea that I’m participating in an experience that dates back thousands of years. And whenever a new stadium is built, comparisons to the Roman Coliseum fly out of the mouths of sportswriters and broadcasters. While beasts are no longer slaughtered (although bull fights are still common in parts of the world), there are certain similarities to the crowds that gather stadiums today and the crowds who went to sporting events at the Roman Coliseum. For one, chariot races, specifically, were society events and being there was vital to one’s status, much like attending the Super Bowl or sitting in a luxury box or court side at a Knicks game. The fans often got rowdy (especially when jugs of wine were passed around) and individual achievement was vigorously cheered or booed, depending on the performance.
In The Rum Diary Hunter S. Thompson (a lifelong sports fan) wrote the following about college football players: “It was a tortuous thing, but beautiful in its way; here were men who would never again function or even understand how they were supposed to function as well as they did today. They were dolts and thugs for the most part, huge pieces of meat, trained to a fine edge – but somehow they mastered those complex plays and patterns, and in rare moments they were artists.”
5. The Boxing Paintings of George Bellows
Before he became a well-known, Ashcan School painter in New York City, Bellows was a semi-pro baseball player in Ohio. I don’t know of any paintings he did of baseball, but he focused a lot of attention of boxing. For most people, what goes on inside of the ring is what is monstrous about boxing. In this painting, Stag at the Sharkey’s, the faces in the crowd are the monsters and only the men fighting in the ring seem particularly human.
In Greek times, winners of athletic competitions were given kraters (or vases) which were filled with a significant quantity of olive oil. In museums, you will find these kraters often decorated on one side with the God to whom the games were dedicated and decorated on the other side with a depiction of the actual competition. While our awards today tend to be sculptures, rather than vessels (the Stanley Cup as an exception), what remains is an emphasis on the combination of elegant artistry and what the object symbolizes: victory. The trophy as a symbol shows up elsewhere. In the The Millennium Episode of Seinfeld, George drives around the parking lot with the World Series trophy attached to the bumper of his car. In his quest to be fired, the trophy’s destruction is the ultimate insult that just about does it.
Basquiat painted Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali. He seemed to focus on athletes who played a “super” role, meaning that, beyond their victories, their legacies have taken on storybook proportions. That idea corresponds somewhat to the superheroes depicted in other paintings by Basquiat. Here I think Basquiat really got at the idea of the hero worship in sports.
2. Degas and the Little Ballet DancerI think of ballet is one of the best examples of the middle ground between art and athletics. For me, the athleticism that is required of dancers as akin to the stamina of Pollock as he rushed across a canvas. Or I picture Yves Klein leaping in Le Saut dans le Vide
When you survey great card collections, one thing that stands out is not just the history of baseball, but a history of graphic design. The format of cards have changed over the years and players have been depicted on them via photographs and illustrations. When it comes to collectors, Jefferson Burdick is the godfather of them all. He developed a system for organizing cards called The American Card Catalogue and it is still used today by collectors and dealers. The rarest card is the Honus Wager T206. At one time, baseball cards were sold with tobacco products (rather than stale pink gum) and the story goes that Wagner didn’t want his image associated with tobacco, thus only a small amount of the cards were ever printed.