Arts and Athletics

Athletics have been the subject of movies, songs, books, sculpture and paintings. Over the course of history, athletics have bloomed into a booming industry and are televised and analyzed 24 hours a day, creating rabid fan bases in cities around the world. When combined what does the fusion of art and athletics have to tell us about each subject? This top ten is where athletics and the arts intersect.
10. The Beginning?
If you ask most people about the beginning of athletics, they would probably start with the Olympics. But as this Egyptian panel, called “Ball Playing Ceremony” (circa 380 – 246 B.C.) illustrates, some form of athletics goes back even further. The panel, which can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows a king hitting a ball before a goddess. The label next to the piece notes that “texts liken the ball to the eye of an enemy of the gods.” If you fast forward to our contemporary world, one could replace the king with a star player and the goddess with the owner of a team or a team’s fan base.
9. Uniforms
Utah is not known for its jazz, nor Los Angeles for its lakes and there are no pirates in Pittsburgh, but the designers of these teams seem to do an adequate job getting around these geographical oddities by creating sharp-looking gear. Baseball hats serve as fashion statements and are often less about the team emblem shown, but the city it represents. Public officials make a big show of wearing shirts and hats for their respective teams. Hillary Clinton ran into some trouble a few years ago when she appeared to waffle over whether she was a Cubs or Yankees fan. Speaking of which, what are Obama’s teams? Well, he roots for both Bulls and Bears. Maybe that’s what is wrong with the economy.
8. The Aesthetics of Fandom
Creativity, passion and effort are necessary components that go into great works of art. In that respect, who can deny the artistry of fans? I would say the Oakland Raider fans are the scariest. In other cities, men dress up as hogs, children as buccaneers. Then there are soccer fans.

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.

6. Hunter S. Thompson

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.

4. Trophies and Awards

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.

3. Basquiat’s Athlete Paintings

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

1. Baseball Cards

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.

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7 Responses

  1. Ma Bla says:

    Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

    video portraiture of a great athlete/artist at work:

  2. Great and interesting post — I loved it all, except perhaps for Hunter S. Thompson who I have always thought over-rated and romanticized.

  3. JM says:

    Who’s to say there are no Pirates in Pittsburgh!?!?

  4. Adam D says:

    It is interesting you describe this top ten as the “intersection” between art and athletics. Certainly you’ve highlighted how athletics can be captured in painting, sculpture and verse, but the athletics themselves can be considered the art, as well.

  5. Christopher Gorman says:

    Absolutely. I think that is what Hunter S. Thompson is alluding to in his statement about college football players.

  6. Cousin Maria says:

    Loved this Christopher, you really made me laugh with some of your comments.

  7. Richard DeFrancesco says:


    Extremely interesting piece of work. I especially liked Basquiat’s interpretation of the state of boxing during the Joe louis era.

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