Ever since learning about the “SCORE: Artists in Overtime” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) through March 29, I have been thinking about the relationship between sport and art. Is art sport? Is sport art? Does athletic expression constitute a type of fine art?
While “SCORE” features contemporary international, national and Georgia artists, these questions about the relationship between sport and art are not new ones. For example, in Sports and American Art: From Benjamin West to Andy Warhol historian Allen Guttmann traces the often-unacknowledged parallel relationship and synergy between these two forms of cultural expression from the 18th century onward. The book’s content visibly acknowledges the productive convergence of two seemingly disparate realms: art with “high culture” and aristocratic associations, and sport—firmly rooted in “popular culture” and bodily expressions.
The clash between these two realms no doubt creates confusion and discomfort for audiences not accustomed to this pairing. And yet the show also nicely aligns with Guttmann’s observation that knowledge of sport can enhance appreciation of artists’ craft and artistic expression just as art can generate new insights into the realm of sport and athleticism. The three “SCORE” exhibition themes reflect these synergies: “The Artist As Athlete” (which features works that communicate “the shared principles of art making and athleticism”), “The Players” (a focus on the “relationship between athletes and spectators, and artists and viewers”), and “The Commentators” (art that encourage audiences to critically engage with important issues in American culture more broadly and sport culture specifically).
In the interest of full disclosure, I first learned of “SCORE” from its curator, Hope Cohn, shortly after my August 2013 arrival at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I direct the new Sports, Society and Technology program housed in the School of History, Technology and Society. Cohn sought my feedback about the then forthcoming exhibition despite the fact that I have no training in art or art history—although my scholarship does focus on media representations and the cultural studies of sport.
In February 2014, I participated in a roundtable discussion, “The Artist as Athlete” with several “SCORE” artists, who discussed the varied messages and emotions they are trying to evoke in individual work. For many artists, the backdrop of sport offers a unique window into the broader culture, including the seemingly rule-bound character of social life as well as the recognition of life’s uncertainty and spontaneity. Other panelists discussed their work as artists as similar to that of athletes in training—disciplined, dedicated, and focused. Again, this roundtable—much like the exhibition itself—provided unique opportunities to interrogate the overlay between the two expressive realms.
“SCORE” offers painting, sculpture, photography, multimedia installations, and unique sport-design products. As a sociologist who teaches at Georgia Tech, the works that most intrigue me are those located at the intersections of technology, design, and art, as well as those which offer critiques of sport and the wider culture.
Two design pieces in particular blur the relationships between design, art, technology, and sporting aids that extend the human body. The first is the Flex-Foot Cheetah, a pair of sleek J-shaped foot-leg prosthetics designed by Icelandic orthopaedics company Össur. The invention is meant to model the movements of its Cheetah namesake by mobilizing step-generated kinetic energy, which in turn propels wearers to effectively run and jump. This and similar designs have been worn by the notorious Paralympic and Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius (who’s currently standing trial in South Africa for the alleged murder of his girlfriend). Designed to Win is the futuristic track sprint shoe creation of London-based designer Luc Fusaro. While mass-produced athletic footwear (think Nike’s Air Jordan) serves as signifiers of contemporary youth culture, this model uses individualized 3D scanning and printing processes to merge an open honeycomb-shaped upper shell with sole spikes to create a customized lightweight shoe.
A number of artworks on view play with form, design, color, and sporting themes. Chief among these is Ashley Schick’s accordion-fold artist book that features cut paper prints using bright, official team colors of Southeast Conference (SEC) university teams coupled with paintings in those hues done in the style of such well-known artists as Malevich and Rothko. The work is a competitive game unto itself, inviting audiences to identify the artists and university’s colors.
Meg Aubrey’s paintings feature larger-than-life, colorfully adorned figures, like the soccer moms cheering on children at play on a green, well-manicured playing field. Another painting contains similarly dressed white couples with beverages in hand seemingly posing for a group photo at a pre-game tailgating event. The combination of bucolic landscapes and the nearly identical uniforms of fandom evoke both the comfort and conformity of suburbia, a theme that runs through much of Aubrey’s art.
Pursuit of Vanity: Pistol Formation by Michael Peterson consists of the jersey nameplates of famous NFL football players hung in the manner of retired jerseys. Yet the names, including that of late All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, whose suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot has been partly attributed to the chronic brain damage caused by the sport, invite further reflection. Indeed, informed audiences will recognize that each player in this formation chose to end his life. This installation is not just representative of the fleetingness of fame, then, but also demonstrates that underneath the fanfare—the violent world of professional sport exacts its toll. As with many of the works in SCORE, Pursuit of Vanity invites us to think more deeply about sport.
“Audacity of Hoops: Playing for Change” is a family-oriented event being held this Saturday, March 22, from 11AM to 2PM at the Kroc Corps Community Center in East Atlanta. Some SCORE artists will be in attendance. RSVP required. Click here for more information.
Mary G. McDonald is professor and chair of Sports and Society in the School of History, Technology and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology.