Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Arts and Sports
When I got to college - the State University of New York at Purchase, which was primarily an arts conservatory with music, dance, theatre, film and visual arts programs - there were NO intercollegiate sports programs. The school was just getting started, so perhaps we can cut them some slack, but aside from building a state-of-the-art gymnasium (that became the practice site for the Knicks), nobody had given any thought to their "artsy" students actually caring about sports. A group of us basketball players lobbied for and successfully created a certified Division III basketball program. Even though it was very low-level by NCAA standards, playing college ball was a great experience for me, and we actually had many of those"artsy" types in the stands cheering us on for the home games. Basketball and sports have been a part of my life ever since.
Since then, I have thought often of this seeming disconnect between the two worlds, when stories run about football players taking ballet to improve their grace, or of Bernie Williams and his guitar skill, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar and his jazz scholarship. I have also though of this connection when we cite the fact that more people attend arts events than sporting events. I also remember an article a few years ago by a newspaper editor (in San Diego?) responding to arts groups moaning about how little ink they get compared to sports, given the attendance stats. He noted that sports teams provide pretty much open access to the process - reporters cover spring training, they interview players in the locker room after every game, and as a result the public gets excited not just by what happens on the field, on the court, but also by the human dimension, the back-story, to quote Wide World of Sports, "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." So, he asked, how often are reporters allowed backstage before the show, or afterwards, to help the public really understand how a work of art happens? The answer, rarely, if ever. We like the process to be a mystery, magic, we like to preserve "the fourth wall." Of course these are generalizations, but there is an undercurrent of hard truth here.
Two things made me think of this issue today. First, a great article in the Wall Street Journal about the growing trend of sports programs at arts colleges that traditionally never had them - Arts and Varsity Letters - The Painter as Pitcher. Second, the jocks vs. glee club theme of the wildly successful TV program Glee. Now, while the jocks still hate the glee clubbers, and the teasing and harassment is ever-present, the star football player is in fact the star male lead, and the star cheerleaders have also crossed over. The barriers seem to have broken down - the stereotype is being intentionally undercut.
Is there something in the air now? Can we finally get rid of this foolish assumption that artists and jocks are somehow on opposite sides of a great social chasm? And how do those of us working in arts advocacy, policy and funding turn this into broader popular support for the arts? Can we do a better job of engaging our wildly popular sports superstars as spokespersons, or even philanthropists?