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Carving a place for artistic influence in the modern Olympic games

By Jonathan Odden, Daily Arts Writer
Published May 1, 2012

With the London Olympics fast approaching, it’s high time the art community gears up for another celebration of all things artistic. Or, at least, that was the case a century ago.

It’s hard now to imagine art’s place at the Olympic games, especially considering the Wolff Olins 2012 logo that has outraged many, given seizures to some and has even been seen as racist by the Iranian government. Yet, a hundred years ago, art was actually a competitive event at the 1912 Stockholm games.

Pierre de Coubertin, the innovator and posthumously criticized founder of the International Olympic Committee, believed that the games needed a synthesis of athletic and intellectual pursuits to round out the competition. He drew this viewpoint from his interpretation of the Greek games — where sport and culture seemed interwoven — and from his personal educational philosophy — which sought to create a more complete individual through learning and sport.

So a system was designed in which art, or rather artists’ techniques, would be split into five judged categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. Within each category, the judges would award honors of gold, silver and bronze medals just as they would in any other Olympic competition. This format was followed in the Olympic games for the next 40 years, until it was decided by the IOC that artists were professionals and the competition was discretely dropped after the Helsinki summer games in 1952.

The competition did draw some unusual artists to the Olympics, such as American Walter W. Winans, who won the gold medal for his bronze sculpture, An American Trotter, in 1912. Interestingly, this was not Winans first Olympic medal, but his third. He also received the gold for his shooting skills in rifling during the 1908 London games and the silver in 1912.

That same year, Pierre de Coubertin won the gold medal for literature with his poem “Ode to Sport.” Perhaps Coubertin’s victory reflects his own ego and desire to reside amid the Olympiads, but maybe it was an outcome of necessity, since no other artist rose to challenge him in the event. In fact, across all five events of the Stockholm games, just six artists participated, making it a competition in name only. The sole silver medalist that year, French sculptor Georges Dubois, is unfortunately all but lost to history now.

Yet the year 1912 was far from lacking in artistic flair. Cubism had thrown the art world into the avant-garde of modernism, and futurism emerged, heralding the triumphs of modernity. However, neither movement, nor their peripheral impersonators and reactionaries, were in Sweden that summer. The pieces winning the Gold were traditional, formulaic and — as with winner Giovanni Pellegrini’s gold medal painting — genuinely cartoonish. Clearly, something was institutionally wrong.

The problem may come from the “amateur” status that the competition required, since most serious artists then and now dedicate themselves to their work, not competition — see if you get very far calling Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Murakami an amateur. Even still, the labels of “amateur” and “professional” are more slippery in regards to art than in sports. So, if we just sidestep that issue, can we find an intersection between the Olympic games, competition and the art world?

Some say no, suggesting that art and competition is like water and oil, but such a notion is misguided when looking at the increasingly competitive art world. Perhaps now art is even more competitive than the sports world when you consider the percentage of highly paid artists to highly paid athletes or the critical reception they receive — Nobel Prizes in literature, poet laureates and so on. Art exhibitions are now corporate sponsored and museums are more and more preoccupied with admission. And this competition isn’t solely at the highest echelons of the art world, since scholarships for art, essays and design are as numerous and comparative as athletic scholarships. Though the art world may not like to acknowledge it, valuation is rife within its ranks.

Why shouldn’t we see a Prismacolor sponsored artist someday? It might already exist, considering that national funds constantly support artists they believe support their ethos — think Lee Ufan’s Guggenheim show last fall that was sponsored by Samsung. We may very well be on the verge of art returning to the Olympics, but hopefully not at the expense of the unknown artists that push the art world forward.


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