Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Arts and Sports

Going back to my childhood as an aspiring (at the time) artist, but also someone who was a bit of a jock/gym rat, there always seem to be a disconnect between the two worlds - the artist and the jock. This was the stereotype, that for the most part seemed to hold true in practice. I went to LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York, and even though we had school teams, athletics was never really celebrated or encouraged. I played on the tennis team and don't think we ever had a single spectator from our school. Even though I was an avid basketball player, I am not even sure if we had a basketball team - if we did I certainly never heard about it or attended a game.

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?


  1. Thanks for writing this post!! I was a Division 1 lacrosse player at Temple and went to Tyler School of Art at the same time. It was really difficult to juggle both...both groups of people looked at me kind of weird. I was this girl coming from practice with my sweats on into an art class. I definitely didn't look like an artist when I was coming or going to practice. Then I would get to practice with paint in my hair or charcoal on my face. A lacrosse stick in one hand and a portfolio in the other.

    Lacrosse did give me a lot of passion in my artwork though.

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Glad my post resonating with you - I knew there had to me more artist-athletes out there...

  3. As a highly creative individual, mother, fine art photography teacher, art therapist and avid cyclist, I greatly appreciate your thoughts. In my reality creativity and physical health are vital for a well rounded life. I feel very happy to see that Mayor Nutter has been so supportive of the arts in Phily!