"If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible," wrote Wilhelm Reich in his 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Whatever you may think about the author's later experiments with orgone generators, it's undeniable that the energy in your average professional sports stadium is palpable. Unless you were watching the Cubs at Wrigley Field this season.
Image courtesy of "Work of Art."
In the last few months the art world has undergone all kinds of experiments to reach a wider public, Bravo's television series "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist" is the most obvious example along with the Guggenheim's ethically-questionable, YouTube-only, crowdsourced exhibition of video art. Ventures like these seem to mold art into assumptions about what we think the audience may like, reality TV and participation, often at the expense of the art itself. Rather than compromise artwork to expectations, curators must find a productive middle ground for artists and audiences to meet, and here I would also like to lend my voice to this idea: a major survey of artwork related to sports.
I should note that I am not the first or alone in this suggestion. Just last month, artist and critic Pedro Vélez issued a similar call in the wake of the Chicago Blackhawk's win of the Stanley Cup and in the face of his dissatisfaction with recent public art. Prompted by the departure of Dominic Molon, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA), the Art Editor of Chicago's art-centered weekly paper Newcity, Jason Foumberg, noted that Molon "perhaps missed an opportunity to connect contemporary art with one of Chicago’s largest audiences—its sports fan base."
Installation view of "Tim Laun: Sunday, September 20th, 1992" at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.
Some adventurous curators have made attempts at such an exhibition. While working as a lowly gallery guard at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, I spent a lot of time in "Tim Laun: Sunday, September 20th, 1992" an exhibition featuring the artwork of Tim Laun and curated by Jane Simon. The content of the exhibition revolved around the superstar quarterback for the Packers, Brett Favre, and the cult of adoration that surrounded him while he was a Packer (he has since committed the grave sin of becoming the quarterback for the Packers' arch-rivals, the evil Minnesota Vikings). The crowd that attended this exhibition was not the usual art crowd, such as it was in Wisconsin, but rather a crowd drawn in by the recognizability of sports itself, wearing their customary green and gold windbreakers with the Packers' logo. While I'm not sure how many dug Laun's conceptually-based works, they almost all were in favor of Laun's proposal Model for Cyclorama, a maquette for a cyclorama consisting of hundreds of televisions that will play all the games that Favre ever played in. The exhibition didn't bend the art to the audience, yet still drew a crowd that was outside the usual demographic, in my estimation.
Other curators are also picking up on this idea, just this weekend the New York Times featured an art exhibition inspired by the Pittsburgh Steelers--in their N.F.L section.
With the recent arrival of Michael Darling at the MCA as Chief Curator it seems possible that we could indeed have a major national survey of art and artists that harness the energy of professional sports. After all, "Kurt" was one of Mr. Darling's most recent exhibitions (at the Seattle Art Museum) and it centered around artwork related to Kurt Cobain.
Ben Stone. Blue Meanies. 2010. Ballpoint pen on coated polystyrene and wood, large base: 58" tall x 87" long x 45" wide, small base: 40" tall x 60" x 39" wide. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and the artist.
I hope that Mr. Darling does decide to create an exhibition around sports and their place in current art practice, it is an area begging for scholarly and considered examination and one that has rare crossover appeal to a wide audience. And I also hope that if he includes the obvious work by Matthew Barney, he'll also include works that are perhaps less-well known but no less great like those by Ben Stone, seen at the top of this page and on view at Western Exhibitions.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago
(top image: Ben Stone. Abe's Song. 2008. Painted cast resin, wood and fabric, 9" tall x 5" wide x 3" deep. Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions and the artist.)