12 November, 2014, Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, Australia
The path to enlightenment, is it sport or is it art?
What we on the sport side like about the topic is that it’s either /or. Art versus sport. Art vee Sport. And yet another away fixture for us here at the gallery. Nevertheless we love that enlightenment is a fixture that either art or sport will win, and you only have to look at the history books to know sport has had the wood on art, especially since George W Bush started painting dogs.
In the last Enlightentest, you’ll remember we proved before tea on the second day that seeing Sam Newman flash his geriatric balls on national television did exactly the same job as Lucien Fried does, but with broader brushstrokes.
That’s the problem for art.
Yes it had a dominant era, back when Graeco-Roman wrestling and discus were pretty much the only sports, and, yes, some clever marketing people on the arts side thought to call their dominant period, ‘The Enlightenment’, but honestly, since Michaelangelo hung up his scaffold, it’s been sport, sport, sport.
On this side of the debate, we accept that popularity does not equal enlightenment. Just because a GWS game in June packs a bigger crowd than an entire season of Giselle, doesn’t mean we win. Just because Opera Australia is about to learn that ‘the Don’ in the popular imagination is not Don freaking Pasquale. Just because the masses clearly choose the high mark over the book mark — doesn’t mean that’s an enlightened choice.
But as it turns out, it is.
One of the problems for art is that it can’t really do anything that sport cannot.
Take literature. For sure, literature gives us stories, but I’m going to argue that sport gives us the same stories, except quicker and with fewer Russian famines. Insight into the human condition? Who has time to wade through A S Friggin Byatt and her world of impenetrable grey to find out who you are, when you can look up Shane Warne’s Wikipedia entry? Success, failure, love, infidelity, triumph, defeat, addiction, deceit, slight-of-hand. It’s all there. And as for the power of words, I hope our opponents don’t lecture us about the power of words. Literature has had its day on that front. From the day Ron Barassi wrote his famous ten by two letter word manifesto, ‘If It Is to be, it is up to me’, sport has been leading the way with respect to the power of words. Sports stars and coaches now set the language agenda, and I have little doubt that if Charles Dickens were penning A Tale of Two Cities today, he wouldn’t be opening with ‘It was the Best of the Times, it was the worst of times’. He’d be opening with ‘Yeah … nah …’
Sport now does the job of covering all the plotlines that used to be left to film, literature and theatre. To name just a few:
Life Of Pi – why slog through 300 odd pages of boy and tiger on boat when the Brisbane Lions are planning to have a real lion on the sidelines next year.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith wrote about a Pakistani girl coming of age in South London, when it really should have been about Shane Warne’s teeth bleaching if she was serious about engaging the subcontinent.
And what’s funnier? Shakespeare’s lame cross dressing comedies like The Twelfth Night or As you Like It – where everybody pretends that the nice couplets make up for the unrealistic storyline and the hammy acting, or a young Ricky Ponting actually getting into a fight at the Bourborn and Beefsteak because he’s been dancing with a woman who turns out to be a man?
That’s the sort of enlightenment sport offers.
Sport pretty much does all the cultural heavy lifting you need.
Why did Ian Mckewan even bother writing Atonement, when the whole issue of accidental swearing has been dealt with so effortlessly by Ian Chappell.
We don’t need Irvine Welsh for drug dramas when we’ve got James Hird and Essendon.
We don’t need The Theban plays and tales of Greek hubris when we’ve got James Hird and Essendon.
We don’t need Samuel Beckett and weird shit where everyone sits on stage in rubbish bins while we’ve got curling.
And we don’t need slow moving, turgid, Booker Prize winning literature while we’ve got golf.
And these sporting plotlines are churned out with effortless regularity. To quote Woody Allen, who reluctantly turned to comedy and film because he was too short to become a champion basketballer – ‘sport is the only drama where even the actors don’t know how it ends.’ It’s endlessly fascinating, whether matches follow a traditional Robert McKee endorsed three act structure, or whether it’s an improvisational masterpiece in anti-structure – a sort of athletic Schoenberg if you will. I realize that I’m using artistic metaphor here, and am doing so not because art is enlightening — we all know it isn’t — it’s just because we’re at The Ian Potter, and if I don’t crap on like this the other team won’t let me sit with them afterwards when they’re sipping Pinot Grigio and rabbiting on about structuralism and its place in the modern novel or some such bullshit — which I really need to do if I’m ever going to get this writing career happening.
In terms of language and the beauty of words, I understand that plays and literature still have their diehards. But the sad fact for book lovers is that a lot of what is said by the great masters, is now said more efficiently by 19-year-olds who have just received their media training at draft camp.
Again let’s turn to Steinbeck: this is how he tried to describe the immigration experience in The Grapes of Wrath:
"Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does this terrible faith come from?
And here is a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true and it’s funny and it’s beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk and they loaded it with their possession. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven in the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that’s true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith.
The people in flight from the terror behind – strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever."
I mean, I quite like this passage, I think it packs a substantial descriptive punch. I think it says something about the failings of modern Australia, and the last line almost makes me cry. But didn’t Ross Lyon say pretty much the same thing in a whole lot fewer words when he said, ‘yeah, nah, we had a few passengers out there today.’
And so it’s over art. Pack up your paintbrushes and go seek employment designing away strips for football clubs. You were meant to teach us stuff about ourselves, but you didn’t. You got fixated on things that didn’t connect, starting with that freaking Duchamps urinal in 1917. And so sport came in and filled the void. Gave life meaning. Fed us stories. Constructed the narrative of our society. And so, in 500 years, will people really still be quoting Huxley and Orwell, Lennon and Brecht? I don’t think so. Instead, we’ll be living in a world when the great philosophers are Sheedy, Lombardi, Maninga. And for wisdom, we will all make do with the words the late great Tom Hafey had printed on the back of his business card, and which I would advise the Ian Potter to take up as its artistic manifesto:
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it’ll be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you’d better be runnin’.”
And yes even in print, Tommy dropped the ‘g’.