Friday, August 5, 2016

Citius - Altius - Artius

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Faster - Higher - Artsier”
“Panathenaic prize amphora”
The Euphiletos Painter. c. 530 B.C.
(Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.)

Well, that isn’t exactly the motto of the Olympic Games, but it’s close. Perhaps it’s closer than you think. In spite of seeming to be polar opposites and attracting folks with vastly different skill sets, the Olympics have a long-running relationship with art.

The ancient games certainly found a home on artifacts we studied in art survey courses. Greek kylixes and amphorae were occasionally covered with figures of runners, long-jumpers or wrestlers. It seems even the ancients had to have their commemorative Olympic cups when plopping down to watch the games, and those cups were decorated by artists.

More recently, Leroy Neiman foisted his garish paintings on Olympic sportscasts during the 1980s. That was during a time when splashy, pre-teen color schemes were all the rage. So, too, were bell-bottom pants, huge mustaches, and self-promoting artists with enough muscle to pick up a brush and a microphone. The sportscasters gave Neiman all tens for execution. History has given him closer to a 6.5.
“Swimmer” From “Olympic Suite”
Leroy Neiman. 1986.

Of course, this year we have Rio. The Olympics always inspire, and that inspiration spreads like e.coli-tainted water to artists as a matter of course. But one doesn’t have to venture too far from Brazil’s venues to see the country has talent to spare. Forget this year’s controversial logo that hints at plagiarism. Forget the questionable color of the water reserved for the swim events. Whether directly inspired by the sporting events or simply mandated to whitewash an undeniable presence of poverty, the street art of Rio de Janeiro makes a good case that sports and art are close enough to rub shoulders. Some of the painted walls, at least, are worthy of a medal.
Street art by Ment. 2013.
(Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Which brings me to one of the best finishes of all time: At one time, art WAS awarded Olympic medals. Founding member of the Modern Olympic games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned a competition in which more than just muscle-heads could compete, and that included painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music. It took a while for the idea to have traction – I mean, it takes time for the beer & pretzel crowd and the wine & cheese crowd to get on the same page.

During the inaugural sculpture competition in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, “An American Trotter” by Alfred Winans of the U.S. nosed out Frenchman George Dubois to win the gold medal. (Winans also took a silver for marksmanship.) One can almost hear the chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” Dubois took the silver for sculpture, but a sparse pool of artists left the podium lacking a bronze medalist. For you medal-counting freaks, the Italians topped the list that year with two golds, followed by France, Switzerland and the U.S. with one gold each. Whatever. I think the Italians were doping.
“An American Trotter”
Alfred Winans. 1912.

1948’s London Olympics gave the gold in painting to homeboy Alfred Thomson for his “The London Amateur Boxing Championship Held at the Royal Albert Hall.” Apparently, some of the judges thought he went the distance with his title alone and was therefore deserving. The U.S. did pathetically that year and didn’t appear at all in the artistic medal count. Perhaps that’s because we were giving more attention to post-war muscle flexing. In the sporting events, the U.S. took 38 golds in 1948 – more than double of the nearest competing country, Sweden.

Shortly after the London games, however, it was decided to bench the artistic portion of the Olympics. The artists, it was argued, were professional, whereas the athletes were not. And we all know one can’t ever, ever have professional athletes on an Olympic team. A non-competitive arts and culture Olympic event has since moved in the shadows of the more dignified ping-pong and curling, which, when translated, means the art event is currently on the disabled list and of no consequence.

Perhaps the Arts as an Olympic power has all but dried up, but the next time you get together for the Olympic over beer and pretzels, feel free to wax nostalgic and bring up the old Olympic greats like Winans and Thomson and Dubois. We showed those French a thing or two about art, didn’t we! Those were the days.

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