It’s very easy to think of sport and art as two very different, and even opposed, parts of life. There are a good number of ‘artsy’ types who pride themselves on their incompetence and indifference towards sport, and who would rather hear their mother’s chastity raucously questioned than be accused of knowing just how well Arsenal have started this season. And there are all those sports fans (though perhaps fewer in Oxford than I remember from that distant outside world) who seem to think that their hard-won physique will instantly melt away if they even think about doing something as ridiculous as stepping into a theatre or reading some poetry. Personally, I can’t claim to be a great sportsman. And my artistic achievements are never going to amount to anything spectacular. I am, though, a fan of both the arts and the sports. There is no need to chose between them. Sport and art have a long and happy history together, and, (like any good marriage or tutorial pairing) that’s a lot to do with the fact that deep down they’re not so different from each other.
The Greeks were the great sportsmen and women of the ancient world. They also gave us the first great examples of sport in art. Our modern Olympic games are named after those held in Greece for over a thousand years, but that was just one of several international sporting festivals that were held alongside numerous local events. And the Greeks loved depicting these sports in various works of art almost as much as they loved watching and taking part in them. Winners would commission paintings, (now lost to us), and statues to record their achievements, and sporting scenes were popular as designs for ceramic pots – especially vessels for drinking wine. The Ashmolean has a fantastic collection where, more than two thousand years later, we can still watch, in all their naked and rampant glory, ancient athletes competing in the middle of other triumphs than ours.
Other popular designs included scenes of religious life, and it seems right that sport, religion, art and wine should all be mixed up like that. Athletes would ask the gods to favour them, and then celebrate at a party afterwards where short poems written to mark their victory would be recited. It was all part of a celebration of the exceptional in life, and what was special included both sporting and artistic achievement. Music was a very important part of several festivals, and the awarding of prizes for artistic merit, such as those awarded to playwrights in Athens, was done in the same way as the awarding of prizes to athletes.
Sporting victory also had social implications, pointing out that you had the leisure and wealth to dedicate yourself to sport. Making this clear without arousing too much jealousy may have been one of the functions of the poems athletes paid to have written about their victories. Short versions would be recited soon after the contest, whilst more elaborate poems were worked up ready for the athlete’s arrival home when they would probably be performed in public. They often make a big deal of dedicating much of the glory of the victory to the community in general, presumably to encourage them to listen to more of their champion’s self-congratulation without getting too envious. Drunken rugby teams take note.
These poems were only really popular for a short period about five hundred years before the birth of Christ, but many of them have long been regarded as amongst the finest literary productions of the ancient world. The odes of Pindar are particularly admired. These were all written to record sporting victories and are largely responsible for the use of the ode as a form by English poets of the last few hundred years. Without the athletes, who were Pindar’s customers, Wordsworth would not have written his Ode on Intimations and we would never have had the odes of Shelley or Keats. Theses poets weren’t writing about sport, but the art form they were using only exists because of athletic competitions. The great writers of the classical world were often inspired more directly by sport. Homer has a long passage on ceremonial funeral games which led Virgil to include a similar section on sports in the Aeneid. Maybe it’s for the same reason that there’s a short discussion of Gaelic sports in Ulysses.
Sport has often found a place in the art of the modern world as well. One of my favourite books is The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton. First published in 1653, it’s a practical guide to fishing that also manages to touch on just about everything else important in life. It’s a meditation on a much loved sport and all the problems of living a good and happy life that’s gone through more editions than any book other than the Bible. And it has pictures.
More recent works of literature about sport include The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It’s a short story by Alan Silletoe, later made into a film, about a teenage boy in a borstal in the 1950s who finds a measure of escape from his rather grim life by dedicating himself to the sport of, surprisingly, long distance running. Just like a Greek athlete, he uses sport to transcend himself. More importantly, he’s eventually able to use his achievements to spread a little bit of subversion and strike a small blow at a society that’s always been trying to put him down. Just like Pindar knew, sport can be dangerous when you’re not careful.
The sport best represented in British art is probably cricket. There are pictures of games that look something like cricket in fourteenth century manuscripts in the Bodleian, and depictions in the painted windows of the same age in the cathedrals of Gloucester and Canterbury. Cricket as we know it today emerged during the Eighteenth Century, and the first paintings were made around the 1740s. These paintings and engravings are invaluable to historians who can use them when trying to reconstruct early forms of the game. Many, for example, show just how far apart the two stumps used at the time were placed. More than big enough to allow the ball to pass between them without dislodging the bales by even a hair’s breadth!
Cricket was universally acknowledged to be a fine ‘manly’ game, and it very soon became the done thing for a boy or young man to be painted holding a cricket bat, legs casually crossed. Just as the odes of the ancient Greeks could play an important social purpose, artists were soon able to use cricket to make a point. An engraving of 1778 shows ‘Miss Wicket’ adopting the clichéd but very unladylike pose of the bat-wielding, cricket-playing young gentleman. If that wasn’t warning enough to the men-folk of the world, her friend ‘Miss Trigger’ carries a rifle and a brace of pheasants. The art of cricket was being parodied for a very socially engaged purpose.
Cricket remains a popular subject for artists today, but it’s certainly not the only sport to do so. Even ignoring the kitsch on sale in any sport team’s magastore, (as the are invariably dubbed), sport continues to enjoy a healthy and evolving relationship with art. This time next year, the V&A will be hosting an exhibition on ‘Fashion and Sport’ exploring the relationship between the two. Sporting memorabilia continues to blur the line between sport and art. Think, for example, of all those football shirts framed just like paintings and hung on the walls of pubs. I’m sure the Greeks, with their illustrated amphorae, would salute such a familiar confluence of art, alcohol and athleticism.
Even the last century’s most celebrated artist had a fascination with sport. Pablo Picasso might not have been much of a cricketer – few Spaniards are – but he maintained a life-long interest in bull-fighting. Not only were fights staged in his honour, but he also produced posters for local events. A bull appears in his famous painting Guernica, and bull-fighting featured as a theme in his work throughout his career, just as it did in Goya’s a hundred and fifty years before. Like many other artists of the Twentieth Century, he was attracted by the mythic connotations of bull-fighting and never shied away from its violent nature. In fact, that violence was an integral part of what made the sport such a compelling subject to Picasso and other artists.
Cinema too has had a long love affair with sport. Some of the oldest films from the turn of the last century are records of football matches. Because early cameras could only hold a few minutes of film, there was no way to film a whole match. As a result, there’s not much footage of actual play. It’s hard to predict before a match when exactly the most exciting twenty seconds are going to be. Instead, the cameras would capture the shots of the crowd and the teams emerging from the tunnel onto the pitch. Not quite Match of the Day, but it was a start.
Today, some of the most popular films in history are about sport. Boxing films have a particularly rich tradition producing such classics as Rocky, (winner of the Oscar for Best Picture) and Raging Bull, for which Robert De Niro won the Best Actor award. Whilst Rocky gives us a rather schmaltzy underdog story, Raging Bull doesn’t flinch from the raw savagery of boxing. Like many great sports films, Raging Bull uses sport partly to explore the psychology of its protagonist. De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, a talented boxer from the Bronx who climbs towards the top of his sport before losing it all. He ends up destroying himself with jealousy over his second wife, Vicki. LaMotta’s destructive passions are reflected in the film’s uncompromisingly violent boxing scenes, and the similarity of the story to Othello has often been remarked upon by critics.
I’m pretty sure the Greeks would have recognised this type of art, a complicated exploration of combat and contest. Somewhat ironically, I think they’d have preferred it to the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, which is about the 1924 Olympics. Like Rocky, it won the Oscar for Best Picture, and like Raging Bull it uses sport to explore the psychologies and relationships of its characters. No Greek, though, would share the Scottish runner Liddell’s worries that his religion and his sporting commitments were in conflict.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby became another popular sporting film in 1997. Fever Pitch is different to other sports films though. It’s not told from the perspective of a sportsman, but that of a fan following Arsenal in their 1988-9 season. It’s also a romantic comedy as well as a sports film. It’s not so much a film about excelling or beating the odds, but about sport as a part of someone’s life alongside things like love which is, in its own little way, almost as important. The structure of the football season, familiar to any fan, shapes the film and jollies it along; hope and rebirth in late August, confusion and uncertainty through the winter, climaxes of triumph and despair in May. Cricket in the summer if they’re broad-minded. It’s the modern man’s equivalent of the agricultural cycle.
One of the reasons that sport and art go together so well is that they’re so very similar. The experience of going to a sporting event like a big football match isn’t so different to, say, going to the opera. Bear with me on this one. You make a special journey to a venue which is specially put aside from day to day life for one particular activity to see the best people in the world doing something which, a lot of the time, is being done completely for its own sake. We even dress up in a special way for both. Alright, footballers play football because they earn a lot of money, but they’re only paid that much because millions of people care a lot about, and will spend a lot of money on, an activity that has no direct effect on the outside world. Which is where sport differs from religion, which claims to affect the whole world and more. Sport’s a bit closer to how we think about art sometimes, as something that’s worth doing for its own sake. After all, we could keep fit by simply running on a tread mill all on our own, and we’re all a bit suspicious of ideas that sport ‘builds character’ or teaches ‘leadership’, but we still carry on playing sport despite the apparent lack of purpose. In the same way, we can still care a lot about literature and music even if we’re not sure they can do anything to transform our lives or society. We like art just because we like it. It makes us happy.
It’s no coincidence that football is called ‘the beautiful game’. A game of football can be very pretty to watch. Most fans have a few favourites. The Brazil team of 1982, Arsenal 2002-3, Leicester City 1996-7. Maybe that last one’s just me. Its beauty is one of the reasons football’s so popular. When it’s played well, it’s a free flowing game with plenty of opportunity for invention and displays of individual virtuosity. It’s almost unique amongst sports for the degree to which it rewards improvisation, and the best teams always surprise you with the way they can rethink traditional forms of play and movement and do something unexpected with the familiar. Doesn’t that sound like some types of art? Isn’t it a bit like an elaborate, improvised dance form? Some narrow minded people might say that’s going a bit far but as the recent goings on at Chelsea show, (Mourinho was sacked partly, the rumour goes, for not getting his team to play attractive enough football), football fans do care about aesthetics. A team’s never considered truly great until it’s won consistently by playing football that’s beautiful to watch.
People often talk about the aesthetic aspect of cricket. A well timed shot can be graceful, but it’s the ebb and flow of a cricket match that’s really satisfying. Like one of those big Romantic symphonies, a long sonnet cycle or a TV series, a five day test match grows organically with almost infinitely complex shapes and rhythms. If you listen to Test Match Special on the radio, you’ll know how obsessed cricket fans can be by statistics. They’ll count anything, and tell you everything down to when the last time was that three no-balls were bowled in an over from the Nursery End during the second innings of a match where less than three hundred runs were being chased and the umpire had egg sandwiches for tea. This obsession with statistics is one way of making sense of such a fantastically complexly structured phenomenon. It helps pick out all the different shapes and stories which overlap each other in any one match. It’s just like trying to remember all the schemes and patterns and stories going on at once in Paradise Lost or Ulysses. Every single ball is a contest between bowler and batsman that can only be understood as part of that over which you need to think of as part of the way that session’s gone which is just one part of a match which fits into that particular test series which is part of a history of matches going back one hundred years. And then there’s the story of how that batsman’s been playing that summer, (perhaps he’s nervous having done really badly the week before), and maybe there’s a big rivalry between him and the bowler, and then you need to think of the way this particular pitch behaved in similar conditions three years ago… It’s just the same way a work of literature like The Faerie Queene works, piling story on top of story to create an intensely meaningful whole.
Which is why people care. We’re always hearing snotty remarks about how silly it is to be so worked up about whether an artificial bladder crosses a line or not, but quit
honestly that’s very short-sighted. As I see it, it’s a great miracle that people can find meaning in such a silly activity. It’s fantastic that they care. People sometimes talk about fans as if they suffer from some pitiful mental disability, some infantile delusion. But really, it takes anything but stupidity to concentrate intensely on something for ninety minutes. We all know that from lectures. And why should it be pitiable to care about what happens on a sports field? Is it really any different to going to a theatre and being moved by what you rationally know are just people pretending to do things they’re not? When you take the time to learn some of the intricate details of any sport, it almost always proves to be just as rewarding in its own way as any art form. Sports fans recognise this. Manchester United brand their stadium at Old Trafford as ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. They know that what they’re offering to people has a lot of the same qualities as what’s offered up at Covent Garden.
What I like about art is that it offers the spectacle of form and narrative and beauty, all combined in the same action. Well, sport’s exactly the same. A game of tennis, as Robert Frost recognised when he famously said he’d rather play tennis with the net down than write free verse, has form in the same way a sonnet does. And when a master of the sport like Roger Federer plays, he uses that form to do things that are really beautiful and add to what’s known as ‘Tennis History’, which is really just another story. Like King Lear is just another story. The Greeks loved stories, and they loved sport too. I’m sure they’d have loved modern Britain where, today, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best sport and some of the best art in the world right on our doorsteps. So go and join the college hockey team and then write a poem about it.