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October 2, 2007

From Lambeau Field to the gallery wall

Jennifer A. Smith

Yesterday, on a drizzly morning in south-central Wisconsin, I awoke to find the lead headline on the soggy paper in my driveway printed in the type size normally reserved for things like "VICTORY OVER JAPAN!" Yes, during Sunday's game against the Vikings, Brett Favre set the record for career touchdown passes. "TOP GUN," the Wisconsin State Journal exclaimed on a special cover consumed entirely by a full-color picture of Favre. (The "normal" front page was shifted to page 3.)

While I normally bemoan the fact that sports coverage dwarfs arts coverage in most places, I didn't this time. I'm not sure why. I'm not much of a sports fan--despite a borderline-weird childhood obsession with the '70s Cincinnati Reds--but maybe the Packer worship surrounding me in this state is starting to rub off. Being married to a Green Bay native doesn't hurt, either.

What I thought might be interesting for Flyover readers is a current flurry of interest (at least in these parts) in sports as subject matter in the arts. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is currently exhibiting Tim Laun's "Sunday, September 20th, 1992," so named for the day Favre took over for Don Majkowski. I still have not seen it (it runs through Nov. 11) but here's some coverage from the Wisconsin State Journal and from the local anonymous blogger Madison Guy, on "Letter from Here," who called it "pandering, pompous and patronizing" as well as "cynical and exploitive." That's pretty blistering stuff from a guy who writes a thoughtful, well-researched blog about art, architecture, politics and local Madison doings. The unspoken question here I think is this: Are sports an appropriate (worthy, relevant) subject for art?

Sports-themed and sports-related art has a mixed history here in Madison, at least during the dozen years I've lived here. A few years back, a controversial Donald Lipski sculpture (essentially an obelisk of stacked footballs, a kind of whimsical monument to gladiatorial sport) was installed outside of Camp Randall on the UW campus. It inspired a local backlash of what seemed to me ridiculous proportions. Whether one loves it, hates it, or is merely indifferent, it is but one of thousands of art objects one can see in Madison during the year. Yes, I get it that it's a permanent, prominently sited work at a beloved home of college football, but I still think the local ire was overblown and, after a while, fed on itself. What also disappointed me personally was local commentators' refusal (or inability) to deal with it as a sculpture, with at least some passing reference to Lipski's other work or sculpture in general.

Since I haven't seen MMoCA's Tim Laun show on Favre yet, I'm curious to see how it comes off. (And if anyone reading this has seen it for themselves, please add your thoughts in the comments.)

In the realm of Madison theater, Madison Rep is presenting the premiere of "Lombardi / The Only Thing," an Eric Simonson play based on the David Maraniss bio of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. It opens Nov. 9.

I can see two schools of thought forming around this Favre-and-Lombardi art: a camp that sees it as pandering to sports-loving Wisconsinites, a wallowing in familiar, beloved icons, and a camp that sees it as possibly a prime opportunity to get people into galleries and playhouses who might not otherwise come there.

The main response I have is that these arts offerings point up just how seldomly sports are treated seriously as subject matter in contemporary art and theater. While the results will have to stand on their own merits, whatever they may be, I don't think sports are a priori an inappropriate subject for art. I'm not sure anything is - except maybe this (nooooo, Milwaukee, don't do it!). Whether you're a sports fan or not, you've got to admit that sports consume a huge amount of time, attention and money in this country; I think there's something there worth exploring.

Other sports-related art rearing its head in recent years in Madison includes the bronze statues of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez (former Badgers head coach) and Pat Richter, unveiled about a year ago. You can have a gander at the Alvarez half of that here. A coworker remarked that these humorless, Socialist Realism-style figures reminded him of Marx and Engels, boldly striding towards a new tomorrow. Just think: our very own Madison Alexanderplatz!

Seriously, though, I'd be interested in hearing from others what might be happening in their communities that combines athletics and art. While not much of a "sports person" myself--though I did attend a Wisconsin Wolves game a few weeks ago; they're a team in the WPFL--there's got to be some common ground between "arts people" and "sports people." What might that look like?

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at October 2, 2007 8:00 AM



1. "Take Me Out" by Richard Greenberg, about a superstar baseball player who announces he is gay, won the Tony Award for best play a few years ago. Greenberg is a maniacal New York Yankees fan, something he came to late in life; baseball probably appealing to his sense of drama unfolding with slow-building anticipation, then sudden bursts of action.
2. Getty Museum vs. Italy over who gets custody of 2,000+ year old "Victorious Youth," aka the "Getty Bronze," a priceless statue fished out of the Mediterranean, depicting a naked, laureled athlete. Statues of athletes are nothing new. The Brett Favre of his day, perhaps.
3. Richard Dresser wrote a play about two Little League dads in conflict, I can't remember the name but it originated in Chicago and has been produced widely (theaters love two-handers nowadays for salary reasons).

A play about Vince Lombardi could be great or pandering, depending on whether the writer takes an interesting and truthful point of view that says something about broader human issues. I'd think that would be the standard for judging any art work or exhibition about sports. There's nothing wrong with meeting a broad audience where they live, as long as you take them somewhere they probably didn't expect to go. Sports art of the Leroy Niemann school doesn't qualify.
You'd think more artists would be turning their gaze into the grandstands and the sidelines and sports bars, trying to show Americans how they look and what it means when they're gorging on sports. But I suppose most artists grew up being picked on by the jocks and don't want to rekindle bad memories.

Conjecture: the Heisman Trophy is the most famous piece of sculpture ever created in America? Seems like the Lincoln Memorial statue and Mount Rushmore would be the only competition.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 2, 2007 12:28 PM

My friend passed this page on to me knowing that I grew up in Wisconsin, own stock in the Packers, and take advantage of my dad's Packer season tickets every chance I get. But in my day job I'm an arts administrator working at a composer service organization in Minnesota. I work to support composers and their music by managing community engagement and education programs. In fact, one of the pieces we commissioned celebrated the baseball city of St. Louis, combining prerecorded sounds of the crack of the bat and beer vendors with a string quartet by composer Philip Bimstein. (http://www.continentalharmony.org/community_detail.cfm?oid=1416)

Part of the reason why I love the Packers so dang much is because they represent the ultimate in community engagement project: no other team is owned by their fans. It is the emotion and support of the fans that helps continue the legacy of the Pack. Just walk through the Hall of Fame sometime and you'll see a movie about the Packer Fanatics (not to mention the three Lombardi trophies).

I was at the San Diego game at Lambeau a few weeks ago, and was absolutely blown away by the sheer joy of the fans; the stadium was literally shaking from the raucous cheering that erupted. And this was AFTER the game--fans walking out to their cars who randomly started to scream with joy and excitement over the potential for this season. I tried capturing some of the audio on my cell phone--but there was no way to grab that feeling of hearing 70,000 people shouting around you, vibrating you to your very core.

Would this ever happen at a Minnesota Orchestra concert? Concerts used to be a much more wild event than they are today. Some of the research I've done points to the invention of gas lights in the concert halls which created the ability to keep the audience in the dark and the performers in the light. This created a 4th wall--a wall that many organizations are now trying to break to build and develop audiences.

Will there ever be a time after a new music concert when the audience reacts in the same way to a Packer win? Probably not--but Green Bay Symphony has just started a commissioning club, which is a pretty big step for an arts organization competing for audience attention in Packer country.

Thanks for this entry--I'm excited to see what others have to say.

Posted by: Carey Nadeau at October 2, 2007 5:57 PM

Having grown up in Wisconsin, but not having lived there in decades, I can attest to the primal tug that the Packers exert deep into the subconscious. Images of Brett Favre in Packer regalia evoke memories of a simpler time as pleasing as the smell of crackling breakfast sausage on Sunday morning. It's a rich vein for artistic deconstruction - what's not to love?

Posted by: Paul Beard at October 3, 2007 7:33 AM

I remember the first time I went to a Liberty game in NY's Madison Square Garden. There was so much spectacle and drama I realized theatre will never successfully compete with sports in the U.S. Unless something extraordinary happens to the market, theatre will remain a leisure pursuit of the wealthy elites.

Posted by: A. Furie at October 3, 2007 9:04 AM

Right now Lansing is going through a "Shaw" phase where lots of different groups are putting on shows about George Bernard Shaw.

The phase right before this one, I called the baseball phase. One group did "Take Me Out," another did "Cobb" (about Ty Cobb, a Detroit Tigers controversial player from the turn of the century), and another did "Rounding Third" which was about Little League baseball. All took looks at fairly serious issues using baseball as the storytelling device. It worked surprisingly well.

For lighter touches, I saw "High School Musical" on stage this week and one of the most impressive parts of the performance was the number "Get'cha Head in the Game" where they proved what I already knew--that basketball could be beautiful as a dance.

I wonder whether some of the difference is that it is a lot easier to televise a game than to televise most art. Once you televise art, it changes in its form and function. I think television shows can be art, but they are an art that is different from a dance concert, an opera, or a theatrical performance. Likewise with visual art, how can you determine how long to leave the image on the screen. Do you capture the texture? Are you able to give someone the time they need to absorb it?

Just some random thoughts.

Posted by: Bridgette at October 4, 2007 10:01 AM

A couple of thoughts: My family loves the Packers. We've spent a few summer days watching training in Green Bay (they practice outside to the delight of fans sitting on the bleachers on the sidewalk - a great show - second best thing to actually going to a game). I noticed when Brett and the other quarterbacks practiced their moves, well, it was choreography. There's a dance in there, definitely. And the theatre involved in a good Packer game is hard to beat. Not knowing the ending - so much innate drama.

I love art, theatre, music. I've devoted my career to this world. And there is room for both sports and the arts. In fact, a study done a few years back showed us that sports lovers and arts audiences are not necessarily two separate groups - what does differentiate people are those that go out (sports, arts, community events, voting booths) and those that don't. Other posts say it well - it's all about engagement. Sports do it really REALLY well.

Posted by: Sharon at October 4, 2007 11:13 AM