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October 16, 2007

Sports / arts redux

Jennifer A. Smith

I thought I'd pick up where I left off two weeks ago, with a topic that generated a fair amount of interest: sports and the arts. Last night, I attended a panel discussion at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) titled "Forward Progress: New Perspectives on the Wisconsin Gridiron."

This was a joint event between MMoCA and Madison Repertory Theatre. Speakers were David Maraniss, the Madison native and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (who, it turns out, still lives in Madison part of the year); Eric Simonson, whose play based on Maraniss' bio of Vince Lombardi will premiere next month at Madison Rep; MMoCA curator Jane Simon; and Rep artistic director Richard Corley.

The panel tied together the Brett Favre-related art exhibition at MMoCA and the development of Maraniss' Lombardi biography into a work for the stage.

A few of the themes that emerged: Maraniss noted the pervasiveness of Lombardi quotes in realms not related to sports--Lombardi not just as coach, but as motivational speaker. He also spoke of "central American myths," stating "[Lombardi] had so much to offer about the mythology of winning, what it takes and what it costs." Simonson noted the strong influence of Jesuit thinking and specifically the philosophies of St. Ignatius on Lombardi's worldview.

And, as one might expect, there was talk of the violent aspect of modern sports and what that means. Maraniss argued that there is "a measure of artistic resonance even in violence," while Simon compared a central image in the Brett Favre-related art exhibition (Tim Laun's show "Sunday, September 20th, 1992") to a fallen soldier. The piece in question shows a downed Don Majkowski in larger-than-life fashion, taking up nearly a full gallery wall. This, of course, is the moment that set Favre's career in motion, as #4 replaced Majkowski on the field.

While comparisons between fallen soldiers and athletes are apt in many ways and have a long, even ancient, visual history, this is one place where I think we need to tread carefully and think in historical specifics, not just generalities. As we all know, the stakes for a soldier are much higher than for a pro athlete; we are reminded of that daily in these times. As my husband (a Marine Corps vet himself) commented, "Today, a 'fallen soldier' is likely to be in an outpatient mental health clinic."

Abstracted, almost beautiful depictions of downed bodies, from ancient Greece to images of Majkowski (who is alive and well), don't reflect the kind of psychological and physical trauma that is in our midst now. Symbolic comparisons, while valid on many levels, may have the unintended consequence of distancing us from current realities.

That said, I am glad to see this kind of joint event between Madison's professional theater company and its contemporary art museum. Not only have they coordinated their programming, they've connected it to one of the U.S.' major obsessions that is infrequently addressed in contemporary art-making.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at October 16, 2007 9:00 AM


THE classic athlete as fallen warrior image is the one of NY Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle dazed, bloodied and on his knees in 1964, his nightmarish final season after a hall of fame career that included setting a record for touchdown passes in 1963. I'm not concerned about confusing images of fallen athletes with pictures of fallen soldiers. Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows the difference, even when obviously metaphoric comparisons are drawn between sporting and military battles.

Examples of an athlete used to great metaphoric effect in works of art: Joe DiMaggio as a symbol of stoical endurance for the suffering, exhausted fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea," and as a symbol of the American confidence and self-possession after WWII that have eroded in the late 1960s in "Mrs. Robinson," the musical theme of "The Graduate."
"Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you/Woo woo woo/What's that you say Mrs. Robinson?/Joltin' Joe has left and gone away/Hey hey hey."

Vince Lombardi, the ultimate American authority figure during the 1960s, when authority was crumbling, could be a very fertile subject for drama if the show explores some of his symbolic resonances for then and for now.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 19, 2007 2:09 PM

Mike: You commented "I'm not concerned about confusing images of fallen athletes with pictures of fallen soldiers." I agree that's unlikely to happen, and it's not what I said. My point is that the use (overuse?) of this symbolic comparison, if not handled carefully, runs the risk of trivializing. In fact, the more I think about it, I wonder if this particular metaphor isn't getting a little shopworn, for at least two reasons: 1) its primary focus on physical injury and 2) its almost exclusively male focus. Given that many current war injuries are psychological (which, granted, has always been the case but has not been understood to the extent it is today) and that many of the warriors are women, the focus on male "downed bodies" (as I put it) is a bit out of sync with the realities of modern warfare.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 22, 2007 8:28 AM

"this symbolic comparison, if not handled carefully, runs the risk of trivializing. In fact, the more I think about it, I wonder if this particular metaphor isn't getting a little shopworn"

Jennifer: I think we've embarked on an object lesson in the disconnect between the sports world and the arts world.

The sports fan knows that athletics, especially football, are rife with cliched games-as-warfare metaphors. It's accepted, it's even part of the charm, and it's never ever taken by sensible fans as having anything to do with any realm apart from the playing field, least of all the battlefield. Linebackers and defensive backs "blitz" the quarterback, and, if successful, "sack" him. But not if the blockers "in the trenches" can help it. If the quarterback can evade the blitz, he'll use his powerful "cannon" or "gun" of an arm to "fire" the ball at a receiver; if it's an especially long pass, he's "throwing the bomb." If the play works, the quarterback will be applauded for his "field generalship." If not, the fans will gripe that instead of calling a pass (aka "the air attack"), he should have stayed with the "ground attack," relying on his powerful, "tank-like" ballcarriers to roll through the opposition, or "outflank" them with speedy end-runs.

When a sports fan sees a photo of a bowed and bloodied NY Giant or a Green Bay Packer splayed motionless on the turf, the fan may feel some horror or sympathy or admiration for the player's bravery, but the fan won't make a connection with a soldier. That's for the arts connoisseurs who are habituated to interpreting every image as a metaphor for something else -- and then get upset when they find a trivial and cliched symbolic meaning in something that was never intended as a symbol. Sometimes a jock is just a jock, as Freud almost said.

As for a lack of images of injured female athletes -- well Nancy Kerrigan after Tonya Harding's goon got through with her leaps to mind, and runner Mary Decker Slaney after Zola Budd crashed into her in the Olympics. But I'm sure most female athletes would rather forego that particular honor...and typically they do, because the women's sports covered by the media are generally not contact sports, unless you want to count "Million Dollar Baby." There are probably some hair-raising scenes from women's collegiate field hockey, but what American sports section or TV network regularly features field hockey?
Also, one of the "realities of modern warfare" for coalition forces in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, is: Female Fatalities: 96 2.32% of Total (4138), with about a third of the women killed by causes other than hostile fire. So if images of injured quarterbacks were symbols for dead soldiers -- which they decidedly are not from the sports fan's point of view -- they wouldn't be all that "out of sync" with reality on account of gender. But again, they're just football players.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 23, 2007 6:31 PM

Mike, you seem a bit angry. I think you may have the impression that I've worked myself into a state of high moral dudgeon over the military battle/sports battle metaphor. That's not the case -- I just find it a bit overblown at times, and I don't think it's wrong/naive/whatever to look at it critically. And I'm well aware that sports commentary is rife with these battle metaphors. While I mentioned that I'm not a huge sports fan in a previous post, anyone not living in a dark cellar has some sort of familiarity with this type of language. It's part of American popular culture.

As for the gender issue: I wouldn't really count the Harding/Kerrigan incident as as example, since that was a bit of "extracurricular" violence, rather than something that happened on the ice. But I'd agree that sports coverage neglects women's contact sports; the one football game I've been to this fall was a women's pro game, yet it was not covered in the local daily other than to report the score (and this was in a Sunday paper that trumpeted "60 pages of football coverage!" or something on the front page). Yes, I realize women's pro football is not wildly popular, but I think there are some interesting human stories to be told.

As for actual soldiers currently dying in Iraq and elsewhere: I'm not interested in playing a numbers game between male fatalities and female fatalities. It's a morally useless comparison in my book. Whether parents lose a son or daughter in Iraq, I'm sure the pain they feel is the same.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 24, 2007 8:34 AM

Jennifer: Play a gender card (which you did) and somebody will try to trump you every time. Since you were proposing that there's something inadequate about using male figures in symbolic representations of war casualties, I felt it worth noting, as a helpful reality check, that the coalition forces' "downed bodies" in Iraq are overwhelmingly male. Each one, male or female, combatant or civilian, is obviously a tragedy. My point is that, contrary to what you posted, there's nothing "out of sync with the realities of modern warfare" should artists choose to use male figures to represent today's military casualties. As for the tone of my response, I don't consider vehement writing to be angry writing. Heated writing is a GOOD thing, as long as it keeps its lucidity and does not distort opposing viewpoints or ignore the strongest arguments for the position it's trying to challenge. Anger rises from fear. What have I got to be afraid of in this exchange? I just disagree with some of what you've written, and I like to express myself in a colorful way whenever possible, because no writer worth a damn wants to be bland, ever. Sharp discussion and the clash of ideas make the world go 'round, and on the battlefield of words and ideas, a worthy foe is a friend. I wish our president had had a few more of those around him at key junctures; maybe we wouldn't still be talking about the appropriate way to symbolize battlefield casualties in art works.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 24, 2007 9:58 PM

Hi Mike: At the risk of dragging this out, I wanted to note that my quibble with the "male downed bodies" approach to representing war injuries/fatalities was based not only on gender, but on the fact that there is a lot more going on than the archetypal dying-in-combat-on-the-battlefield. Part of my point was that this approach to representation tends to focus on physical injury while neglecting psychological injury.

As for "playing the gender card"... I find that an interesting turn of phrase. Is raising a gender-related point "playing the gender card" only when the writer is a woman? If I made a point about race, would I be "playing the race card" even though I am white?

Maybe we'll have to settle with the one thing we apparently DO agree on... that the current conflict is a mess.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at October 25, 2007 8:08 AM