Odious Comparisons: Arts and Sports

Yes, I know. Apples are apples and the arts aren’t sports.

Cezanne apples and oranges

I’ve been writing and giving talks about what the arts and sports have in common and what our industry can learn from the sports industry for over a decade now. I still receive a fair amount of resistance to the comparison from my fellow arts workers (sports fans are primarily interested in competition, not aesthetics; the sports industry is bottom-line oriented and so panders to its audience; etc.). But interestingly, I don’t receive much resistance from audience members, who tend to find the invitation to think about the relationship between their sports viewing habits and their arts viewing habits rather compelling.

To be clear, my goal in comparing arts and sports has to do with illuminating the differences between the arts experience and the sports experience, not comparing the arts event to the sporting event. As I have written in earlier posts, what I mean by the arts experience is the total phenomenon of arts-going, including not just the moment of reception but also what happens to us in our pre- and post spectating worlds.

So here we go: Imagine the Super Bowl culturally situated and institutionally produced in the same way as, say, an opera or a production of a Shakespeare play. In the weeks leading up to the game, instead of scores of pages of pregame analysis, data, and discourse in your local newspaper and online, you get one 800-word preview article (maybe). Instead of abundant radio and television coverage, you get silence on the broadcast bands. Instead of social interaction constructed around the upcoming game—social interaction filled with sports talk of all manner and open to a wide variety of people—you get small talk about anything but sports. On game day, you sit in a dark room, quiet and still. And, after the game is over? Instead of yet more free-flowing conversation about the event, again filled with sports talk of all manner and open to a wide variety of people, you get more silence (except for the one review that appears in the lone remaining local newspaper).

Under these circumstances, would the Super Bowl be the Super Bowl?

I don’t think so. As any sports fan knows, the real fun is in talking about the game the next day. That’s why we like watching sports, because we know how to talk about them and we love the rush that comes from arguing over meaning in a democratic context.

The experiences described above that surround the Super Bowl help the audience to prepare, to process, to analyze, and ultimately to interpret the game. The average sports fan devotes many more hours preparing to watch the game (reading stats, analysis, and opinion in newspapers and online, listening to sports-related talk radio and television, talking to coworkers and friends) relative to the hours spent actually watching it. The average sports fan also finds ample venues to participate in social interpretation of the game—those opportunities for the analysis of and debate about its meaning and value. Sports culture is filled with these pre and post-game experiences; indeed, they are a 360 degree, 24/7 reality of American daily life.

Arts culture? Not so much. The distinction here is obvious—we don’t have the same attitude or approach to being an arts fan as we do to being a sports fan. We rarely carry the energy of an art-experience into our work environment, because we rarely (if ever) feel knowledgeable or empowered enough to debate the meaning or value of an arts event.

I readily acknowledge that sports spectatorship—with its emphasis on competition and tribal affiliations—serves a set of individual and collective impulses arguably distinct from those serviced by our contemporary definition of serious art. (Though I also take the opportunity to note that many forms of Western art, including theater, began in a competitive, tribal environment.) Competition does breed a particular type and level of engagement, as is evidenced by the success of contest-based reality shows and their ilk. And it’s clear that the commercial basis of sports—all the money that can be made—is  key to the production of all those cultural materials that surround the sporting event itself. We have 20 pages of sports writing in the newspaper because it brings in money. I know.

And yet, I can’t help but think about the reaction I get from lay audience members when I bring up the sports analogy. People like the comparison, I think, because they like their experience with sports and they don’t see why that kind of analytical pleasure can’t cross over to other types of cultural participation, including the serious arts.

Most people enjoy both sports and arts. But they spend way more time engaged with sports. I think that’s because the sports industry is built on a strong ethos of hospitality. People are welcomed into the meaning-making process through all of the surrounding experiences I’ve been describing here. And they are encouraged to talk about that experience through the wide array of opportunities to engage in social interpretation that our culture celebrates.

Maybe we should stop drawing attention to why arts events and sports events are different and start focusing on what might be similar in terms of human experience.

I believe that Arts Talk should be as common and as democratic as Sports Talk. Our industry goal should be to construct an interpretive culture about arts-going that feels familiar and ordinary and whose boundaries are permeable and expansive. I have some ideas about how to achieve that goal through the deployment of hospitality and productive talk. I’ll be writing much more about both in upcoming blogs.

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  1. Richard kooyman says

    The 2014 Whitney Biennial began last week. Prior to the opening arts blogs, writers, and artists have been talking about the pic of the three curators; where they came from,their preferences and how it will impact the look of the exhibitions. Local newspapers along with national magazines have done numerous profiles on the curators.
    Since the opening social media has been filled with viewers comments and postings of pictures. Since last Wednesday’s opening 5 major national art critics have reviewed the show with more reviews in the wings. Facebook has been filled with commentary agreeing with or arguing against these critical positions. The debate and talk has been varied and enlivened. And thankfully it has been more stimulating that sports talk.

  2. Fred Plotkin says

    Italy’s Corriere della Sera covers La Scala as it does the Milan soccer clubs
    — before, during and after every production pluss of analysis. It makes many fans more interested but also a lot of them become cynical because the reportage often has the tone of crisis and negativity

  3. says

    Lynne: I agree with you 100%. When talking about my company’s work or in coaching others to expand their perspective about audience engagement (mostly theatre), I often paint the ideal to be somewhere between a MegaChurch and a Professional Football team: investment; shared core values; sense of connection to others; micro-communities as a part of greater and greater macro-communities; ownership; all tied with opportunities for intellectual-emotional-transcendence. And yes: “People are welcomed into the meaning-making process through all of the surrounding experiences I’ve been describing here. And they are encouraged to talk about that experience through the wide array of opportunities to engage in social interpretation that our culture celebrates.”
    Thrilled that you are on ArtsJournal Blogs now. Great addition.

  4. says

    Dear Lynn ~ I agree as well. The abundance of discourse about a sporting event is really an expression of the fans’ attachment to it and arts presenters would benefit from a better understanding of that attachment. Loyalty, belonging, and conquering something together come to mind as needs that may be being met- plus the great concepts Rachel Grossman mentions above. Thanks for this perspective.

  5. says

    Fascinating piece. I wonder if there is a bit of a lacuna here though, in your conceptualization of “art” as used in the context. If you include episodic television as art, you can find the kind of engagement that you see in sports applied to art. “Water-cooler shows” – though rarer now with the advent of narrowcasting – have been a staple of public discourse for a long time. Shows like “MASH” and “Lost” generated, in the weeks leading up to their last episodes, “scores of pages of pre-[show] analysis, data, and discourse in local newspapers and online. The 50th anniversary special of “Dr. Who” created its own tribal stir, perhaps not as big as the Superbowl, but certainly on par with the Stanley Cup. I could extend further from television into other “art”: the release of each new Harry Potter book certainly created the same kind of “big game” experience after a while. So is what we’re really talking about in this context is how to create that sports-like experience for “fine art,” whatever that is? Maybe we could look a little closer to home than sports: “pop” arts.

    • says

      Yes, I agree completely that the popular arts produce plenty of paratextual material (all of that surrounding context I refer to in my post) and plenty of “water cooler” activity in the form of social interpretation. In my book Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, I devote an entire chapter to a discussion of contemporary practices in popular culture that demonstrate an active, authorized audience (social television, social reading, gaming, etc.). I focused solely on sports in this post because of space constraints. You might find my discussion in the book (Chapter 3) of interest.

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