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May 16, 2006

Sports and the Arts


I have some issues with overworking the connection between sports and the arts, though I'm a sports fan myself. Certainly the sports coverage in most newspapers tends to be better than the arts coverage, but a significant reason for this is that editors are far more likely to be sports fans than art connoisseurs. The plentiful coverage -- plus, to be blunt, the fact that sports are a lot easier to understand and require less of the spectator than the arts tend to (the faux populism of the sports comparison really does annoy me, I must admit) -- creates an audience that demands quality writing and coverage and won't put up with less. I can't tell you how many writers I know who couldn't cut it in sports section and got transferred to the job of rock critic because, hey, they like music and who cares if they can't write well or knowledgably about it.
As for access, it's true that athletes can be fined if they don't do interviews -- so can movie stars, who typically are contractually obligated to grant interviews to promote their new projects. Both produce about the same quality of interview. Locker-room interviews are the very definition of trite, as are movie junkets. In-depth stories with the kind of drama we all like are equally rare in both fields.
Also, the heart of sports writing -- the follow-up game report and analysis -- really is the equivalent of the review. The difference is that, because of television and the plethora of coverage I've already described, people already know the basics and you can get as deep as you want. Columnists -- the equivalent of critics, really -- are again given an enormous amount of range to comment on the sports issues they're interested in. How many arts writers enjoy similar freedom?
As for local coverage, I don't know who these actors, musicians, painters and writers are who refuse to open up to the media, because I've never met them. Local artists are desperate for coverage, and if you show them the slightest attention, they'll practically invite you to live with them. Try to get the space for those stories.
People at the top of their field in terms of accomplishment or fame are always going to be hard to get access to. But you have a much better shot if you establish your publication as smart and friendly to the arts.

Posted by at May 16, 2006 6:18 AM


I'm probably the only former sportswriter here (once upon a time I covered college hoops, football and the NFL), so let me take a whack at this:

There is no straightforward coverage comparison to be made between the arts and sports, at least not the way sports are covered by most papers (as a series of games, not as the broader story of society and societal issues played out on the pitch).

But arts sections could learn from this: Sports pages have built strong voices by hiring smart, engaged, passionate columnists and letting them say whatever they want. They then promote those voices with placement and advertising. Arts sections would do well to learn from that. Instead most arts editors shy away from strong, controversial opinions. (Oh no! Will I get blamed if too many people object to like what Jack Critic wrote? If he goes almost too far? If he gets -- GASP -- political?)

Posted by: Tyler Green at May 16, 2006 6:41 AM

Anthony DeCurtis: "the fact that sports are a lot easier to understand and require less of the spectator than the arts"

This is arguable. In both fields, the level of understanding required varies dramatically. Have you ever tried explaining football to someone who's not been socialized in the US? And just understanding the basic mechanics of the game is still a far cry from understanding the strategic difference between "Cover 2" defense and man to man. There's plenty of historical background (rivalries, coaching histories, who played for what team, the development of various offensive and defensive philosophies, etc.) required for really understanding the game. Your perception that sports "ask less" seems to be ignoring that sports (in the US) are promoted and present at nearly every educational level and institution and that this might make it easier for the "casual" spectator to acclimate.

There's plenty of work in the arts that asks little of their viewer and there's plenty of work that is enhanced by a sophisticated knowledge of the field. The problem is that the arts don't do nearly enough to cultivate that knowledge. A major culprit in all of this is the continued top-down conversational economy so prevalent in the arts which stands in stark contrast to the multiplicity of bottom-up conversational venues in sports. If that's faux-populism, then all hail the faux!

Posted by: LeisureArts at May 16, 2006 7:19 AM

Responding to LeisureArts: The arts/sports comparison is false, as far as I'm concerned, but then I didn't make it in the first place. (I was just commenting on it and, hey, isn't that what we do here in the blogosphere?) Of course, it's hard to explain certain aspects of any game to the uninitiated, but complexity and depth are not the same thing. Understanding how to execute a zone defense and developing an understanding of King Lear or "Visions of Johanna" are different orders of experience, it seems to me.

But whatever. The more important point you raise, in my view, is how people are educated about sports and, by implication, not about the arts. It's easy to goof on sports announcers, but anyone who turns on the TV and watches a game hears a level of discussion and analysis that, at least until recently (at least theoretically), has been much harder to come by in the arts. That helps shape an analytic approach to the game and encourages insight, argument and incisive points of view.

If every night there were twenty plays on television with smart, engaged people offering running commentary, people would likely be more fluent in the nuances of acting, staging and the theater in general. But, then again, they might not be, because... well, Eugene O'Neill demands more of viewers than a basketball game does, and not everybody wants to engage that or is up for dealing with it.

Posted by: Anthony DeCurtis at May 16, 2006 8:11 AM

Excellent post, but the key difference between sports coverage and arts coverage is that sports writers are rarely required to explain anything. They don't tell you which city a team is from, how the game is scored, or even what position certain athletes play. The reader is presumed to know all these things. That allows sports writing to have a higher level of analysis, since it's directed to the cognoscenti -- even if those cognoscenti are also "the masses."

Posted by: Lisa Hunter at May 16, 2006 10:29 AM

I have been fascinated by the quick introduction of the towel-snapping sports analogy into this conversation about arts journalism, and by its tenacious endurance. Sports and art, like anything people choose to do, are gendered--framed by a complex set of masculine and feminine social codes. Sports sections have a long lineage in American journalism, but the culture sections of newspapers are more recent. And it's no accident that they emerged in the wake of '60s feminism, born from what used to be called "the women's pages."

Not long ago I listened as a former NEA chairman explained the marginalized status of the arts in the political economy of the United States: "As long as the arts enter the White House through the East Wing, rather than the West Wing, they will have no serious standing in Washington." The arts have always been the purview of the First Lady, not the man one might likewise have always called The Decider.

In the call to make arts coverage more like sports coverage there is more than a whiff of testosterone. Think of it as a critical steroid. The handwringing is a rather obvious--and odious--plea to butch it up.

Posted by: Christopher Knight at May 17, 2006 7:19 AM

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