Sport is one of civilization’s most spectacular inventions. In spite of this, its role has never been sufficiently explored. It is difficult to justify such neglect, and all the more difficult because sport is one of the important prostheses for our complicated imperfection.
The Triumph of the Spirit over Biology
Over the course of evolution, the expansion of thought has progressively stifled the biological aspect of being human. Evolutionary pressure tended toward the development of the brain, leading to the rise of a protective conceptual armature for the delicate body. Tens of thousands of years ago, the evolution of the brain exaggerated its function and the human mental aspect enslaved the human biological function. This revolutionary moment in our evolution selected out an inquisitive species conscious of transience and talented in the creation of magical instruments. Distancing from the biological nature of primal humans was an inevitable consequence of these characteristics. Evolution went in the direction of cranking up and satiating human sensitivity. Man discovered his differentness, his transience, his feelings, and his emotional dependence on others. Biological man desired to eat and copulate. Spiritual man desired to justify his own existence, as facilitated by social standing and aspirations to happiness. The operating instructions for biological man were inscribed in his instincts. Spiritual man had to invent everything from scratch and faced a void that needed filling. All efforts were directed toward creating instruments to suppress existential pain and sanction social inequality. Religion propelled authority, and authority in turn created symbols and the narratives to support them, initiating what today we call culture. The construction of this edifice, which busied man for tens of thousands of years, is based on astonishing religious fairy tales and the lies that rationalize them. It is a gigantic work of art, created by a species that succumbed to existential sensitivity, a very odd organ with an exaggerated function.
Existential sensitivity turned out to be a painful, high-profile problem, the suppression of which was therefore an operation that did not take into account human biological/animal needs, but rather subjected them to drastic and absurd intervention. Emerging from time to time, the scream of the human animal was muffled by hastily constructed instruments, the broadening of religion, or the creation of convenient theories such as the diagnosis of hysteria in women. The Freudian revolution partially exposed the scale of the human biological wound inflicted by cultural nonchalance. To the degree that spirituality was the subject of in-depth reflection and concern, so the biological was suppressed and mocked. It was perceived as a proclivity unworthy of humans. It is strange that the falsification of the human condition did not lead to some sort of total catastrophe. The diversity of religious/cultural outcomes may have counteracted this. There can be no doubt that sport – a civilizational counterfeit highlighting the body – had a suppressive and compensatory function here.
What Is Sport for?
Anthropological research and speculation indicates that contemporary man does not differ biologically from paleolithic man. The contemporary body is subject to the same conditioning as the body of early-stone-age man, who was in motion almost all the time because hunting and gathering involved covering considerable distances and great agility. This activity did not rule out dreams of laziness; it was a necessity to which the body had to subordinate itself. Our physical construction, our metabolism, and the resultant processes are still paleolithic. We are thus mentally and physically addicted to exertion and fatigue. In the meantime, however, cultural-civilizational advances, inspired by the coddling of spirituality, have freed vast cohorts of people from the necessity of movement, thereby upsetting their biological equilibrium. With a return to primitive hunter-gatherer activity out of the question, compensatory instruments were sought outside the biological sphere, within the realm of civilizational choices. This is how sport arose. From the very beginning, its function was complicated. The surreptitious idea behind sport was to encourage physical exertion. This idea was never formulated openly,
however, because proclaiming it would have deprived sport of the magical energy of play and competition. Rational explanation based on an understanding of the mechanisms involved is totally unsuitable for undertakings with the function of sublimation. Such undertakings must pretend to be something other than the patching of holes in human imperfection. Revealing their objectives would undermine their attractiveness, and thus their efficacy. Thus, sport is not about tiring people out, but rather about perfecting their capability and, through competition, demonstrating their effectiveness and also their superiority. Sport resorts to rationalizations about creating “significance worthy of man,” which is why the exertion expended in sport must have its own “higher” purpose. Victory, which surely also accompanied the exertions of paleolithic man, became this purpose. In both cases, victory had two faces. One involved surpassing one’s own abilities and earning victory over one’s own weakness, and the other involved gaining the upper hand over others. Sport – like hunting and war – had a dual function: it was both self-perfection and attaining dominance over others.
In the upper paleolithic human beginnings, hunting and gathering consumed all energy. Later, war took on the role of the brutal consumer of energy. Now – when shopping cannot replace the exertion required to hunt a mammoth and war has become an ignominious gambol consisting mainly of sitting in poorly armored vehicles – sport has become the outlet for excess energy.
Sport – responding to unfulfilled needs – has become one of those civilizational instruments that does not reveal its justification to its participants. It tempts them with superficial pleasures and pretends they are a part of human nature. That is why people get involved – as is the case with religion – heedlessly and without any protection against possible manipulation. The genesis of sport was making people exert themselves. This required a certain subterfuge, using the arguments of success, self-perfection, fame, competition, and rivalry. These arguments proved advantageous for social manipulation broadly conceived. They perfectly suited the exercise of attitudes and reflexes of use in other areas of life. Additional support for this manipulation came from the enormous potential for advertising in sport. Sport mostly offers positive situations. Sporting events are exceptionally attractive, and the credulity of the spectators is a salient aspect of this attractiveness. We approach politics and even culture with a certain caution, if not trepidation. To sport, we open up trustingly. With spectators who do not defend themselves, sport can easily be used to covertly inculcate a great many ideas.
It is worth describing here the social manipulation that rests upon the sporting ethos. Of extremely high importance is the ethos of success, the imperative to be the best and to demonstrate exceptional abilities to oneself and the world. This aspirational blackmail has turned out to be uncommonly contagious and has penetrated all areas of life. Today it seems as if the drive for success is a natural human inclination, the goal of life. This conviction motivates people to strive for self-improvement, to compete with others, and, unfortunately, also to yearn for personal superiority. The success achieved by some yields numerous social benefits. This is surely why the desire for success is preferred to such a degree by social evolution. No one, of course, cares that the suffering, humiliation, and jealousy of the vast majority lie beneath these spectacular accomplishments. The prize for success is fame and a podium that sets one above others. Along with this comes the sweetness of recognition, adoration, and envy. The distinction of fame has in the meantime been divorced from its causes and become a “value” unto itself. Those who make a fetish of fame forget the requirement that success should be useful, and seek only celebrity, even at the cost of murder. Another ethos of exceptional significance for the institution of sport is competition. Sport consists of triumphing over the other side. At times this is an indirect struggle, but very frequently it is direct. This quality of sport is a kind of military firing range that keeps the fighting instinct alive on the assumption that it might prove useful in “war games.” The natural propensity to fight continues to be a dominant human trait, although we are slowly beginning to imagine people who are non-combative, that is free of sporting and martial ambitions. There can be no combat without an opponent. This is another way in which sport corresponds ideally to the needs of certain forms of social manipulation. The opponent plays the role of the other, the alien, the outsider, someone who radicalizes our attitudes, integrates society into a team, and helps establish identification. Competition and hostility toward the opponent are not confined exclusively to the competitors, but also extend to groups of fans who submit to these moods, brutalize them, and strip them of “sporting” principles. By this point the opponent is a real enemy, and the goal is to destroy him in combat. Fan reactions plainly show how easy it is to carry the artificiality of sport over into the authenticity of life. Fan banditry provides valuable information about how social tensions accumulate in sport and are preserved as values. The downsides of this accumulation are the inevitable outbreaks of hooliganism that serve only to show that the accumulation process has passed the critical point. The goal of this accumulation is to keep alive, through artificial means, such values as homeland, “us,” patriotism, antagonism toward outsiders, and tribal membership.
The ideological nature of sport is something that many people, who seek simple pleasure in physical exertion, find unacceptable. The institution of the fitness center surely arose on this wave of dissatisfaction. Here, the only possible field for competition is personal improvement. The aim is clear, open, and the result of a rational conviction about the necessity of physical exertion. There is no need for exalted ideals as motivation. In terms of sport, the fitness center is atheism. Research shows, however, that the fitness center – its ideological abnegation notwithstanding – also has considerable potential for social impact. Fitness centers were built in the slums of Caracas and it turned out that, some time later, the crime rate in the vicinity fell by thirty percent. The fitness center is an institution that is still too young to be ideologically contaminated, but it will surely find its ideology soon. Certain signs can already be noted that suggest the emergence of a place that serves as a simulacrum of the family-tribal society. The ideal of the beautiful, supple body whose only goal is to be beautiful and supple is also emerging at the fitness center. This ideal is already distinct enough to have found its reflection in art, as in Zbigniew Libera’s Body Master, where the body-building dreams of adults are transferred to a child, who turns into a pathological caricature.
However, the fitness center is, for the moment, too ideologically immature to serve as serious inspiration for artistic commentary. Art is best served by anthropologically muddled fields where no one remembers what the causes and effects, the lies, and the manipulation are. Sport is sufficiently refined and has attained all these inspirational levels, which is why it represents a rich source of symbols and analogies that artists can use in their sparring with existence.
The exhibition Sport in Art presents several approaches
to the issue of sport, making various uses of its potential. A broadly represented approach, which may simultaneously be regarded as referring to traditional artistic practices, is the use of an appropriate medium that so “bedevils” the subject imposed upon it that the artist ends up obtaining the desired symbolic message or the desired aesthetic effect. A classic example of this in the exhibition is Leon Chwistek, whose Fencer is a perfect example of using the theme to render effective an experimental media gambit that demands great expressiveness. Jerzy Nowosielski plays an entirely different game, mixing the meaningfulness of the theme with a medium that softens its literalness. For him, sport is a pretext for undressing women and painting a mask that conceals the realism of the gloomy images. The neutralizing impact of painting is also found in Kamil Kuskowski’s Club Colors. Painted in the form of geometrical abstraction, supporters’ scarves lose all their aggressiveness. Leon Tarasiewicz, in turn, treats real situations as the inspiration for abstract tension that – gracefully transmitted through the painting – refers to emotional-existential states. Andrea Bender carries out another, no less spectacular media operation on a sporting theme. This leads to a powerful short circuit between the expression of true combat and the expression of the painting that depicts it. Since there are no rules for refereeing such fights, everyone can make their own call as to the winner. It seems that painting wins. Leni Riefenstahl plays a completely different media game in her art. In her case, the operations of sport are imbued with criminal propaganda, which does not undercut the artistic values of her work in the least, and may well enhance them. This paradox results from the fact that the subject matter of her films and photographs is always – surely unintentionally – canceled out by the method. The downfall of her subjects occurred long ago, while great respect remains for her methods of processing meaning. A no less refined media approach occurs in Katarzyna Kozyra’s Lords of the Dance, although we are dealing here with completely different problems and aesthetics. Riefenstahl ostentatiously parades her impeccable perfectionism, while Kozyra nonchalantly and overtly rejects the desire for prettiness or precision. To a large degree this is mandated by the concept, since we have to do with three observers, each of whom is careful in the use of the camera in a different way, as a result of which the three different viewpoints create three different worlds. The problem of the diversity of perfection is also taken up by Harun Farocki, an artist capable of the precise utilization of other people’s non-artistic material so as to turn it into art. His installation on the subject of the 2006 Football World Cup is a cubist media mix depicting the different faces that the same phenomenon can have, depending on the concept of looking at it. To the degree that Farocki respects the truth of the phenomenon, so Agnieszka Polska changes it into something completely different. Imposing animation on old photos, she attains a profound distortion of meanings. A very interesting and refractory form of interpreting sporting events has been adopted by Volker Hildebrandt. Breaking the sequence of movement down into dozens of series of positions creates an impression of total immobility. Kuba B?kowski introduces a different distortion of situational truth. He exploits the limitations of photographic representation and dares to compare himself with a champion weightlifter. Simone Demandt, in turn, conducts a geometrical analysis of gymnasiums, using their pragmatic geometry to create minimalist compositions. The most traditional media approach is represented by Katarzyna Sagatowska, who focuses in her photographs on making sport aesthetic.
The use of the theme of sport can also serve in art for constructing analogies with various aspects of everyday life. These analogies seem like critical-interpretive pills in which meager subject matter burbles with the intensity of the commentary. Such a procedure may be discerned in the paintings by Edward Dwurnik where allusions to sport serve the social-political commentary, as well as in the works of Sigalit Landau that use calisthenics to emphasize the essence of cooperation.
As willingly as artists transfer sport into the realm of art, extremely rarely do they attempt to carry art over into sport. A work that attempts this in an intriguing way is Wolfgang Gärber’s action in public space. Over the period of a football season, the artist dressed players in shirts bearing comments on art, thus mixing sporting emotion with artistic reflection.
The fact that sport is so ideologically charged leads to it being overgrown with various ethoses that in themselves are highly productive of symbols and have great potential for artists. Vlastimil Hoffmann takes advantage of this in creating the allegorical figures that are obligatory in his painting, by suspending a guardian angel above the Wis?a football team. Zdzis?aw Sosnowski, in turn, initiates a transfiguration of the football itself that ends in its becoming an object of erotic desire. Margret Eicher comments on the tawdry rituals of sport by depicting scenes from matches in the form of religious kitsch. Pravdoliub Ivanov grapples with the football before finally, in a gesture of “creative helplessness,” turning it inside out and thus making it impossible for it to serve its function. Kathrin Rabenort alludes to the ethos of manliness that permeates sport. Photographing marathon runners, Beat Streuli analyzes the “narcotic of sport” through the faces of people who fought, won, or lost, but who above all won victories over themselves.
Ethoses easily turn into absurdities. This can be seen most clearly in Zbigniew Libera’s child bodybuilders and the endless flight of the ski jumper Ma?ysz in Janek Simon’s film. Olaf Breuning complicates things even more by finding absurdity in the absurd and cutting an enormous tennis ball into a mask for tennis players. Antal Lakner adds a touch of perversity by suggesting that practical chores like painting a room can serve as inspiration for exercise equipment. Timm Ulrichs has invented an absurd object for running that undercuts the ethos of the marathon. Richard Fauguet sought the absurd in philosophical nostalgia, changing the transient action of table tennis into a permanently fixed event.
Competition is an aspect of sport that can be an artistic inspiration. Like all the issues enumerated here, it is rife with possibilities. Ingeborg Lüscher pulls off a highly amusing comparison between football and business competition. Zuzanna Janin analyzes competition from the point of view of the rivalry between man and woman. Massimo Furlan translates competition into patriotic satisfaction. Roderick Buchanan also draws parallels between sporting competition and manifestations of patriotism. Olaf Nicolai, on the other hand, perceives the bitter similarities between football training and the thoughtlessness of military firing. Kamil Kuskowski, in turn, identifies the struggle of war with the sporting struggle, introducing dismissive references to historical events along the way.
The great applicability of sport as an inspiration for artists lies in its potential for symbolic reference to human existence. There is nothing strange in this, because sport is one of the instruments for repairing the imperfections of that existence. Robert Ku?mirowski, riding for hours on a stationary bicycle, seems not to notice this and acts like a cyclist conquering the miles and thus justifying his actions. Rafa? Jakubowicz provides basketball players with a concrete ball they will never be able to shoot with. The impossibility nevertheless turns out to be meaningless, because there is no basket, either. Josef Dabernig orders two referees to watch a non-existent match and get involved in it. Marcin Maciejowski hints at how small people are in comparison with the possibility of victory by depicting the way a young competitor wrestles with his ambition. Wunderteam plays with symbols that, on the one hand, determine our values, and on the other excite consumerist desires. It is perhaps Assa Kauppi who touches on the existential problem in the most moving way. His work is firmly rooted in the subject of sport and touches on the problem of lack of concentration, caused by the admissibility of privacy. Ulrike Lienbacher, in turn, touches upon the existential in a very delicate, comprehensive way. He draws figures of little gymnasts that seem to be realistic and neutral. However, the simplifications of draftsmanship he introduces lend the figures powerful metaphorical dimensions. This is the kind of metaphor that can be felt clearly through the picture but cannot be put into words. This is one of the most universal kinds of operations in art.
The range and diversity of the artistic problems that arise under the influence of sporting inspiration are – even within the narrow scope of this exhibition – truly impressive. Such an interest on the part of art means that a given domain is entangled deeply and significantly in our maladjustment to existence. And by the same token that sport is something far more important than it seems to be.