Leroy Neiman probably best symbolizes the intersection of art and sport from my childhood. He may well represent the impact of the mass market on art, also, but the mass market is the story of the twentieth century, as we expanded promotion and finance and transport on scales previously unimaginable.
In a world in which business intrudes into all aspects, how then does anyone communicate without corruption? How does an artist transmit their message with the least likely undue influence?
Before I try to answer, let me bring up the condition of the sports hero. As the media have delved further and further into the non-professional choices of public figures in recent decades, parents have worried more and more about the ways in which celebrities provide less and less appropriate role models. Sports stars were major culprits caught in the cross-hairs of parents who had been forced yet again to explain why their child’s favorite basketball player had been suspended for some heinous action.
Yet, we tend to draw a circle around certain celebrities and deem them appropriate role models and leave the others to be discovered by our children when they are older (or perhaps we follow the wiser course and coach our offspring just to ignore the celebrity outside their primary field of endeavor). But we cannot control our child’s adoration. It is a living thing. Just because a child thinks Simone Biles is the best thing since sliced bread does not mean they think any less of their parents.
For me, it was Willie Mays. Let’s be clear- I was late to the Willie Mays party. He was closing in on retirement, but his name was everywhere. He made it cool to play the outfield. He looked so effortless. Watching Willie Mays catch a long fly ball was as good as seeing a Michelangelo statue in person.
Because athletic endeavor can be art. You cannot see a great athlete extending themselves beyond all reason without feeling the human race float just a little off the ground. The best of us occurs when we help one another, when we speak truth, and when we do the tasks needed. The perfect throw, catch, jump, swing, and more encapsulate our best qualities in a moment.
I was lucky. My hero turned out to be involved in minimal hullabaloo. The biggest argument you could have was whether he was better than Mickey Mantle (don’t go there), although I knew one person partial to Frank Robinson in that discussion.
As artists, we can forget that we also seek the perfect moment. I don’t think it is an accident that performance art rose to prominence in the twentieth century. As it constantly reinvents the definition of art, it seems to move closer and closer to sport as creators seek newer ways to communicate. Surely, athletes embody striving for our best, but they also gift us with stories around those perfect moments. For some of us, our art has been deeply influenced by the athlete artists we admired before we knew that life had to be compartmentalized.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 234 more to go.
New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.