Art and Athleticism

by Betsy Huete June 12, 2016
Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt, center

I grew up playing soccer, and I’ve kept in touch with former teammates throughout the years. Many of these friends continued to play co-ed or indoor soccer after college graduation as a way to stay connected to a game they love, but weirdly, I never felt that desire. I was done. At first I thought I had just grown weary of playing the same sport for sixteen years, but it later occurred to me that, during college, I simply swapped one sport for another: art.

Both art and sport are rife with intensity and largely lacking in glory. As a soccer player, no crowd followed me around or cheered me on while I ran suicides and climbed stadiums in the off-season. Similarly, I can’t crank up the Chariots of Fire soundtrack and montage my way to a resolved artwork. Both art and athletics are difficult, doubt-inducing work, and often result in hours upon hours of frustration. But when the crowd does erupt after a crushing slide tackle, it’s worth it. And nothing feels better than the moment the exhibition comes together in its space.

The gratification of success and lessons of failure are about as constant on a team as they are for a working artist. But another through line between artists and athletes is the visualization of space. Whether it’s slotting a through-ball in from midfield behind the opponent’s defense to the forward, or thoughtfully installing the work to converse appropriately with the space, anticipating a counterattack, or applying that perfectly disharmonious line in a painting, both artists and athletes train themselves to organize, anticipate, and respond spatially—and to use space to generate unpredictable moments.

 Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel

I think when we hear the words “professional athlete,” we think of the Lebron Jameses or the Johnny Manziels of the world: obscenely rich, jet-setting party-goers living a life we can’t possibly conceive of. But for most accomplished athletes, this isn’t the case. While some Olympic athletes can train full time, most make their living with a day job—many are coaches while others are accountants, firefighters, janitors, or DJs. The maximum salary of the National Women’s Soccer League is $37,800 and the minimum is $6,842. The US Women’s National Team is fighting for equal pay that currently pales in comparison to that of their male counterparts (even though the women recently won their third World Cup and the men placed third, once, back in 1930—but that’s a different article). By and large, professional athletes, even while being among the best in the world at what they do, must find a way to supplement their income, manage their time, families, and other relationships, all while dedicating themselves to their passion. Sound familiar?

Most of the artists I know—like many of these athletes—are regular people, but are also people who happen to see and materialize the world differently than most others. Yet the starving, slice-your-ear-off-in-torment stereotype persists around artists, its tendrils anchored firmly in the way artists see themselves and the way they (in)validate their own careers. It pervades galleries and arts organizations, enabling those in charge to feel comfortable with exploitation. It’s the kind of thing that advertises art-making as a pathological impulse rather than a meaningful act. It’s the kind of thing that makes taking out a mortgage-worth of student loan debt seem like a good idea.

What if artists acted more like athletes? What if they acknowledged that their work was not the product of an isolated, undiscovered genius? That being an artist requires certain gifts, yes, but also tremendous hard work and lots and lots of practice? Would they sit idly by waiting to be discovered by someone else, or would they take more ownership and accountability about the quality of their work and how it gets seen?

I never played forward and I never scored a ton of goals. My coaches didn’t put me in that position because I wasn’t good at it. But I could tackle the crap out of people and I could visualize the field well. My coaches assessed me honestly and played me as a central defender. They encouraged me to use my strengths, to play an effective role for my team rather than be a star.

What if arts educators acted more like coaches? Besides insular critiques, what if they talked openly and pragmatically about their students’ options, where their talents lie, their limitations, about how they can and should participate in the world beyond and in addition to a hierarchical, capitalistic structure that will serve very few of them?

Abby Wambach kissing her wife

Abby Wambach kissing her wife

For better or worse, athletes are often seen as role models. In the same way Mia Hamm was the hero of my generation, millions of young soccer girls now look up to the likes of Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and Abby Wambach. Interestingly, Rapinoe and Wambach are openly, unapologetically gay, and I wonder: how many lives have these women saved? How many adolescent girls feel reassurance watching them play, despite a mounting pressure in their daily lives to perform their gender rather than simply be who they are?

To be an artist—to deliberately make time for one’s passion, to have a passion at all, to consciously see and respond to the world differently—is something that should command dignity and respect. What if artists spent less time on the hamster wheel, absorbed in beefing up their resumes, and more time considering how their lives affect other people? How many lives have art and artists saved? Can it save the struggling student who finds self-worth in her artistic abilities, or the eight-year-old with a terrible home life who feels safe expressing himself through drawing? Has it saved the college freshman that stumbled into the art class that changed her world?

My university funded our soccer team’s equipment and travel expenses. They bought us cleats so we wouldn’t slide all over the grass. They bought us shinguards so other team couldn’t break our shins. They purchased soccer balls so we wouldn’t be running around kicking air. They paid for our plane tickets and hotel rooms. They didn’t say “Good luck getting to Boise!” and chalk it up to character building. They provided these things so we wouldn’t have to fret over basic necessities—so we could focus on the game and be truly competitive.

What if arts organizations treated us like athletes? Instead of thinking of funding their artists properly (or at all) as something else we have to fit in our already tight budgets, what if they treated the people who literally create all the content they exhibit as their top priority? What if they invested more in their artists and incentivized them to remain in the community? What if their investments recruited talent from elsewhere? Would the fact that DiverseWorks and Art League Houston being the only two W.A.G.E. certified organizations in the fourth largest city in the country be something to celebrate, or would it be embarrassing?

Perhaps the most important skills I needed to become an artist I learned on a soccer field. Sure, the jocks and the art kids seem like a galaxy away from one another, but if they sat at the same table, they’d realize how similar they really are, and how much they might learn from one another.


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Prince Thomas June 12, 2016 - 16:41

As a sports enthusiast, comparing the two endeavors of art & sport was an interesting read for me… just to add one observation… Sports are the last place I would argue that a true Meritocracy exists – regardless of race and gender… the best athletes will, for the most part, always have an opportunity to rise to the top of their fields. Can we say the same for the Visual Arts? Or are the subjective criteria in the Arts too riddled with various institutional, curatorial, and market driven agendas?

Michael Galbreth June 13, 2016 - 13:28

I love this idea, at least the ones suggested in the penultimate paragraph. However, it needs more development. I have suggested a similar approach for years on both the college (unprofessional) level and the pros. May I suggest…

The Art Off

Some years ago when The Art Guys taught at Rice, we suggested an art competition between UH and Rice similar to the Bayou Bucket crosstown football game. The concept quickly expanded to include TSU. These days, it might include Houston Baptist University. The form would be a competitive exhibition among the students of said universities. There would be a winner, a winning school team (a chosen best – elite!) who would be selected and recognized based on the judgement of a famous curator, artist or other well known luminary. The Art Off exhibition would rotate among the universities, each hosting it once every four years. The format would be “one-and-done” like March Madness – one show only, win or go home. Thus instead of being called a “playoff” (one does not play at art, after all) it would be called an “Art Off.” Like in college football, everyone would argue about the fairness of the system, which would only fuel more controversy and gain more attention. As interest developed, money would pour in. TV contracts! Post exhibition interviews with the winners and losers! Champagne spewing everywhere! Because of the desire to win, art schools and faculty would up their game.

This same idea could be adapted for museums. Imagine if museums assembled teams of artists and placed them under contract. Then entire cities could compete for aesthetic hierarchy. People would then know, based on an empirical winner, which city was actually the lead cultural center. Imagine the economic development that would then follow. If you think the art world is competitive or ruthless now, just wait until the pressure to be the best art city.

Maybe once every few decades Houston would be upset by some outlier “community” like Dallas, or even San Antonio. (There may have to be different conferences to give Austin a chance.) Corporations would pour their money into those winning cities. And if any of the art teams underperformed for too many years, the director of that museum would cut artists who just weren’t working. New contracts would be awarded to young graduates from the local universities (see above).

Both of these ideas are winners. I’d be the commissioner with complete autonomy and the largest contract.

Michael Galbreth June 13, 2016 - 13:29

The Art Off – Part Deux (pronounced “duh”): Museum Teams

Do the math.

Imagine (completely hypothetically, of course) that an institution that had previously planned to spend $450 million on a building, instead decided (realized) that buildings don’t make art, artists do. They could then award 100 artists a contract of $4.5 million each (Not exactly the Yankees but not bad.). No unequal contracts, no need to decide who the best artist on each museum team is, just split it evenly. $4.5 million each would be enough so that the artists themselves could decide where their work would be shown.

Heated disagreements would ensue about which museum franchise would have unfair monetary advantages, which would only fuel more press and interest, of course. Then museums and artists from outlying communities would have a legitimate argument for being “disenfranchised.”

Michael Galbreth June 13, 2016 - 13:30

The Art Off – three-peat

After a while, a hall of fame would be developed to recognize the greatest artists of all time. Induction would only take place upon death. Instead of making it something like Cooperstown, it would be a cemetery, like this:

The Texas Artist Hall of Fame Cemetery would be located at the geographical center of Texas, deep in the (exact) heart of Texas, here:

John Hovig June 14, 2016 - 10:21

“What if arts educators acted more like coaches?”

Yes. Please.

I once asked a painting instructor how I might solve a problem on my in-class canvas. The instructor refused to answer. Exasperated, I said, “It doesn’t even matter what you say. I might do exactly the opposite!” Still nothing.

Another instructor once recounted to us their training at an art academy overseas. They were asked to use a table saw or similar equipment, but given no guidance. Telling us the story, my instructor said, “I can understand about not wanting to tell me how to make art, but not telling me how to use a piece of dangerous machinery???”

Coaching is a great metaphor and may solve a lot of problems.

Gal July 1, 2016 - 14:31

This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read.

mary July 7, 2016 - 09:32

Very interesting topic.
need more great articles like this.


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