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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When the Olympics included artists

The Charioteer at Delphi was erected in 478 or 474 BC, to commemorate the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games (a forerunner of the modern Olympic Games).
The arts were part of the modern Olympic Games during its formative years. From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded sporadically in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The problem wasn’t so much in the attitude of the Olympic Committee but that of artists, who are not nearly as inclined as athletes to embrace amateurism. Artists may not make much money in their lifetimes, but they jealously protect the right to do so.

The International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 under the aegis of Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. An educator and historian, Coubertin was himself the son of a Légion d'honneur-winning painter. He himself went on to win a gold medal at the 1912 Summer Olympics for a poem entitled Ode to Sport.

Rugby, by Jean Jacoby was an award winning drawing in the 1928 Olympic art competitions.
In 1906, the Olympic Committee decided to add art competitions; the primary mandate was that the work had to be inspired by sport.

A series of snafus delayed implementation until the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Only 35 artists sent work, but they managed to award gold medals in all five categories.

The 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris were the first games in which a respectable number of artists participated; 193 artists submitted works. There were 1,100 visual works submitted to the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. Participation in the arts competitions remained stable until after WWII, when the conflict over professional vs. amateur status again reared its ugly head. The art competitions were a dead letter after 1948.

Alfred Reginald Thomson’s The London Amateur Boxing Championship Held at the Royal Albert Hall won the last gold medal for painting, in 1948.
The essential incompatibility between the Olympics and the fine arts is apparent in retrospect: no major art figure from the period ever won a medal at the Olympic Games. Perhaps the closest were the British painter Alfred Thomson and the Czech violinist Josef Suk, whose category was made more difficult because judges had to content themselves with reading written scores. (In fact, nobody cared enough to even publicly perform the award-winners at the Games.)

George Bellows (arguably the best painter of boxing ever) painted Dempsey and Firpo in 1924. It was not an Olympic committee contender; Bellows was a professional, not an amateur.
The guy who gets to the end first wins the race; that’s a purely objective thing. Performances, like ice dancing or gymnastics, are somewhat more subjective but still conform to stated rules. Art does nothing of the kind.

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