History of Art
For too long, the worlds of art and sport have occupied opposing ends of the cultural spectrum, contributing to a widely held belief that the audiences in either arena are mutually exclusive, drawn to separate and competing visual spectacles. The physicality of the athletic contest, we imagine, invites a raucous crowd, whereas works of fine art provide occasions for quiet contemplation. In this dissertation, I trace the origins of such prejudices to the middle of the nineteenth century and the rise of modern sport. Alongside this history, I narrate the formation of a parallel sphere, the art world, and of the development of the cultural hierarchy that favors art as an elite, intellectual pursuit with sport as its unsophisticated opposite.
Over the last 25 years, an increasing number of contemporary artists have made sport the explicit subject of their work, allowing viewers to question the supposed divisions between these two spectatorial realms. As I discuss and historicize in the first chapter, by conflating the spectacles of art and sport, these artists present both arenas as complex sites of cultural exchange. In chapter two, I explore representations of the athletic arena by Julie Mehretu and Andreas Gursky, whose works I describe (counter to many art critics) as exhibiting a sense of wonder over the size, scope, and diversity of the audiences who gather therein. Contending with Immanuel Kant’s influential theory of a universal aesthetics, I posit that the arena presents a space in which consensus is forged by way of our shared acts of looking. In the third chapter, informed by the philosophical work of Walter Benjamin, I consider works by Paul Pfeiffer and a collaboration between Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno in which both athletic contests and the work of art are marked by irresolution and filled with dialectical tensions. In the fourth and final chapter I turn to works by photographers Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr featuring high-school athletes, and frame these series using the gender theories of Judith Butler and J. Halberstam. By playing with cultural stereotypes, these artists defy our notions about “jocks” and present a more capacious portrait of adolescent masculinity.
Roesch, Nathanael. 2017. "The Athletic Turn in Contemporary Art." Ph.D. diss., Bryn Mawr College.