With less than 500 days to go until the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics, The Bare Square is still warm with memories of 2008 and the amazing opening ceremonies in Beijing. Besides such performance, art in the Olympics seems limited, and the Olympics is more known for sport, controversy, political statements, and even marketing. While the mass media coverage may slight the role of visual art at the Olympics, The Bare Square does not!
Since 1956, the Olympics has included a cultural component. With each Olympiad (technically the 4-year period between Olympics), the arts and culture aspect has become more and more prominent. For London 2012, the Tate Modern museum has commissioned participatory artist Tino Sehgal to create a work for the finale of the cultural olympiad, and plans a retrospective of Damien Hirst. The Tate Britain will open “Picasso and Britain,” an exhibit that will convey the impact of Picasso’s 1960 Olympic on British artists like David Hockney.
Can all this pre-Olympic art hype compare to getting an honest-to-goodness medal for your hard work?
Once upon a time, artists did just that.
Pierre de Coubertin, the force behind the return of the Olympic games in 1896, spearheaded the involvement of “arts and letters” in the Olympic movement with a series of meetings in 1906 in Paris. Initially intended to launch with the 1908 London Games, an Olympic arts competition came to fruition in 1912 in Stockholm.
As described by scholar Beatriz Garcia in her article The Concept of Olympic Cultural Programmes, “From 1912 in Stockholm until 1948 in London, arts competitions were organised in parallel to the sporting competitions and artists, like athletes, competed and won gold, silver and bronze medals.”
Main categories included Architecture, Literature, Painting & Graphic Art, and Music, with numerous sub-categories.
In fact, De Coubertin, writing under a pseudonym and probably recognizing he couldn’t outrun an escargot, won a gold medal in 1912 in Poetry. Jack B. Yeats, brother of writer William Butler Yeats and clearly suffering from a bad case of sibling rivalry, won a gold medal for a newly independent Ireland in 1924 for his painting Liffey Swim. And in 1932, Disney animator Lee Blair won a Gold Medal for his watercolor called “Rodeo.”
Following the 1948 Games, dissension regarding the role of professional and amateur artists, the difficulty of promoting the cultural competitions, and the challenge of connecting the art to the event all resulted in the elimination of the competitive aspect of the art component, and the transition to the Cultural Olympiad in 1956.
In an age where marketing has exploded and professionals compete in the Olympics, The Bare Square wonders: What would a world with gold medals for artists look like in the 21st century? Who would judge? Would the gold medal increase the value of the work in the eyes of collectors?
Would artists end up on Wheaties boxes?
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