Art v Sport: The Debate

Yesterday I was part of a debate at the Great Art versus Sport Debate at the Williamstown Literary Festival, arguing for the away team at a writers festival – sport.

Ladies and gentleman,

Less harp bullshit, David. More fighting!

Less harp bullshit, David. More fighting!

I can’t believe we’re even here. Aren’t GWS playing somebody, somewhere, as we speak? I thought the whole art versus sport thing was sorted out back when King David was strumming his harp, and everyone at court was kinda bored and longing for a David v Goliath rematch in what was then the PUFC, or Phillistine Ultimate Fighting Championship.

But if we have to debate it, let’s debate it. Does art beat sport? I know the published question is slightly more nuanced than that, but over here on this side of the topic, we don’t have the mental sophistication for long sentences. Who wins? Art or sport. The answer is ridiculously easy, and written there in black and white across the first fifteen and back twenty-five pages of the Herald Sun. You lose arts. Bad luck. You might have forced a tiebreaker had Baz Lurhman thought to put some story into his last four films, but unfortunately it’s a no contest. The public have voted. We choose balls over ballets. Opens over operas. Athletes over aesthetes. The high mark over the book mark.

One of the problems for art is that it can’t really do anything that sport cannot. Take literature for example. Stories? For sure, literature gives us stories, but I’m going to argue that sport gives us the same stories, except quicker and with fewer Russian famines.

Insight into the human condition? Do you really have time to wade through A S Friggin Byatt and her world of impenetrable grey to find out who you are, when you can look up Shane Warne’s Wikipedia entry? Success, failure, love, infidelity, triumph, defeat, addiction, slight of hand. It’s all there.

And as for the power of words, I hope our opponents don’t talk to us about the power of words. Literature has had its day on that front. From the day Ron Barassi wrote his famous ten by letter words manifesto, ‘If It Is to be, it is up to me’, sport has been leading the way with respect to the power of words. Sports stars and coaches now set the language agenda, and I have little doubt that if Charles Dickens were starting A Tale of Two Cities today, he wouldn’t be opening with ‘It was the Best of the Times, it was the worst of times.’ He’d be opening with ‘Yeah … nah …’

If I can return to my first point, the proliferation of sport and sport media has meant that it now does the job of covering all the plotlines that used to be left to film, literature and theatre. To name just a few:

Of Mice and Men – why go to the trouble of reading this novel when there are any number of oversized, oafish Lennies giving press conferences each week apologizing for urinating in public, or groping a passing breast or strapping on a dildo and running through Federation Square. If Steinbeck met Brendan Fevola, he wouldn’t have bothered becoming a novelist. He would have become a documentary filmmaker.

Next ― what’s funnier, Shakespeare’s lame cross dressing comedies like The Twelfth Night or As you Like It, in which everybody pretends that the nice couplets make up for the unrealistic storyline and the hammy acting, or a young Ricky Ponting actually getting into a fight at the Bourborn and Beefsteak because he’s been dancing with a woman who turns out to be a man?

Thirdly ― Why did Ian Mckewan even bother writing Atonement, which begins with the charlady’s son dropping an errant C-bomb, when the whole issue of accidental swearing has been dealt with so brilliantly by Ian Chappell of the Channel 9 commentary team.

The examples roll on:

We don’t need Irvine Welsh for drug dramas when we’ve got Dane Swan

We don’t need Barbara Cartland when we’ve got Andre and Steffi.

We don’t need tawdry barmaid erotica when we’ve got Tiger Woods;

And we don’t need slow moving, turgid, Booker Prize winning literature when we’ve got golf.

And the greatest thing about sport is that the plotlines are churned out with effortless regularity. To quote Woody Allen, who reluctantly turned to comedy and film because he was too short to become a champion basketballer ― ‘sport is the only drama where even the actors don’t know how it ends.’ It’s endlessly fascinating, whether matches follow a traditional Robert McKee endorsed three act structure, or whether it’s an improvisational masterpiece in anti-structure ― a sort of athletic Schoenberg if you will. I realize that I’m using artistic metaphor here, and am doing so not because art is important, when we all know it isn’t, but just because we’re at a writers festival, and if I don’t crap on like this the other writers won’t let me sit with them afterwards when they’re sipping Pinot Grigio and crapping on about structuralism and its place in the modern novel or some such bullshit ― which I really need to do if I’m ever going to get my sports novels published.

In terms of language and the beauty of words, I understand that plays and literature still have their diehards. But the sad fact for book lovers is that a lot of what is said by the great masters, is now said more effectively by 19 year olds who have just received their media training at draft camp.

Again let’s turn to Steinbeck: this is how he tried to describe the immigration experience in The Grapes of Wrath:

‘Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does this terrible faith come from?

And here is a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true and it’s funny and it’s beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk and they loaded it with their possession.  They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven in the trailer, and a dog on the trailer. They got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that’s true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith.

The people in flight from the terror behind – strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.

I mean, I quite like this passage, I think it packs a substantial descriptive punch, but didn’t John Worsfold say the same thing in a whole lot fewer words when he said ‘yeah, nah, we had a few passengers out there today.’

And yes, there will be literature hounds who’ll tell me that sport will never come up with anything as bafflingly beautiful as James Joyce’s Ulysses, stuff like ‘When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot!’ These people think that the language of sport is simple and clinical and boring, But that is just not true.

As an example, what about the time a few years back when Adelaide coach Neil Craig expressed some ineffable musings about whether the Crows should recruit Collingwood bad boy Alan Didak. Listen to the music of this quote, which is surely as alluring and poetically incomprehensible as anything Joyce ever came up with:

“I think everyone would agree that Alan has created some situations for himself from his behaviour which every club, now with the way the sport and the industry is going, would have to have a lot of discussion about and a lot of discussion about whether he fits into a culture, whatever that culture may be.”

Face it art, it’s over. Pack up your paintbrushes and go seek employment designing away strips for football clubs. You were meant to teach us stuff about ourselves, but you didn’t. You got fixated on things that didn’t connect, starting with that Duchamps urinal in 1917. And so sport came in and filled the void. Gave life meaning. Fed us stories. Constructed the narrative of our society. And so, in five hundred years, will people really still be quoting Huxley and Orwell, Lennon and Brecht? I don’t think so.  Instead, we’ll be living in a world when the great philosophers are Sheedy, Lombardi, Meninga. And for wisdom, we will all make do with the words Tom Hafey has printed on the back of his business card:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it’ll be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up, you’d better be runnin’.”

And yes, even in print, Tommy drops the ‘g’.