Reading last week’s Spuriosity, I was happy to see a point being made by a sports writer that should have come from the art world. Appreciating sports or art demands similar engagement by the viewer. The two endeavors aren’t so different, though they seem to mark two sides of a cultural divide in this country. Why? I don’t know. As Rudy Gayby wrote in “The art of the game
,” “Dismissing sports as inconsequential before attending a sporting event is akin to forming opinions of art based solely upon thumbnail images in a textbook.” A few years ago I received a real education on viewing performing arts from a weight lifter. We met as mutual friends of a dancer who had invited both of us to a modern dance concert in Phoenix. The dancer was a pro and had performed both ballet and modern; she later went on to do choreography, too. Her friend had never seen a dance performance before, but when he wasn’t in the weight room, would catch a basketball game courtside if a ticket were available.
During the performance I noticed some commotion in the seats behind me. The noise was my new acquaintance, who kept leaping to his feet, clapping, as I and much of the audience heard the words “Nice move! Way to go! Sweet!” and the like fill the usually silent balcony. After the performance the three of us joined the dance company to celebrate a successful premiere. The big guy surprised everyone with an impromptu critique of the concert, recalling accurately much of the dance in detail. He obviously enjoyed his first dance experience. Most of the dancers were women, and attractive, too, but he insisted, “Damn, these girls can move.” One of the dancers remarked that it was nice to know there had been someone in the audience who could follow the movement. “You’d think this guy must have been hiding in the wings during the weeks of rehearsals,” she said, “he sure understands the choreography.”
I mentioned this experience to a visual artist who was represented by the Phoenix gallery I ran at the time. Al Hinton had been an All American, and was drafted by the American Football League Texans in 1962, but moved to Canada instead where he played with the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League for six years before devoting all his time to art. Al has exhibited across the U.S. and in Japan, and has spent his life with equal confidence on the playing field and in the studio. He retired several years ago from the University of Michigan where he was an art professor. He is well aware that sports and art are seen as two contrary worlds. Being black and a very large 6’2”, he has other experience as an outsider, as well.
It used to be said that modern society is comprised of two cultures — the sciences and the humanities. The phrase comes from the title of a 1959 lecture by the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow. As I discussed the story of the visually adept weightlifter with Al, another division became apparent to the two of us. There are two habits of seeing. As many of us spend ever more time looking at little screens, our use of peripheral vision is dropping away, and with it, our ability to consider a wide variety of experiences. We are, as a society, going blind. Country people who walk in the woods and fields practice extreme peripheral vision daily, as do of necessity those who spend serious time on the mean streets of inner cities.
What those who dwell in these often-opposed environments have in common differs radically from the tunnel vision that results from hours of staring straight ahead and not too far. Watching sports on screen won’t necessarily teach you how to follow the game live, but seeing the game in person develops the same visual skills needed to see and understand dance, or any other fast moving, wide-field action. Save your vision and support the arts — go to the game.