I worked at an Austin art museum as a gallery assistant for almost two years. In a nutshell, my job demanded constant walking in circles (about 10 miles per day). I was the guy that made sure you didn’t use all of five of your human senses in the galleries — no smelling, tasting, or touching the artwork. Pencils not pens. Inside voices. And please, gallery benches are for comfortable interactions with the works, not an impromptu picnic.
Prior to accepting the museum position, my relationship with visual art was superficial, at best. I could spit out names — Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Warhol, etc. — but I was ignorant to the influence these individuals collectively exerted on visual art. I knew Shaquille O’Neal, but who was Alice Neel? I could effortlessly describe the beauty of witnessing Tim Duncan combine finesse and geometry, resulting in his patented kiss-off-the-glass bank shot. However, the thought of interacting with visual art seemed foreign, inaccessible, and even intimidating at first.
After walking hundreds of miles within the gallery, I realized that the same motives that inspire museum patrons to develop a lasting relationship with visual art were similar to my motives for becoming a serious sports fiend. And yet, among my huddle of hardwood loyalists, I am often alone in my piqued curiosity in response to this summer’s MoMA retrospective, Marina Abramovic’s: The Artist is Present. They wondered why I would want to fly to New York to wait in a long line just to sit and look at her. I should be content to watch Tony Parker break ankles in November. Conversely, for devoted patrons of art, sports can appear just as inaccessible or, even, unimportant. Besides, the booze at an art opening is much cheaper, if not free.
Experiencing sport, like engaging a work of art, reaffirms that I’m a sentient being. When I watch Manu Ginobili manically maneuver with the basketball, there exists a constant element of surprise. What will he do next? Such spontaneity exists in Manu’s gymnast-like contortions that I, the viewer, am left probing deeper as I attempt to find some sort of method to his madness.
Dismissing sports as inconsequential before attending a sporting event is akin to forming opinions of art based solely upon thumbnail images in a textbook. Sport, like art, is an experiment that demands participants, regardless of skill level, to embrace their own vulnerability while acknowledging failure as a legitimate reality. In his fourteenth season as head coach of the Spurs, Gregg Popovich is one of the NBA’s most revered coaches, one who institutes a culture of team-first basketball that demands the individual players be held accountable for their decision making, both on and off the basketball court. All of the training camps, shootarounds, regular seasons, and the four NBA Championship rings don’t guarantee wins, but rather display a disciplined commitment to a regimented process. Like athletes, artists are constantly challenged by their audience, with nothing but their final product to stand on. Fancy playbooks and dense artist statements don’t diffuse the disappointments of a failed performance.
Sport, like art, can connect the unlikeliest of individuals. Whether at Southtown’s First Friday Art Walk or the AT&T Center, art and sport are experienced communally and inspire spirited conversations. People naturally seek out cultural events that not only stimulate them intellectually, but that afford them the opportunity to interact with fellow residents as well. When the San Antonio Spurs win (and they’ve won a lot lately), there is a contagious wave of friendliness that floods through the exiting crowd and extends into the city. Then again, when the Spurs lose, exiting the parking lot can feel akin to trudging through one of Dante’s nine circles of hell.
In his 2006 BBC series, Power of Art, Simon Schama said Mark Rothko’s paintings “aren’t paintings that dumbly wait to be watched, they come and get us, and we surrender to total immersion.” As the San Antonio Spurs build upon their best start in franchise history along with one of the hottest starts in league history, it seems ludicrous not to look. But, like Rothko’s work, these Spurs aren’t waiting for your approach: they’re taking this city (and the nation) by storm, with or without your patronage. Sure, Manu isn’t Rothko, but damn it if walking into the AT&T Center these days isn’t as much of an elevating experience as sitting Rothko’s Chapel. The experience is yours to share … or lose. •
Rudy Gayby covers the Spurs along with Manuel Solis at Spuriosity (blogs.sacurrent.com).