Will Gompertz on the Today programme this morning said that the arts has “always been embedded in the idea of hosting the Olympics.’ As portions of the £80m Cultural Olympiad were officially announced – a group of artists to create posters, a weekend festival of classical music, loads of Shakespeare – Gompertz suggested that the arts have always been integral to the Olympics but that the Cultural Olympiad has had ‘minimum impact as a brand name.” What Gompertz didn’t really get though was that although their has been a relationship between arts and the Olympics it has always, always been unsatisfactory.
The Modern Olympic movement’s fascination with it is based on a misinterpretration of the Ancient Games. Because most of our understanding of the Ancient Olympics comes from statuary and poetry, it was believed by Baron de Coubertin that they should somehow feature as competitive elements. Indeed it was only at the very end of the Olympics lifespan that poetry was introduced and only then in very dubious circumstances. In A.D. 67 Emperor Nero, who was devoted to Greek culture, visited Olympia and took part in the Olympics. He took part in the Chariot races and although he fell off his Chariot, still got awarded first prices for all the events, by the judges, which when he was murdered in Rome a year later were taken away from him and his records were erased as if he never participated in the Olympic Games in Olympia at all.
The reason we know about Nero’s antics was because he added poetry to the roster of events that received medals. And the poetry that was written and commended invariably described and praised Nero’s aggrandising actions.
When Baron De Coubertin revived the Olympic Games, he was dedicated to art being included in the modern Games but was only able to do so for the Stockholm Games in 1912 when he finally convinced organisers to include medal competitions should be held in the fields of art and poetry. However, the Swedish Royal Academy and Society of Arts rejected the idea of a competition, explaining: ‘with regard to a competition in painting or sculpture … the principal motive is, purely and simply – art’. Their inference was that here art was being co-opted at the service of promoting an ideology.
Their concerns were borne out by the awarding of the gold medal for poetry to the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, for his frankly rubbish ‘Ode to Sport’. The first stanza of which runs:
O Sport, pleasure of the Gods, essence of life.
You appeared suddenly in the midst of the grey clearing
Which writhes with the drudgery of modern existence,
Like the radiant messenger of a past age,
When mankind still smiled.
From then on the Olympics movement has always tried to co-opt art for propaganda or PR purposes.
As Gompertz mentioned on Today this morning, medals were handed out for art, but only in the seven Games held between 1912 and 1948. After the London Games in 1948 they were stopped. The unedifying site of gold and bronze medal being handed out to two different proposals for sports complexes in rural Finland in the town-planning category at the London 1948 Games was perhaps not what subsequent Games organisers wished to repeat. Yes, art and the Olympics co-exist but glancing through the medal winners, there is only perhaps two works of art worth savouring and these are both on a sporting theme. Indeed sport as a theme is obviously ubiquitous and ultimately unsatisfactory.
As the century progressed however, with art asserting its autonomy from the state ofr from ideological imperatives particularly from the 1960s onwards, the relationship grew farcical. The mutually unsatisfactory relationship could not have been made more clear than during the Corridart debacle at Montreal in 1972 when the Cultural Olympiad was torn down days before the Olympics because the Mayor felt it didn’t portray the city in a good light.
As Christian Redfern has expertly explained in Canadian Art, the aim of Corridart was to link the city to the Olympic site. The idea was that along the 5.5 km Sherbrooke Street the artist and architect Melvin Charney with a modest budget even then of $386,000 would turn the street itself into an art happening. “All along the route were sections of bright yellow scaffolding that held photographs showing the history of the street and its people. Large orange hands attached to the scaffolding pointed at galleries, architecture and other permanent Montreal landmarks. Inserted into this streetscape were 50 to 60 art installations and two stages that were scheduled to host over 700 performances,” she writes. Art works responded directly to the city.
(Interestingly some terrible proposals are in existence for London 2012 in which screens will stand along the road from Aldgate to Stratford which blatantly shield the visitor from parts of London deemed unpalatable by visitors. The exact obverse of Corridart. )
The noble intention of the Corridart exhibition however was to bring art to the city and highlight the value of the city itself to both visitors of the inhabitants itself. Riffing on a painting in the National Gallery in which an Iroquois points out to Samuel de Champlain where he ought to found Montreal, Corridart featured a number of Mickey Mouse hands pointing out famous institutions and landmarks. Unbelievably these very institutions, including the art galleries, objected. Drapeau declared that he was ‘shocked’ ‘humiliated’ and ‘insulted’ by the event. Charney believes that by its very nature of showing the city as it was and celebrating it as it was, the art got in the way of the real event and the grand-standing of the mayor.
Charney told Redfern: “The whole show was put up with the cooperation of the city of Montreal. City representatives were sitting on all the main committees. It was up for a week before it came down. What is interesting to me is when it came down. It came down right before the Olympics opened. So what one saw in the newspapers you saw “Corridart” coming down and the Olympic flag going up. And Drapeau was back in the news, four months after having the Olympics taken away from him.” Since that time the Cultural Olympiad has operated as PR for the Olympics pure and simple.
As far as London is concerned things aren’t much clearer. Evan Davis tried to ascertain this important definition on the Today progame this morning. “What is the Cultural Olympiad?” he asked. Tony Hall, the chair of the Cultural Olympiad board replies: “The Cultural Olympiad is something that we said we’d do after the Beijing Games. It’s been a programme up and down the country involving people in small ways and some big ways in cultural and artistic activity.” Which is as clear as mud. I would argue – as a fan of the Olympics as an event – that the Cultural Olympiad, is effectively UK arts funding redeployed to promote the Olympic Games and I would further argue that history has shown us that art, as distinct from graphic design or architecture, has no place in the Modern Olympics.
Images contained are of work that featured in Corridart. Most of it was destroyed.