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Janet Langsam

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Let's Bring the Arts Back to the Olympics

Posted: 08/15/2012 5:27 pm

This year's summer Olympics has raised sports to an art form. Gymnast Gabby Douglas might have been a ballerina for all her grace and flexibility. Swimmer Michael Phelps might have been a sculptor for all his power and focus. Glued as I was to the TV, watching what to me was performance art at its finest, I wondered why we don't have an Olympics of the Arts. That line of thought led me to bemoan once again the absence of the arts at the "real" Olympics. The Olympics after all elevates the value of competition. It celebrates diversity and ambition, and it engages everyone -- participants and audiences alike throughout the world. That kind of broad, worldwide visibility is just what we need in the arts.

Imagine if the arts were as fundamental to the Olympics as sports. That fact alone would make the arts more important than they currently are. Let's perhaps focus on Brazil in 2016. Think about how a four-year outreach for nominations from all corners of the globe would hype the arts and at the same time uncover nascent talent throughout the world. There must be thousands of young people in art and music college programs whose careers could benefit from the exposure. Perhaps Americans for the Arts could take the leadership in this effort?

Years ago, (naturally, way before my time) painting, drawing, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture were all a part of the Olympics, and all categories in which competitors could take home a medal. The idea -- the brainchild of International Olympic Committee founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin -- was to bind together athletics and aesthetics, body and soul, action and ideas, like in the old days in ancient Greece. A major flaw in the rules was that artists' work had to be inspired by sports, thus limiting the quality and quantity of participants. Then too, they simply couldn't figure out how to maintain the Olympics as a competition for amateurs while at the same time extending eligibility to artists who were also professionals. So, by the time the fifties rolled around, the arts were out of the Olympic games. Due to the exclusion of professionals, few artists of any significant reputation competed and the work submitted was thought by many to be mediocre. That may be the reason why in the end so few people even remember that the Olympics once included the arts. And sadly too, few of the winning pieces -- poems, compositions, paintings -- even exist anymore, in original form or reproductions. In more recent times, the Olympics have transformed their rules. The games are now a playing ground for professional athletes, as well as amateurs. There is no longer a reason to exclude the arts because of the blurry line between those two groups. By presenting the next names to grace the pages of art history books in years to come, an inclusive Olympics can be even more breathtaking.

It is ironic that post-fifties, arts administrators figured out how to judge art submissions in ways that the Olympics committee couldn't. Processes like peer panels have become the gold standard for giving grants and commissions to artists. Agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), begun in 1965, have since routinely selected panels made up of professionals in various arts disciplines to review and allocate grants. It is a system that has served our field well for more than 50 years. The Pollack-Krasner Foundation, formed in 1985, has awarded grants to artists in over 72 countries since its inception. Even popular TV shows like American Idol, America's Got Talent, and So You Think You Can Dance, have figured out how to select and showcase amateur talent. And, by the way, they make money doing it. So here's the question, challenge, big idea all rolled into one: How can the arts community work together to bring arts and culture back to the Olympics?

 
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