Sports melds with media at art exhibit

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 7:50 PM

'The Sports Show' reflects how movie stars and all-stars aren't that different.

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On Sunday night, just as the Oscar-nominated stars stroll the red carpet, the all-stars will hit the hard court for the NBA All-Star Game. To some, the two events may seem separated by a pop-cultural chasm between high and low artistry.

But as "The Sports Show" exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts makes vividly clear, sport is an expressive medium in its own right, as impactful as film. Accordingly, the drama and imagery of sports inspire interpretations from filmmakers and artists.

The artificial cultural isolation of sports is on display as soon as one enters the exhibit, where a Buster Keaton film, "College," plays.

The comedy is "essentially the same argument played out," said David Little, who curated "The Sports Show." "You're either an athlete or an academic. It's such a false dichotomy. ... If you're an intellect, all of the variations -- the drama, the unpredictability of sport -- are all things that a curious intellectual mind would find attractive."

Sports certainly attracted the minds of many 20th-century artists. Their names are often as iconic as the athletes they captured. Those gritty pictures of boxer Rocky Graziano? Taken by director Stanley Kubrick.

And the images of Muhammad Ali's hands, which show him as not as a loquacious showman but beat-up boxer? Taken by filmmaker Gordon Parks.

The list goes on, with noted photographer Annie Leibovitz capturing Kirby Puckett and Richard Avedon snapping then-unknown high school basketball player Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Arnold Schwarzenegger flexes for Robert Mapplethorpe, before both became better known (and more controversial). And Andy Warhol gives the pop-icon treatment to Pelé, Wayne Gretzky and Jack Nicklaus.

The link between sports and art is part of a broader nexus between sports and media.

"Media completely changes the relationship between the audience and the game," Little said. "Cameras get closer and closer to the action and the fans move from being passive observers to very active participants." The camera also influences outcomes, Little said, referencing its instant-replay role.

Inevitably, politicians picked up on the validation of sports and media. Leni Riefenstahl went from the pro-Hitler propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" to using Olympic victory as her canvas to depict the Aryan ideal. And yet, fascinatingly, she also shot African-American gold medalist Jesse Owens, who shattered the illusion.

Later there's a foreshadowing photo of Owens (photographer unknown), saluting during the national anthem. He's flanked by the silver and bronze medalists, who just happen to be Japanese and German (the latter gives a stiff-armed Nazi salute).

It's right by a photo portraying a different salute that provoked a different reaction: Track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising black-gloved fists on the medals stand in Mexico City in 1968.

Yet no image so tragically captures the volitile mix of media, politics and sport as the grainy shot of hooded Palestinian terrorists in Munich in 1972, which Little called one of the top 100 images of the 20th century.

"This major sporting event being interrupted -- for many people was their introduction to the Mideast crisis," Little said, adding that "sports has this way of communicating major social issues to a larger group that otherwise wouldn't be engaged by just reading the paper or watching Walter Cronkite."

One of those major social issues is race, which the exhibit covers extensively. Particularly insightful is the juxtaposition of interviews with two icons who were simultaneously on the scene, but represent different eras: Muhammad Ali sparring with William F. Buckley Jr. about race and politics, and O.J. Simpson saying "I try to stay out of politics" as he opines about opportunities in movies and marketing to Roger Welch.

As for Sunday night's juxtaposition, Little sees similarities between Oscar and all-star events, and their fans.

"Sports is such a flexible medium that it allows for multiple narratives to be overlaid on them. And the audience can participate in those meanings in ways that are much more empowering than even in art or in film."

And a universal sports emotion may be at play in the Oscar race, too, Little concluded.

"If anyone had said that a silent film would have been up for an Academy Award, everyone would say 'you're crazy.' But I think that none of us would be surprised if 'The Artist' won, not only because it's a great film, but because it's the underdog, and it feeds the desire in audiences to root for the underdog."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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