Portrait Of The Athlete As An Artist

It recently emerged that George W. Bush has been spending his downtime painting portraits of the various world leaders he met during his tenure.

Quite predictably, these sophomoric efforts have been met with smug condescension by the art world, with one British wanker describing Bush’s portraits as “dreary and compositionally identical likenesses [which] couldn’t feel more impersonal if they tried.”

But it truly delighted me to discover that Bush, the self-proclaimed ‘war president’, has a latent artistic streak. Because this sports website strives to highlight and celebrate atypical athletes, who fall outside the normal definition of how a sportsman should behave.

And while The Public Apology has written extensively on the sportsman as artistewith reference to Roger Federer’s parabolic backhand and Stephen Larkham’s ability to glide effortlessly through a defensive line, we are yet to write about the sportsman as literal artist.

Another effortless line-break by the artiste Larkham.
Another effortless line-break by the artiste Larkham.

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Typically, the crossover for athlete and art comes in the field of music. Usually, this is no more than simply the ability to strum a few open chords in the dressing-room, ala half the Australian cricket team. But popular music is not fine art – and therefore former NSW state cricketers-turned-musicians Richard Chee Quee and Brad McNamara fall short in our search for the ultimate athlete/artist.

It is surprising that many athletes pride themselves on their one dimensionality. If you consider that Plato, perhaps the greatest philosopher the world has ever seen, was himself an athlete. A wrestler, specifically.

Plato often spoke of the need to balance physical training with the training of the mind, with the end goal being to align these two virtues so that they sit in harmony with one another. “The mere athlete becomes too much of a savage, and that the mere musician is melted and softened beyond what is good for him,” he apparently once said.

But in the modern professional sporting era, these artistic sportsmen (and women) are something of an endangered species. In 2014, one must dedicate themselves solely to a single cause – and rid themselves of all distraction.

There is no room for the well-rounded Renaissance man in a world where he is competing for a contract against thousands of other hungry aspiring professional athletes. There is no time to spend hours in your bedroom practicing the seven modes of the diatonic scale, bettering yourself, when you could be smashing out a leg session in the club gym.

Smart bloke.
Smart bloke.

Plato did not foresee this professional sporting era, admittedly. Indeed, it’s probably one of his greatest failings. But were he alive today, Plato would deeply lament how the professionalism of sport put paid to the athlete as artist.

In today’s modern sporting landscape, teams focus on the one-percenters and sports science in order to get the best out of their roster. However, in Plato’s Ancient Greece, conversations were abound over how best to train youngsters so that they could achieve their best both on and off the field; as both athlete and intellectual.

Aristotle, in fact, was of the belief that that three years after puberty should be spent on other studies before a young man turned to athletic exertions, because physical and intellectual development could not occur at the same time.

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One current athlete – although it must be noted that he is nearing the end of his career – is two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. Nash has turned his hand to the art of film-making, co-directing the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary ‘Into The Wind’ about amputee runner Terry Fox, which enjoyed critical acclaim and apparently brought audiences to tears at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Nash has demonstrated an insatiable desire to learn and to better himself – and thereby should be seen as a ‘new’ Renaissance athlete. A person who is well-rounded and knowledgeable across various artistic and academic disciplines.

But while Nash may be the exception, there is a recent trend towards the cerebral athlete. Many are realising, more than ever before, that this sports caper does not define who they are as individuals – and that, as athletes, they have a short shelf-life.

Meanwhile, recently retired athletes, such as Clyde Rathbone and Luke Ablett, are turning their attention to writing. Not mindless sports punditry, mind you, but issues-based journalism, in which they leverage their profile to provide meaningful, insightful commentary on topics as diverse as domestic violence, the environment, social welfare, and depression.

It is a shame that professional sport is so all-consuming that athletes are unable to fully pursue their real interests during their careers.

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It’s great that George W. Bush is indulging his creative juices. He has already demonstrated a desire to shock and disturb with his ‘nude’ self-portraits, which were released last year thanks to hackers. These pieces were actually well-received by many art critics, who noted the ex-President’s ability to capture his own ‘fragility’ and solitude – inadvertently or otherwise.

A nice warm shower should get this Iraqi blood off my hands.
A nice warm shower should get this Iraqi blood off my hands.

Of course, we weren’t given this insight during his tenure, but afterwards, with his legacy providing unavoidable context. For as The Guardian’s Jason Garago says, the Bush presidency endures all around us – and “as we feel our way through the collapsing plutocracy he has bequeathed to us, we will need more than these wan portraits to ease the pain.”

I don’t see that, however. I see a bloke who is just doing what he wants to do, finally.

By Dave Edwards

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