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Russell Smith (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Russell Smith (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: How will an Olympics-style competition award artistic excellence? Add to ...

The history of art competitions at the Olympic Games is somewhat embarrassing. So embarrassing that most people don’t know about it. Olympic medals for the world’s best art seems an odd thing to revive, but a brave and no doubt well-intentioned Canadian organization is bringing back the idea of an international art competition nominally tied to or modelled on the Olympics. They hope to hold the International ArtsGames in Montreal in 2018.

There were medals – gold, silver and bronze – given out for art at the Olympics from 1912 to 1948. The art – in several categories, such as architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture – had to be inspired by sport. This was the first problem. It is hard to find the best art in the world when limited by such a criterion. Few of the medalling artists in those years went on to international renown. Impressively, a couple of the winning artists were also actually Olympic athletes: Walter Winans, a marksman, won medals for shooting and for sculpture; Alfred Hajos won for swimming and, many years later, for architecture.

The event was always controversial, but not for the obvious reason that success in art is not measurable by any universal or constant standard. No, the issue was that most of the entrants earned money from their art. They were then professionals, and the Olympics had to be restricted to amateurs. This was also a limiting factor on the quality of the work. The professional/amateur distinction (not the hopelessly dull and irrelevant art) was such an intractable problem that it led to the elimination of the ArtsGames entirely by 1948. The idea of art medals now seems as quaint as many of the other discontinued Olympic sports – pigeon racing, cannon shooting, croquet and tug-of-war were all once events at the Games.

The Canadian revival of the idea is of course more sophisticated and has broader aims. It used the Rio Olympics last summer as a launching pad for the idea – there were performances and an opening of the competition for the ArtsGames’ host city in 2020 – but it is not really a part of the Olympics. The idea came from a TV producer and arts administrator named Sylvia Sweeney, the niece of Oscar Peterson, herself a pianist and an Olympian (she was a member of the Canadian women’s basketball team in 1976).

The goal is to promote the arts, enrich cultural understanding, promote excellence, blah blah. (Whenever I read the word excellence in any discussion of the arts, I reach for my noise-cancelling headphones. I instantly picture the beige boardroom, the PowerPoint presentation. “Innovation” will surely be the next word on the screen.) The entrants will be themselves winners of international art competitions – in other words, this will be a nation-vs-nation competition of the already rewarded. The Games will be held every two years, each time in a different city. Criteria for the host city include “scenic beauty for broadcast and documentary backdrops” and “ a strong tourism agency.”

There will be gold, silver and bronze medals given out, in dance, music, “media arts” (presumably meaning video), visual arts and literature, but how “excellence” will be determined is not spelled out exactly.

How could it be? This is the problem any arts competition faces. We just don’t know what excellence is. Every competition jury is torn by personal taste and ideological imperatives. There are fashions in art. There is government, funding it and keeping a close watch on its messages. There is no stopwatch or tape to measure with.

In an endeavour such as this one, designed to promote tourism and stimulate the economy as much as to reward artists, highly controversial or troubling artists probably need not apply. The feel-good vibe of this thing is already palpable in its colourful promotional videos and photos – drumming ensembles and folk dancers and graffiti artists are going to be in great supply. Brooding Nordic video artists and pure conceptualists may, I suspect, have a harder time reaching the podium. (I hope I am wrong, and I may be.)

In 1912, when “world’s best art” meant art of a European tradition, in strictly defined categories, there was indeed a sense that artistic excellence could be agreed on. People looked for things like aesthetic harmony, balance in composition, fidelity to “life” in representation. But that sense was already crumbling. The cubists were exhibiting in Europe; the Dadaists were a couple of years away. Jazz was about to arrive from the United States. From that moment on, there was no consensus even about what art was.

Now, we have different consensuses: The art of a large international tourism-increasing festival is going to be one thing; the art of the university MFA program is going to be quite another. There is nothing wrong with the former – we can all enjoy, on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the kids, acrobatic dancers and some heartfelt, rhyming spoken-word poetry. The sense that our entertainment is selected for its merit through the stress and impartiality of an international competition is comforting, I guess, although meaningless. It’s an excuse for some pretty things and maybe some ice cream after. I will skip the medal ceremonies for all art, though. Fifty or 100 years later, they often look like incomprehensible choices.

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