- Sports and American Art: From Benjamin West to Andy Warhol
Allen Guttmann’s contributions to sports history, over very nearly half a century, have been consistently exciting and extraordinary canvases, if one can be excused for inserting an artistic metaphor in light of his most current work. His published books reflect the mind of an innovative scholar always eager to explore and engage new terrains. The titles alone reveal a remarkable diversity of topic and point to an intellect ever eager to be expansive and craft an able synthesis of key areas of sport: Sports Spectators, Sports: The First Five Millennia, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games, A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sport, Games and Empires, Women’s Sports, The Erotic in Sports, Japanese Sports: A History, The Games Must Go On: Avery Brundage and the Olympic Movement, and Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism.
In his introduction Guttmann persuasively places “sports and the arts . . . as both cultural phenomena” (p. 2). He then provides the reader with a Guttmann road-map to study the parallel routes for American sports and American art, from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth century. His approach is chronological, and his five chapters are entitled, “The Colonies of British North America,” “Antebellum America,” “Our National Games,” “Corporate America,” and “Yesterday and Today.”
In his introduction Guttmann makes it clear that his artistic vision is not all encompassing. He tackles two-dimensional oil paintings and watercolors. This book is about paintings, and while some discussion takes place about sculptures, photography, and motion pictures they are not in the main frame. As Guttmann notes, the massive amount of material in these last two categories made it an impossible inclusion for Sports and American Art.
It is heartening to read in Guttmann’s discussion pieces, his desire to champion the cause of sport history in the face of negativism.
There are still sports historians who reveal philistine tendencies when reminded of Pierre de Coubertin’s desire to enrich the celebration of each Olympiad with an arts competition. . . . That sports historians and art historians tend to shun intellectual interaction, that aesthetes and athletes are often ill at ease in each other’s company, is a sorry state of affairs that I hope to ameliorate(p. 3).
In chapter one, “The Colonies of North America,” Guttmann highlights the contributions made by Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. Guttmann makes the case that colonial American painters such as West, Copley, and Stuart were artistically as gifted as English master painters George Stubbs and William Hogarth.
In his next chapter, “Antebellum America,” Guttmann provides a sense of a growing cultural coming-of-age with a country gradually coming to terms with political and economic independence. An Edinburgh Review (1820) essay by Sydney Smith, for example, [End Page 175] has the damning words—“In the four quarters of the globe, who . . . looks at an American picture or statue” (p. 28).
A boon to readers of Sports and American Art is Guttmann’s dividing up of his various chapters into a series of subheadings and categories so that the maze of sports, art forms, and individual artists are able to be safely navigated. “Antebellum America” has sections on cricket, baseball, stickball, hunting and fishing, horse races, and “pedestrianism,” as well as an analysis of genre painting by George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount, and landscape painting with Washington Allston and Thomas Cole. While sports-themed art is discussed, Guttmann’s concluding paragraph serves as a reminder that sport was a marginal cultural concern—“ . . . the visual arts of antebellum America consisted largely of Hudson River landscapes and depiction of solitary enforested hunters and Plains Indians playing stickball” (p. 59).
“Our National Games” is Guttmann’s third chapter, and the range of his compass seems endless. Boxing, track...