Art Here and Now
Daring creativity happening now around the world
If You Get Points, Is It Art?

I went to an afternoon of flat track roller derby, and even though it’s a sport, I could care less who won or lost. A lot of us were there to be entertained. Roller derby is dramatic and theatrical. Lots of players and whole teams have strong characters (whether real or mythical), and the opening and half time shows are fun and over the top. You could see a lot of artistic types in the audience who don’t go to many other games. There’s something creative and entertaining drawing them in.

But when the main purpose behind a performance is to get points and be the winner, is it art?

Figure skating, ballroom dancing and DanceSport, color guard and some forms of gymnastics are all artistic performances where the main goal is to get points and win. In most cases, performers are required to play certain types of music, wear certain clothes, and use certain prescribed moves.

Most of the performers are clearly exceptional athletes, are very dedicated, and have great artistic skill. But many people, especially the “real artists,” look down on all this. For me the problem has always been the limits put on the work — why would you limit yourself to only certain moves or, for instance, being required to twirl a fake wooden rifle?

A lot of people have trouble with the motivation. If you’re there to get points, based on how well you perform predefined and accepted moves, where is your artistic voice, your unique viewpoint of the world? Another motivation is money. Money motivation also brings the artistic merits of TV shows, films and albums into question, even beyond TV art sports like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and On the Lot. Artistic authenticity and innovation are often the measures of success for modern artwork. Motivations for money, points and winning are contrary to real art.

You might say authenticity and innovation are the point system for modern art. But who are the hidden judges? What are the secret rules?

When artists apply for grants, panelists often look for predefined forms that, to them, define great art. When ballet dancers come on stage, the audience looks for a limited set of predefined moves that add up to what they think of as ballet. When donors give money to a theatre or opera, they vote with dollars for work that most fits what they think art should be. Curators, promoters, producers, executives, politicians, grantors, donors, boards of directors, ticket buyers, book and music lovers and others are all doling out points. Many artists don’t like to admit we’re influenced by these points. We are trying to win money or notoriety.

The perfect modern artist is someone whose work pops out like flower buds, for no other reason and purpose than the artist wants it to. Money or status have no influence whatsoever. These are people like Henry Darger, who painted in secret his whole life. He was pure, untainted by desire for money or fame.

But if you are authentic, and you aren’t influenced by your audience or worldly temptations, how do you know your art is doing what you intended? Are puppies and shaving creme really disturbing and life changing, or only to you? Do dinosaurs make everyone think of birds, or just paleontologists? Maybe your art is just boring, confused and badly made. How will you know if you don’t listen? How will you make better work if you aren’t willing to change and learn?

In modern art, forming a fake rock band or standing on a street corner and shouting curse words at drivers can both be art. Dressing like your grandmother while impersonating Nixon might be your authentic voice. Maybe in this confusing open ended anything-goes arena, the points we get are the only barometer we have for whether our work is to other people what it is to us. Once we get those points, we can decide to change, to work for more points at the possible smogging of our clear intents. Or we can decide to remain steadfast, and risk pulling a Van Gogh – dying penniless with no recognition. It seems Van Gogh was right. I think the key is that, after collecting the points, Success or Winning is just ultimately affecting the world as you wanted to, regardless of what other rewards that might come your way.

Maybe the art athletes have it all figured out. Get the rules in writing. By the end of the night, be called the winner in front of a cheering crowd, and get paid decently for all your skill and effort.

Get In the Realms of the Unreal, the fascinating documentary about Henry Darger; or From Ballroom To Dancesport: Aesthetics, Athletics, And Body Culture

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posted by Trout Monfalco

2 Comments to “If You Get Points, Is It Art?”

  1. Cheryl says:

    I’m a roller derby skater, and a retired competitive figure skater. I am also an artist, illustrator, writer & lyricist.

    I play roller derby for fun. I make a living as a professional skating coach & choreographer, and moonlight in graphic communications. Outside of commercial copy writing/editing & a bit of blogging, I write for myself – almost no one has seen any of my writing or lyrics.

    There is room for creativity in everything I do, but not every creative thing I do is considered “art” in its entirety. Each activity I am involved in has its own set of “rules”, written or unwritten. Occasionally, I get to write my own rules, but primarily, they are written by those who came before me, or my audience or those judging my performance. That is just how life works.

    In sports with an artistic bent, the sport comes first, with it’s rules and point values and levels of difficulty (certain things simply are harder to do than others), followed by equally important artistry, that carries it and brings the cream of the crop to the top.

    Artistry weighs differently according to the rules. In roller derby, for instance, if you’re a really good player, you can afford to show off a bit if you’re ahead, but no matter how good you look doing it, it’s not going to get you more points on the board.

    In figure skating, however, everyone competing against each other is technically capable of doing maneuvers of equivalent point values. The winners are the ones who do them best – with the most accuracy, consistency, security, rotation, speed, power, flow, etc, AND if everyone has proved they can do absolutely everything equally well, the winners are those who have accomplished it all with the most style, form, flair, carriage, poise & polish, and made their performance look easy & passionate – like a natural expression of themselves. For the best figure skaters out there, it really is natural. For others, it is all choreographed and put in place.

    Artistry is judged, not by how you look on the ice, but how well you achieve your look on the ice. Judges are typically accomplished former skaters, and find it easy to tell the difference between natural and contrived artistry. They can see if it’s a skater’s authentic voice coming through the work, or if it’s the coach’s or choreographer’s; if a skater has simply learned over time how to put their body into expressive positions, or if they are truly feeling and expressing emotion through their physique. And yes, as an unwritten rule, you get more points as a “natural”.

    Consider how few skaters make it to National and International competition. Personally, I don’t think it’s because they can’t, or that there are only so many openings available. You see the same names competing year after year, and so many others dropping off or never making it because THEY DON’T WANT TO. When you’re a “natural” and really love the artistic aspect of skating, the points and medals often mean much less than the experience, and the work and politics of competing can be disheartening. Many skaters could have gone further, but have chosen instead to skate in shows, or coach, or judge, or even do something completely different with their lives and skate only for themselves in practice.

    Some artists want to use their talents for fortune and career gains. Others get more out of it than money, and keep their work close to their hearts or to themselves. Some even want to get a little of both out of it. The key is figuring it out for yourself, and doing what you want to do with it – whatever it is.

    And that’s OK.

  2. Trout says:

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for your great insights.
    I agree it’s all about choice, and there is creativity in many aspects of what we do in life. Where you say “Occasionally, I get to write my own rules, but primarily, they are written by those who came before me, or my audience or those judging my performance. That is just how life works.” is a great observation and hits the nail on the head. Often people who want to be Artists forget that.
    And obviously people want different things from life. The person who finds what they really want and is able to act on it, both the balance of roof over your head and personal passion, is very fortunate. Thanks again for the post.

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