marcus westbury

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Art v. Sport (or not)

June 19th, 2009 by marcus

ARTISTS and sportspeople have a lot in common… really.

I’ve never understood the idea that art and sport are somehow opposed to each other. I’ve spent a lot of time with artists, and a little time with sportspeople, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they’ve got more in common with each other than just about any other walk of life or profession.

I have to confess that I’m an armchair sports nut. I’ve used any excuse to spin my cultural credentials into a chance to indulge my sporting obsessions. From auditioning a footy team to trying to compete against Olympians – I’ve taken every opportunity to segue from my arty occupations into my sporting preoccupations whenever a half-chance has presented itself.

In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, I spent some time up close with a range of hopeful Olympians. Away from the glamour of a couple of weeks of competition, it was a stark insight into the similarities between artists and sportspeople.

Apart from a handful of big names, Australia’s Olympic athletes and those aspiring to be aren’t exactly rolling in dough.

They’re often self-funded or on tiny scholarships plugging away at obscure sports that most of the time we couldn’t care less about. They struggle to balance work, training and international competition. They are forced to move cities and countries to follow coaches, facilities and opportunities. They live in obscurity for 99 per cent of their lives, interspersed with occasional bursts of fawning praise or unforgiving critical glare.

It was pretty much the same story I’ve heard from every artist I know.

Spending a little time with the reality of sporting life rather than the TV image was what it took for me to realise that. Because the artists I know are mostly poor and struggling and the athletes I see on TV are rich and famous, it was easy to assume that the athletes had it easier. Away from the football codes, cricket and the absolute top tier of other sports, your average struggling artist and your average struggling athlete are engaged in something strangely similar.

Because the artists I spend time with are mostly of the hard-working and practical kind, I forget that plenty of people presume that artists, like athletes, see themselves as some kind of glamorous elite. At the 2020 summit, I passed the likes of James Hird in the corridors but discovered that it was the “Creative Australia” group who were being mocked by the other delegates for having all the glamour and fame. I coined the verb “Jackmanned” to describe the process of being constantly elbowed in the head by photographers snapping celebrities on the other side of the room. Yet most of the people in that room would have spent a lot of their “careers” working multiple day jobs to support what they do.

The massive amounts of money, prestige and attention lavished on TV sports, like the popular cultural forms of cinema and music, can create a very misleading impression. The reality is that the vast majority of sportspeople or artists are working in some of the most poorly paid fields going around. The glamour and wealth at the very top obscures the reality of making a living – most artists and athletes do something else to support what they’re passionate about and driven to achieve.

The reality is that most sportspeople and artists are engaged in something fundamentally uneconomic and irrational. Something both completely noble and totally selfish. Some are undoubtedly motivated by the thought of being part of the glamour and fame at the very top of their fields, but more often than not the reasons are far more personal. They’re driven to explore or achieve something that is profoundly personal and to test their sense of what they can be or do or create.

I’ve decided that we should argue less about art versus sport and more about the value of that kind of passion over economics. It is too easy to forget how much we value that. It’s the reason why lists of national icons, “living national treasures” or most admired Australians are full of artists and sportspeople.

We do actually value things that are on one level frivolous, stupid, crazy and indulgent, and on another passionate, wonderful, inspiring and insightful. It’s about far more than economic returns or efficiency dividends.

Both the artists and sportspeople I’ve met seem to get that.

Orginally published in The Age

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alison Croggon Jun 19, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Absoliutely, Marcus. One of my favourite quotes about art comes from a football coach – “football is a nonsense. But it is a very serious nonsense.” The arts/sports divide is large perceptional rather than actual – I know very few arts people who aren’t fans of one sport or another (I’m a dilletante – my vices are the Tour de France, Wimbledon and the World Cup).

    Then there are the artists who are or were also sportspeople, which is actually quite common. To take one famous example, Samuel Beckett was a useful batsman and has an entry in Wisden. Reportedly when he met Harold Pinter, neither of them – quite understandably – spoke about play writing, and itwas a bit awkward until they started talking about cricket, which ended up being all they talked about.

  • 2 Ben Farrelly Jun 22, 2009 at 11:11 am

    I love how you use the word “segue”.

  • 3 Zac Jun 22, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Great post Marcus. I agree both sport and art are entirely non-essential from a practical perspective but also the very things that make us human.

    Consider cows. They eat grass, and only grass. Yet they still have brains, eyes, nervous systems etc. You can’t tell me we humans really need to eat the range of food that we do if cows survive on grass. But embracing the non-essentials is what makes us humans.

    My small company is unique in that we publish an arts and cultural website ( as well as a sports website (

    I reckon you’re right when you say we the two aren’t really that far away from each other.

  • 4 Zolton Jun 23, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Interesting post Marcus. As the co-publisher with Zac of the Roar and Lost At E Minor, I come at it from the same angle as you do: impressed equally by the degree of dedication and passion it takes to sustain yourself in either of these fields. You’re right, they’re not mutually exclusive. We all know of a number of artists and musicians who are passionate sports nuts, for instance, including Bernard Fanning (Powderfinger) and The Rolling Stones, all of whom are cricket tragics; and Tim Rogers, of course, a fanatical AFL supporter. I think sports or arts, or both, are intrinsic to our very being. Indeed, I recall being given a t shirt many years ago by my aunt, which said simply: without music life is a mistake. Friedrich Nietzsche was a wise man, indeed.

  • 5 Din Heagney Jun 23, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I completely agree with you Marcus. Being an art-lover more than a sport-lover you learn to compromise and love both… in Melbourne there is no option if you want to get along. A couple of years ago while doing a book I wrote something like “art is closer to sport than science; artists and sports players both “practice” as a central part of their competitive activities, and both create entertaining and often surprising outcomes that form the basis of our culture”. This was for the draft introduction but I was almost tarred, feathered and chased out of town by my own editorial board for writing such populist crap. The final result was I had to cut the sport reference although i snuck in a goal post metaphor in reference to arts funding. Anywho, the book had been partly funded by OZCO and the then liberal Minister for the Arts and Sport (yes, it was a joint portfolio in the late Howard years) came to the launch and when I told him he had a (right) chuckle. I was promptly told by a senior arts adviser eavesdropping nearby that he thought it was perverse that I would compare art to sport. So thanks for this piece…can I get off the bench now?