Where sports, art and American history intersect

The eminent sports historian Allen Guttmann never runs out of material and intellectual energy to conduct his learned and humane explorations of games and what continues to draw us to them.

I first learned of him some 20 years ago when I was beginning to explore topics in women’s sports. His “Women’s Sports: A History,” ought to be read by anybody who cares about women’s athletics. Like most of his work, it is interdisciplinary and empirical, but avoids the gender politics and atrocious cultural studies jargon that passes for most academic feminist “scholarship.”

A longtime literature professor at Amherst College, Guttmann is best known for his books about the Olympics and the modern history of sports. My favorite is “The Erotic in Sports,” in which also puts feminist kvetching about the so-called “sexualization” of the female athletic body in its proper place.

He brilliantly denounces suggestions that male voyeurism of women athletes leads to sexual violence against women. I could not resist including this passage in “Beyond Title IX,” my recent book about the cultural politics of women’s sports:

“The gaze-leads-to-rape argument reduces all men to the status of a single litter of Pavlovian dogs.”

Picture 2In catching up with Guttmann’s oeuvre recently I came across a book he published last year — he says it will be his last one — called “Sports and American Art from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol.”

As I sharpen the focus of this blog, I want to explore the connections between these two seemingly irreconcilable worlds, because I’ve long believed they’re more alike than we realize.

This is what drew Guttmann to the subject, and in a “New Books in Sports” podcast with Calvin College history professor Bruce Berglund, he explains how he went about his project:

“I first imagined it would be sports-themed art but saw that there were so many similarities between the histories of sports and art in the America that I decided to do something more ambitious.”

Like the American artists of the 19th century who insisted on carving out a unique American identity for their work — Homer Winslow and Thomas Eakins in particular — so did the historians, “inventors” and mythmakers of American sports during the same period of time.

Guttmann says Eakins “gets it all” when it comes to reflecting the elemental attraction to the human body in his work — the athletic, the aesthetic and the erotic. (Example: The Swimming Hole.)

More modern painters, however, hold little appeal for Guttmann. Norman Rockwell “sentimentalizes America and children’s sports” and doesn’t help us understand either, he says.

Contemporary artists come in for even more withering disdain. The celebrated LeRoy Neiman was “completely uninteresting” to Guttmann, who’s generally not fond of the postmodern sensibility.

After Neiman’s death in June, the American Sport Art Museum in Daphne, Ala., displayed some of his work as a tribute. But unlike the sports-in-art approach that Guttmann dislikes about Neiman, there appears to be plenty else of which he would approve.

If this indeed is Guttmann’s last book, it’s a magnificent departing gift.

And I’ve got this one near the top of my shopping list for the upcoming holidays.

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One Comment

  1. Bern
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I’d never heard of Guttmann. Will definitely pick up some of his work.

    Really like the direction of your blog!