BY Harry Thorne in Opinion | 13 JUN 18
Featured in
Issue 196

Some Reflections on the Troubled Relationship Between Art and Football

On the eve of the World Cup, Harry Thorne on the art world’s petulant refusal to embrace the beautiful game

BY Harry Thorne in Opinion | 13 JUN 18

Let’s talk about love, shall we? Or: let’s talk about what I think love is. Love is that which sharpens the air. Love is that which lingers when all else exits left, which pricks your skin when you forget to feel, which gives you 20 minutes when you barely have ten. Love is that which finds expression in the inexpressible.

What separates love from adoration – above, the two are interchangeable – is the acknowledgement that these things are comprehensively, incomprehensibly, out of your control. That you cannot will them into, nor out of, existence. It is the resignation to the fact that you cannot be enriched by love’s sweet symptoms if you are not open to their rendering you powerless. Love is that which can fuck you over and have you back in a second.

So, let’s talk about football. Or: let’s talk about what I know football to be. Since I began writing this column, I have watched the team that I love, the once-invincible Arsenal, lose to their bitter rivals; lose to a Swedish team that did not exist when our manager took the helm; lose a cup final; lose to that same team days later; and lose to a team who are stumbling through their first stint in the Premier League since their conception some 116 years ago. I have predicted each of these results (to support Arsenal is to ricochet between defeatism and delusion), yet I have remained devout. I have been fucked over, repeatedly, and returned with hope.

Hank Willis Thomas, Visa, 2017. Courtesy: © the artist, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, and The Permanent Collection of the Schulich School of Business, York University

Long have I been yanked between this life of melodrama and another of equivalent demand: the so-called creative world, that which wakes you with a jolt and shrieks while you clear your head, which asks too much of your days and takes nefarious pleasure in scheduling your nights. I have others on my side. In What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (2017), philosopher and Liverpool fan Simon Critchley bemoans the enforced schedule and inopportune time-zone of his professorship at the New School in New York, which ‘entails quite a lot of creative deception’: ‘I slip out of the office and into the bar across the street, where I watch alone, intently and as inconspicuously as possible.’ The curator, writer and fellow Arsenal devotee Tirdad Zolghadr attributes his own ‘obsession, not to say borderline addiction’, to twin factors. The first: ‘the soap opera effect: gradually growing infatuated with characters on the pitch’; the second: ‘the pleasure of succumbing to a time regime that has nothing to do with anything rational, responsible or adult’.

The writer Juliet Jacques has a long history of prioritizing Norwich City above all else. She has scheduled a panel discussion to coincide with an away fixture against Nottingham Forest (1–0 loss); sacrificed the rare opportunity to meet the artist Sanja Ivekovic out of obligation to a Wigan Athletic match (2–1 win); and declined an invitation to talk about trans representation in cinema due to a conflicting tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers (another 2–1 win). On occasion, Jacques surrenders her season ticket in favour of a significant protest or art event but, to use her words: ‘I hate doing it.’

I hate doing it, too. I hate being flung between the pair, as if locked in some tilted custody battle. I hate that my mind incessantly flits from one to the other, like Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra, who worried through passages of his book Not to Read (2018) ‘because of an imminent and decisive match against Peru’. I hate that I have written a column which, to piggy back the sentiment (but remain wary of the dramatics) of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Football (2016): ‘no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual’. But, I do it anyway. Because, like Zambra (the pragmatist), ‘this is my job’ and, like Toussaint (the poet), ‘I didn’t want to break the fine thread that still connects me to the world’.

The art world’s petulant refusal to fully embrace my passion jars because, put simply, it makes little sense: peel back the skin of each world and you will expose interchangeable skeletons. Both are contingent on the near-religious devotion of their communities; both allow divergent peoples to participate in the same discussions. Both value self-expression above all; both grant us blessed beneficiaries the opportunity to momentarily escape ourselves. As Toussaint writes, again toeing that line between histrionics and reverie: ‘Football, while we are watching it, holds us radically at a distance from death.’

Upend these bones and you will also find comparable diseases: sexism, racism, heteronormativity, corruption and autocracy, not to mention the corrosive influence of capital. On the game’s egregious gender imbalance – long-discussed by academics and journalists such as Anne Coddington and Carrie Dunn – look to the powerhouse of Manchester United, who only moved to establish a women’s team in March of this year, despite having been founded in 1878. On the debasing influence of commerce, visit a recent article by journalist Jonathan Wilson, in which he lambasts a soulless bout between the Galácticos of Real Madrid (valued at €674.6 million) and the Qatari-owned superstars of Paris Saint-Germain (€486.2 million): ‘This perhaps is football’s future, a money-obsessed world in which a series of X Factor auditions have replaced the symphony, our Disneyfied dystopia.’ Art-world comparisons on a postcard, please.

Artworks attending to football are scant and, with the majority risking little but the introduction of sporting curiosities to a disinterested art world (Juergen Teller’s series ‘Siegerflieger’, 2014, provides us with reference point one; Hank Willis Thomas’s Hand of God, 2017, makes two), good ones are veritable unicorns. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait (2006), which depicts the titular French midfielder from 17 viewpoints during a match between Real Madrid and Villareal, is one such beast. A second is the project’s under-discussed Alpha version: Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before, 1971), for which the German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard set eight 16mm cameras on the Manchester United winger George Best during a game against Coventry City. A third is Harun Farocki’s Deep Play (2007), which takes as its focus the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy – or, rather, the manner in which it was consumed by a global audience of 607.9 million. For over two hours, a real-time collage plays across 12 screens: official footage, statistics, Farocki’s recordings, graphics of players swarming from goal to goal. Simultaneous viewing, here, is impossible, while a non-hierarchical presentation of imagery renders narrative slippery but, around the 107-minute mark, several screens capture what would be Zidane’s final act as a player. As the Frenchman returns to his half, he slows to an innocuous jog, turns on a six pence and drives his forehead into the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi.

These works reveal further symmetry between our seemingly asymmetrical interactions with football and art: each is an exercise in looking that teaches us more about how we look; a love letter to aggregated images that warns how such images are but mediated glimpses into an untameable bedlam of occurrence. ‘It is common knowledge’, writes the cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen of Deep Play, ‘that football is our life. And, just like life, we are always trying to improve our grasp of it. The joke is that it constantly frustrates our attempts.’ In order to enhance our vision, we are forever adding one more screen, one more chart of statistics; but, to recycle a question posed by the art critic Holland Cotter of Farocki’s work: ‘Are we seeing better, or are we missing the real picture?’

In Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger writes: ‘The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’ Nor should it be. But we should remain wary of the disjoint. To watch football, as to view art, is to understand that there is invariably more in play than that which elapses within a frame. It is to know that a player who scores, whose lone image will forever be immortalized, could not have done so were it not for a succession of illogical events that were utterly beyond their control. To look, to truly look, is to sacrifice your gaze to a scene while remaining hyper-conscious of the myriad concealed elements that facilitated its emergence, whether an art-historical precedent, an inherently corrupt system or a sublime cross delivered by a winger who has faded from view.

Main Image: Andy Warhol photographs Pelé, 1997. Courtesy: Associated Press; photograph: Claudia Larson

This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'A Game of Two Halves'.

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.