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Art and Dissonance in Sport Heritage

The idea of dissonance as perhaps the central, innate characteristic of heritage is not new. Indeed, if we accept that all heritage is not neutral, the notion that all heritage could have a counter narrative seems reasonable. In this, we understand – as many in critical heritage studies do – that heritage is often, and perhaps always, about power.

In sport heritage, we have not necessarily considered dissonant heritages that often. While Sean Gammon and I, back in 2005, argued that the sporting past in tourism ought to be called heritage rather than nostalgia – in large part because heritage had the capacity for dissonant narratives – there actually aren’t that many dissonant narratives at sport heritage sites. Of course, there are many reasons for this – as most sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame are primarily about celebration of achievement and, as such, more challenging views are frequently ignored. Still, there appears to be very few outlets where more challenging approaches to the sporting past – at least in terms of cultural sites like museums – are seen. Similarly, many non-sport cultural entities tend to avoid sporting exhibitions, perhaps viewing sport as too common and popular to represent at, say, a gallery or as part of a broad-based exhibition.

However, there are a few examples I am familiar with where art, dissonance, and sport heritage have met. Perhaps the best example was the Arena: The Art of Hockey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2008. The exhibition both embraced and challenged many of the links between hockey and Canadian national identity. On the one hand, many of the works embraced – if, somewhat subversively – the role hockey plays in Canadian identity. I recall one work which was little more than a nude male and female holding hockey sticks. On the other hand, there were many works that challenged hockey culture and heritage. One work, in particular (and, forgive, I forget the name – though it appears that there are still exhibition guides available) was a collage of images set on an indigenous reserve that featured scenes of hockey as well as suicide, alcoholism, racism and sexual abuse. Although I suspect the work could be read in many ways, I took it as the fact that hockey – and sport in general – does not necessarily address, and perhaps masks, larger social issues.

Arena-Exhibit-summit-series

Similarly, a 2008 exhibition called “Hard Targets: Masculinity and Sports” looks at the violence and voyeuristic aspects of sport consumption. Like Arena, this exhibition appeared to take sport cultures and heritages into an unfamiliar space, both critiquing and celebrating the physicality of sporting practices.

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Although there are certainly many other examples of art, dissonance, and sport heritage than these, and there are many sporting sites and places that do address dissonant heritages (Although I have a chapter coming out in early 2017 which looks at several sites that employ dissonant sport heritage narratives), there appears to be space within art galleries in particular – which, perhaps is not available to traditional sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame – to both celebrate and challenge sport heritages. Perhaps some of this has to do with visitor expectations: hall of fame patrons may be looking to celebrate and nostalgize, while gallery patrons may expect subversion. However, these not need be polar opposites – and can exist, in many cases, side by side (as was recently featured in a post about Argentina). Certainly, many stadia – such as Marlins Park in Miami – have incorporated public art into stadium design (and not simply for nostalgic purposes). While this is not always necessarily addressing major social issues – as some of the art in the Arena exhibit might – it nevertheless demonstrates that so-called “high” and “low” cultures and heritage are not necessarily incompatible.


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