Why is sport “easy”, but art “hard”?

With the London Olympics just around the corner, it seems like a good time to contemplate the cultural significance of sport in relation to the arts.

Think about the typical sections in an average newspaper, or an evening news bulletin – sport is usually second only to breaking news in terms of prominence. It’s seen as a perfectly natural and normal thing to foster an interest in. There seems to be an assumption that sport (primarily spectator sport) is for the ‘everyman’ – egalitarian and intellectually undemanding. By comparison, the arts (and sciences for that matter) are often cast as the exclusive domain of the intellectually minded and culturally initiated – the ‘elites’. But can we take it as axiomatic that a football game is inherently more accessible than a Van Gogh?

Sport is full of shared norms, assumptions and meanings that are by no means obvious to an outsider – the scoring structure of gymnastics and the offside rule in soccer are just two examples that spring immediately to mind. People who would never consider themselves “intellectual” will happily muse for hours about the strategy of a match or the merit of an umpire’s decision. Sporting choices are also laden with significance – our cultural identity, socio-economic status or ethnic background can all be reflected in the sports we follow.

In contrast, a work of art can have many of layers of meaning that would take an expert to deconstruct, but it can also be appreciated on the basis of pure aesthetics (as can sport). While there are certainly codes, norms and assumptions surrounding the arts, I would argue they are no more difficult to become conversant with than those associated with many sports. So why is one seen as inherently more accessible than the other?

It probably comes down to enculturation – I was raised in an AFL-loving family and Dad sitting me down and explaining the rules to me was just a natural part of growing up. Attending Saturday matches was a regular winter ritual. But visiting museums and art galleries was also part of my upbringing. So while I don’t always profess to ‘get’ art (or Dad’s forensic post-match analysis for that matter), I don’t find either inherently inaccessible either.

However it seems that “high” and “low” culture frequently regard each other with mutual suspicion. And does cut both ways – a friend of mine once told me how his theatrical colleagues were bemused by his love of Port Power, as to them it seemed to be an interest not worthy of a patron of the arts. While I don’t approve of his choice of team (Go Crows!), I’m siding with my friend on this one.

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