Celebrating our inner idiot

Thanks to Norm I’ve just come across the following words of wisdom from bow-tied and loud-shirted Melbourne art critic Robert Nelson on the universal phenomenon that is sport. Nelson’s column is published in Australia’s “The Age” newspaper, but unfortunately it is not available online. Norm cut his comment short in order to get off to Old Trafford and watch the footie, so I guess one could say that Nelson was saved by the ball.

“The social role of sport is to provide an outlet for intelligent people to behave like brainless people. Everyone knows there’s no intrinsic point in shifting a leather ball from one post to another, no matter how energetic or invested the contest. Nothing is achieved outside the game; no one is wiser or can add a benefit to the world beyond the fury of the struggle.

“Intelligent people also recognise the costs of sport, severe and permanent injuries, which burden our hospitals every weekend. But sport is a sanctioned release from responsible thinking, and all these scruples are put aside. The whole point of sport is to insulate you from the things that matter.

“The habit of getting excited and screaming for no good reason creates a momentary dome of ignorance; it’s a hallowed asylum of folly, a carnivalesque institution of mania against the onus of wisdom. Important and urgent questions should be discussed, such as global warming; but the clamorous distraction of sport assures even the brainiest people that they too can enjoy the mind of an idiot.

“I was therefore sceptical of the Basil Sellers Art Prize. Why conceive a lucrative prize around sport? Sport is the antithesis of art, because art is all about the purpose beyond the work. Art engenders speculation, a portal to new insights and imaginative growth. Like music, science and philosophy, art promotes an intoxicating wonder for where the mind can reach. Sport offers no similar transcendence, because it lacks any admirable purpose beyond its own arbitrary exertions.”

No intrinsic point? There’s little or no intrinsic point in much of what many if not most of we humans do in our lives. But do we need to justify ourselves?

I work freelance, and feel the need to micro-manage my working days in order to keep on top of things and ensure that I do not spend uneconomical amounts of time on particular projects (that includes the almost completely pointless activity that is blogging!). Now I know that this obsessive clock-watching is bad for the soul, and so I must constantly remind myself that it is perfectly acceptable to do stuff just because it’s fun.

Or maybe do nothing at all. Or worse, read the culture pages of the Guardian, or incisive social commentary in the Daily Mail. Of course this doesn’t get me anywhere, and I gain no further wisdom from such diversionary activities. So am I “insulated from the things that matter”? To be honest, I really couldn’t give a toss; the average life is plenty long enough to waste a little of it with such fripperies.

As I said, I don’t do sport, and over recent days have spent very little time watching the Olympics on the telly. But even though I don’t follow competitive sport myself, I can see value in it, and I certainly celebrate with the athletes their wonderful achievements. For that is what they are: achievements born of struggle and determination.

Sport is an expression of popular culture. Contrary to what Nelson says, there is transcendence and intoxicating wonder in sport, and sport is art.

Update: From the 1972 Olympics, spotted by Anja