Aly Raisman and the myth of artistic gymnastics part 1

A month ago(!) the Olympics ended, hard to believe.  However, I have been thinking about this issue since then, and I think I am finally ready to write about it.

When Aly Raisman won the Gold Medal for floor, many people declared this to be the death knell for artistic gymnastics.  They pointed to Aly’s choreography and dance ability as evidenced in her floor routine.  Here is her floor routine.

I’m not going to argue that Aly Raisman is a great dancer. I’ve never been overly impressed with her dance ability.  In fact, when I first saw her routine, it was hard for me to even remember the dance portion!

Many people talk about losing the “artistry” in gymnastics, how Jordyn Weiber and Aly Raisman lack “artistry” or how Viktoria Komova and the Russian gymnasts are “artistic.”  None of the commentators offered a definition for the word “artistic.”  However, it’s clear, when one reads the commentators, that the word “artistic” is a synonym for “beautiful.”  In other words, artistic=beautiful, and beautiful=artistic.

Do other forms of art equate beauty with artistry?  I think the answer is a clear “no.”

This is Guernica. Painted by Pablo Picasso, it shows the bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.  Is this painting beautiful?  I don’t think so.  It’s harsh, and disturbing, especially the figure on the right, screaming out to the heavens and waiving his arms in desperation.  And yet, this is probably one of the most important paintings of the 20th century.  I would even argue that, given the subject matter, the painting should not be beautiful.

The same thing goes for other artistic disciplines.  Shostakovitch, an important 20th century composer, created music that at times is not beautiful.  It can be dissonant.  Stravinsky is the same way.  (More about him later.)

Perhaps more germane to the subject would be dance.  Does dance equate beauty with artistry?

This is a videotape of Cave of the Heart, a dance originally choreographed by Martha Graham.  Is this dance beautiful?  To me, the answer is yes and no.  At times, the dance is gorgeous.  At other times, the movements are convulsive.  However, this dance is about Medea, the great figure of Greek mythology, who is so consumed with jealousy and anger over her husband’s betrayal that she is about to kill her own children to take revenge on him.  At times, this dance is a little bit frightening, and it should be.  The story of Medea is deeply disturbing.  And yet this is one Martha Graham’s most famous dances.

I saw another Martha Graham dance in college and I had much the same reaction. The dance was choreographed with the prospect of war looming.  The dance has beautiful elements, but also harsh elements. where the elements were constricted, and even violent.  However, the dance was about the coming of war, and so once again, it made perfect sense that the dance not be “pretty” or “feminine.”

So, artistry does not equal beauty.  However, what is artistry?  I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I do know two essential characteristics of artistry.  What are these characteristics?  Does gymnastics have these characteristics?  Stay tuned. 🙂

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