Aly Raisman and the myth of artistic gymnastics part 2

So, I’ve already talked about how artistry and beauty are not synonymous.  So, what is artistry?

Now is the point of the article where I cop out.  I’m not going to give a definition of artistry.  However, I am going to do better than the famous obscenity definition.  (A Supreme Court judge, when asked to define obscenity, responded, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”)
I do think that there are two essential characteristics of artistry.

1 Originality

An artist does not simply copy another artist’s work or style.  Artists are not content to replicate what has already been done.  Artists draw on what has been done previously, but they then push the boundaries.

Claude Monet could have drawn the water lilies in a more classical style, but he chose not to do so.

At times, an artist pushes the boundaries of art beyond what the audience is willing to accept.  Stravinsky is an excellent example of this.  When The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris, it became one of those legendary openings.  The audience started booing and throwing things at the orchestra to show their disgust with the music.

Pastiche is not artistry.  Paint by numbers is not artistry.  The artist must use their inspiration in a new and unexpected ways, and take a chance.  Ballet is a beautiful art form, and a beautiful choice.  It’s also a safe choice, and in art, safe does not equal artistry, safe usually equals boring.

The phrase is, “Steal from the best, then make it your own,” which brings me to my next quality of artistry.

2 Point of view

An artist always has a point of view.  Artists seek to develop their own special style that is cohesive.  Many times we refer to great art as telling a story.  I was surprised that even in fashion shows a designer will try to “tell a story” with the clothes.

I remember seeing a dance in college called Daughters of Darkness, which was one of the greatest performances of any kind I have ever seen.  It was a dance all about the oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries.  It was terrifying.  I mean that, it was actually terrifying.  There was a very clear story in that dance, with the woman who is freed momentarily, and then instantly seized again.  When I saw that scene, I almost cried out.

The story does not have to be explicit, some dancers create dances without a specific story in mind.  However, the dancer may then create a story to help them to perform the dance.  My dance instructor in college said that she did this frequently, because it gave her performances more feeling.  She even described one of the stories she had created for her performance.

Sometimes point of view is simply a case of having a signature style.  An artist wants people to be able to say, “Oh, that’s Caravaggio!  Oh, that’s Rachmaninoff!”

So, did any of the floor routines in the Olympics contain originality and point of view?  I would say the one who came closest was Ksenia Afanaseyva.  I’m thinking especially of the part of her routine when she stands on her shoulders.  When I first saw that, I thought, “What the Hell is she doing?”  But the second time I saw it, I appreciated the fact that I had never seen that before.  I also liked the subtle moment when she clasped her hands behind her back, and the arm moments at the beginning during the sirens.  It reminded me of a mime trapped in a box, which is not something I was expecting to see.  She also showed an awareness of the music, unlike other routines.

But I have to say I would not say that many floor routines contain either originality or point of view.  I even include the Russians in this.  Anastasia Grishna and Viktoria Komova both had very, very similar routines, in my opinion.  They were both drawing on ballet, which is fine, but as I said above, pastiche or paint by numbers is not artistry.  (I also think that Viktoria’s choreographer decided to completely ignore the music, or perhaps did not know what to do with it.)

At the same time I acknowledge that there are a tremendous amount of constraints on gymnasts, that make it difficult to develop these characteristics.  First of all, the gymnasts are severely limited in time.  They have only 90 seconds in a routine.  Second of all, they also have limited energy due to the tumbling passes, especially now that four tumbling passes are practically a necessity.  Most gymnasts are young.  Yes, the gymnast must turn 16 in the year of the Olympics, but let’s face it; 16 is very young.

However, this does not mean it’s impossible for a young gymnast to express herself.

With the Olympics over, many fans are calling for more artistry in gymnastics.  I agree with them, however, part of this discussion must include the critical questions, what is artistry?  What makes gymnastics artistic?  Was gymnastics ever artistic?

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2 Responses to Aly Raisman and the myth of artistic gymnastics part 2

  1. Jennifer says:

    I understand what you are saying. Art is completely subjective. The gymnastics judges need to decide what they are looking for in an artistic performance. They need to be more specific! What is bad art? What is good art? I didn’t see anything wrong in Ali’s performance.

    • They definitely need to be more specific, and they need to define artistry as more than simply beautiful. If beauty is all that the gymnast needs, then all floor routines will eventually look the same. They’ll all be pretty, but they’ll also be safe. And boring. The answer to that, or part of the answer, is to encourage originality, risk taking, story telling, and personal expression.

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