“Art Versus Sport”: Managing Desire and the Queer Sport Spectacle

Jennifer Doyle

“Art versus Sport” is the name of Yrsa Roca Fannberg’s blog detailing the ups and downs of being an artist and Barcelona Futbol Club supporter. Entries alternate between meditations on the trials of experimental documentary filmmaking and the melodramas produced by loving perhaps the most storied side in the world. Illustrating this blog are Fannberg’s watercolor studies of life on the pitch–men in training, leaping into each others arms, throwing their bodies in the air, or glued to the ground in stupefied defeat.

It is tempting to think that Art and Sport sleep in separate beds. The discovery that one is at home in bohemia is often accompanied by parallel experiences of deep social isolation, of awkwardness and bullying, of being taunted for walking, running, or throwing “like a girl.” Maybe in your childhood, men and boys gathered in the living room around televised sport spectacle while you sprawled across your bedroom floor on your belly, pouring over magazine photos of Andy Warhol, Halston, and the superstars of Studio 54. For many of us in the arts, sports provided the childhood setting for our exile from normalcy. We tend to imagine these worlds as separate spheres, in which sport is fully masculine, and art is coded socially as effeminate and queer.

However, American art actually has a long history of defining itself through athletic imagery–through the identification of the (male) artist’s integrity with the heroic display of the male athletic body. The art world, in fact, has had its own bullies–intent on pushing the queers and the feminists off the field. This is in no small part because American art history has traditionally been the product of male writers writing about male artists, navigating a complex set of anxieties about the masculinity of both enterprises (art-making and art criticism).1

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899.

Thomas Eakins, Wrestlers, 1899. Oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 60 in. Gift of Cecile C. Bartman and The Cecile and Fred Bartman Foundation. Photo © 2009 Museum Associates/LACMA.

Take the late-nineteenth-century painter Thomas Eakins’s fascination with rowers, swimmers, wrestlers and boxers–part of the artist’s interest in bodily realism, and also the avenue through which he produced his most compellingly homoerotic tableaux. These images are often animated by a nearly explicit homoerotic charge–as in Salutat (1898), which features a wrestler positioned with his back to both the viewer and to a male assistant whose gaze is unmistakably aimed at the athlete’s buttocks, or Wrestlers (1899), presently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which two sinewy and nearly naked men grapple at the feet of two other men for whom this wrestling match has perhaps been staged. The athleticism of these images has functioned within art history as an alibi for their homoeroticism. Sadakichi Hartmann thus describes Eakins’s paintings as an inoculation against the effeminacy of the American art scene: “It is as refreshing as a whiff of the sea, to meet with such a rugged powerful personality. Eakins, like Whitman, sees beauty in everything…his pictures fimpress one by their dignity and unbridled masculine power.”2 George Bellows’s paintings of men going at each other in the boxing ring translate homoerotic desire into homosocial aggression. These boxers, furthermore, offer the muscled spectacle around which homosocial bonds and identities articulate themselves among the watching fans in the crowd.3 In literature, iconic American writers such as Faulkner and Hemingway were drawn to baseball, and wove the sport into their fiction. The very idea of the “American artist” is shaped by the country’s love affair with the male athlete: what is Jackson Pollock’s “action painting” if not a transposition of the athletic gesture into the artist’s studio?4 The more recent art critical romance with Matthew Barney’s days as a teenage football player and with his transposition of sport-theatricality into his practice is not the exception but the rule.

The rhetorical opposition of art and sport, in other words, is a narrative of convenience. It facilitates a critical game of fort-da in which the masculinity of the artist is eternally lost and rediscovered. From a queer feminist perspective, however, the gender dynamics of the art world and the sports world can be more similar than they are different. Women attempting to gain access in these arenas struggle with very similar problems, for example: the fight for equal participation,equal material support for their work, and just plain visibility. One might say there is at least a legal discourse supporting gender equity in sports, but where is the curatorial Title IX, guaranteeing women equal access to gallery walls? I asked this out loud in a museum, speaking on a panel about art and sports, and thought I could feel the institution shudder with horror at the idea.5

Rather than think here about masculinity lost and recovered by artists like Eakins or Barney, I want to consider how less authorized figures use sport as a point of entry into the visual field. As Fannberg’s images suggest, art and sport do intersect in at least one area–both have strongly utopian dimensions. Both are sites for fantasies about being “with” people. Bohemia and the locker room are both social spaces of desire, and spaces apart.

Deleuze spots the usefulness of the language of sport to art writing in his small book on the painter Francis Bacon. In responding to the encounter with “the athletic gesture” in Bacon’s paintings, the philosopher writes, “It is not I who attempt to escape from my body, it is the body that attempts to escape from itself.”6 This is to say that in the freakish extension of a hand or limb, Bacon does not show the attempt to transcend the body. The whole being of the body seems to be concentrated in the extension of a foot, in a swerve and dip of the shoulder to the left, in a leaping twist and turn of the head. The body here rather transforms itself as flesh–it crashes through the stories that tell you how to experience it, how to look at it, what to do with it. It becomes another kind of body. The body pulled through and recast by this moment, by this detail, is animated flesh.


  1. I take this up in my writing on the reception of Andy Warhol in “Tricks of the Trade,” Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 45-70.”Tricks of the Trade” expands my work on this topic in Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and Jose Munoz eds., Pop Out: Queer Warhol (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). Gavin Butt unpacks the complexity of reactions to Warhol’s effeminacy in Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
  2. Sadakichi Hartmann, History of American Art (Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1901), I, 200-203. For more on this subject see Martin Berger, Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Guilded Age Manhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
  3. See, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s writing on these subjects in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
  4. See Amelia Jones’s writing about performance and Pollock’s action painting in Body Art/ Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  5. First enacted in 1972, Title IX attempts to legislate equal access for men and women to educational opportunity and resources in the U.S. because athletic culture is closely tied to education in the U.S., this legislation has resulted directly in a rapid and quite dramatic increase in women’s participation in sports of all kinds. Museums, most of which receive federal funds and think of themselves as educational institutions, are not as far from schools as one might think.
  6. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 15.
Further Reading