Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Art Of Fandom

Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson
If you live anywhere near Seattle, hell, anywhere near the Pacific Northwest, you know it was almost impossible to avoid the hype that surrounded the Seattle Seahawks victory over Denver in the recent Superbowl. Impossible to avoid the hype, and nearly impossible to be unmoved by the regional euphoria that set in weeks before the big game. Blue Fridays saw everyone from toddlers to grocery clerks bedecked in Seahawks jerseys, sporting blue and green face paint and the ubiquitous "12" shirts: symbolic of the role of the fan, the 12th man.

12th man-dom transcended race, age, gender and even the stereotypical sports affinity groups. Artists and arts organizations were swept up in the glee. The Seattle Art Museum wagered the loan of artwork with its colleague institution in Denver. Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers donned wee football jerseys to pose with a large flag that sported the Seahawks '12'. I even saw a lovely pair of Seahawks inspired pointe shoes. As a painter friend remarked, "This is like a giant snow day!" And it was.

The effervescent fizz lasted through the victory evening, and a celebratory parade through Seattle's downtown core. The Seahawks rode atop amphibious assault vehicles, smiling and waving at the hundreds of thousands of blue and green bedecked fans who waited hours in atypical cold to greet their idols. Star player Marshawn Lynch had his own wheels. He lounged on the front of this Ride The Duck car, tossing his signature candy, Skittles, to ecstatic fans.

More than two weeks later, the 12th man flags still fly, and some folks surreptitiously sneak peaks at videotaped highlights of the big game, trying to hold that magic tight. But even the finest champagne finally goes flat. And cracks in the civic joy have started to appear. "It was just a football game," grumble some curmudgeons. More often you'll hear understandably jealous folks complain "You'd never see half a million people in the streets to celebrate art." Interesting point, that last one.

In fact, by all accounts, artists have enticed adoring throngs. Charles Dickens readings were massively popular. Singer Jenny Lind, dancer Anna Pavlova: household names during the height of their popularity, spoken of with the same reverence Seahawks fans utter the names Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson.
These days commercially successful artists enjoy the same kind of visible fame, the same passion, but what about the so-called fine arts? What's changed?
Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Concerto Barocco", photo by Lindsay Thomas courtesy PNB

I asked my hairstylist that question. He told me he thinks the gatekeepers make art "boring." Those gatekeepers include everybody from the teachers who tell their students how to "analyze" a poem, as well as curators who write dense and complex captions for their museum shows, to media types like me, who are on a constant search for the new, edgy artists we can elevate as the next "big thing." We write about these "finds" with little context or connection to artistic traditions we may not even understand ourselves.

A very wise arts administrator told me a few years ago why she thought football attracts legions where opera or ballet can't. "We grow up with football," she explained. Kids play it when they're little, maybe continue in high school or college, where they can watch it with friends on a sunny autumn day, or watch it every Sunday or Monday on television. Football, in America, is a life long experience. Art, not so much.

Little kids sing and dance with abandon. They paint pictures, tell stories, make theater that we call "pretend." Then, somebody tells them they're using the wrong color for the sky, or that their bodies are too fat or the wrong color to continue dancing. With the exception of PBS, there are no regular broadcasts of artistic performances. Even commercially successful musical theater barely gets a nod. How can you become an arts fan akin to a sports fan if you don't have ready exposure to art?
Cast members, ACT Theatre production of "The Ramayana", photo courtesy ACT

That's one reason why I love flash mobs: those ditzy crowds that dance in train stations or shopping malls, musicians who haul their instruments out onto the streets or down into subway stations. The art is right in front of us, unavoidable and it always draws an appreciative crowd. And really, when you think about it, how different is Seahawks coach Pete Carroll from Seattle Symphony maestro Ludovic Morlot? Both men are charged with forging a team out of a disparate group of individuals. Carroll's goal is to get these men to move in tandem, to anticipate each other's moves, to make touchdowns. Morlot also must coordinate his troops, putting them in synch with one another and the composition they're performing. And I've been at symphony performances that elicit as much exuberant glee as any football game.
Zoey-Juniper's "A Crack in Everything", photo courtesy On The Boards

Loving art and loving sports are not mutually exclusive activities. And fans of each react in similar ways. I remember a blustery late autumn day in 1991. Thousands of people waiting in the rain and wind for their chance to come into the new downtown Seattle Art Museum for the very first time. They were as patient as the thousands who waited on a chilly February morning to celebrate the Seahawks. Next football season, tens of thousands will go to Century Link field. Thousands will also flock to McCaw Hall to see Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker." It's not an either/or choice. Both sports and arts can enrich our lives.
But I confess, it would be great to have Monday Night Ballet, or Sunday Night Symphony. Where can I submit my resume to be the first play-by-play arts color commentator?

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