Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Competing Concepts of Culture: Irish Art at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Competing Concepts of Culture: Irish Art at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games

Article excerpt

During the early years of the modern Olympic Games, art competitions formed part of the official Olympic program. Olympic scholars refer to these as the "forgotten" art competitions because so few people know they even existed; yet from 1912 to 1948, some eighteen hundred artists from fifty-one countries competed for Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals in five creative categories: painting, architecture, literature, music, and sculpture. Art contests featured in the summer games in Stockholm (1912), Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924), Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932), Berlin (1936), and London (1948). Increasingly, the world's most imaginative minds vied to represent their countries at the Olympics, and as impressive as the panoply of artists showing their work had been during those years, the international juries for each category surpassed them in celebrity. At the 1924 Paris games, for example, art competition juries included luminaries Gabriele D'Annunzio, Paul Claudel, Edith Wharton, Paul Valery, and Maurice Maeterlinck for literature, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and Maurice Ravel for music, and John Singer Sargent and John Lavery for painting (Stanton 2000: 83). (2) It was a veritable Who's Who? of creative talent. It was a celebration of the twentieth century's imaginative genius. It was artists competing against, and being judged by, their contemporaries. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was destined to end in disaster.

The history of the Olympic art competitions is short. Art competitions ended with the 1948 London Olympic Games, though they were included in plans for the upcoming Helsinki games in 1952. From 1906, when art contests were first discussed at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consultative Conference in Paris, to 1952, when the art competitions were formally disbanded and replaced by staged art exhibitions, members of the IOC argued about the art contests. At issue for many was the questionable "amateur" status of professional artists. "Practically all Art competition contestants are professionals," it said in the IOC Report of a tense meeting in 1949 in Rome (quoted in Stanton 2000: 211). Although official rules (articulated as early as 1912) clearly stated that the jury could only consider works not previously published, exhibited, or performed, several entries did not comply with these rules, further making the notion of "amateur" status a hotly debated point and the one most responsible for ending art competitions at the Olympic Games.

Another issue raised by IOC members to challenge the continuation of the art competitions was their doubt about the objectivity of the juries when assigning awards. When runners or Alpine skiers come in first, second, and third, they argued, the outcome is unquestionable: the photo finish proves it (introduced in 1912) or Swiss Timing proves it (introduced at the 1936 games). But there is no such objectivity when judging art. Matters of taste invade what is supposed to be impartial decision making. Complicating matters, the nature of art itself was changing so rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century that the IOC found it more and more impossible to find a jury of like-minded artists not only to judge the various competitions but also to agree, even if informally, about what constituted great art. During the 1924 Games when the IOC gathered to hold their annual meeting, Chairman of the Art Competitions committee, Marquis Melchior de Polignac, raised another problem concerning the juries--"the reluctance of the artists to be judged by their own rivals" (quoted in Stanton 2000: 91). While national and international art competitions are today held annually and normally prompt little dispute, the number of judges comprising the jury is usually limited. The Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for example, enlists a jury of three that makes recommendations to a Board of nineteen; the Man Booker Prize for Fiction is usually decided, after only a few rounds of negotiations, by a jury of four. …

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