From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics awarded medals to artists in five categories, for art and literature about sport. Three thousand entries, spanning avant-garde, modernist, classical, and commercial styles from fifty counties, competed before lofty juries comprised of rear-guard celebrities, Olympic organizers, and local academics. Most of the modernists who competed would lose, but celebrated writers and artists continued to pursue the theme of international sport in and outside the contests. Olympism considers the ways in which these Olympic sport and art festivals pushed high modernism to mingle with classicism and mass culture in the 1910s and 20s; invented the figure of the world champion as a model for American modernist celebrity at mid-century; provoked resistance among late colonial writers to increasingly global standards of Victorian English culture, embodied in the sporting referee; and inspired rival forms of politicized stadium art, from epic theater and fascist spectacle in the 1930s to nationalist and transnational festivals today.
The research for this project, made possible thanks to two summer fellowships, draws from the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, the Musée Géo-Charles in Échirolles, the Département des Manuscrits and Intitut de France in Paris, the NYPL, the LoC, and the Beinecke Library at Yale. I've been able to collect 22 out of 30 medal-winning works of Olympic literature (as well as a few notable losers) and hundreds of images of other Olympic artworks. Most recently, I've been investigating the jury lists for the Paris 1924 Games, which advertise the participation of celebrity artists like Stravinsky, Sargent, Valéry, and Wharton--likely with some exaggeration. I'm also working on creating my own archive to publish and share with other researchers, based on digitized records of the Olympic art entries.
To discover what 3,000 Olympic artworks can tell us about modernism and twentieth-century culture, digital research techniques are a necessity. This project uses a database of Olympic entries edited from sports record-keepers, Olympic exhibition catalogues, and other historical scholarship to calculate statistics concerning both the artworks and the artists. That database is also the basis for "Pentathlon of the Muses," a website in development that will allow scholars of twentieth-century culture and the general public alike to familiarize themselves with the Olympic arts and to track, via the interactive "ArtMap," the circulation of submissions through the years. Read more here.