Here is a section of a thesis paper written for a Feminist Art and Theory Seminar taught by Dr. Maria Elena Buszek at the Kansas City Art Institute. This paper was delivered at Baker University’s Undergraduate Art History Conference in Baldwin City, KS.
*Header image: Courtesy Regen Projects, LA
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The construction of masculinity in organized sport is a difficult subject to confront from any perspective, let alone one outside the male sex. However, photographers Catherine Opie and Collier Schorr have taken on this challenge to expose the fragile mechanics of male-dominated high school sports. Opie’s Football Landscape series and Schorr’s Wrestlers series both examine the impact organized sports have on these boys.
From a female outsider point of view, they each capture unique moments of their sport that usually go unnoticed. Rather than traditionally overt feminist representations of masculinity, their work embraces subtlety and ambiguity, allowing their viewer to come to their own conclusions. I originally set out to determine exactly what Schorr and Opie were capturing. What is it these athletes are dealing with? How is it shaping their views of masculinity? Ultimately, I realized that there are no clear answers to these questions; rather a variety of circumstances, personalities and attitudes which all escape any overall conclusion. Perhaps writer/curator Christopher Bedford describes this sentiment best when discussing Schorr’s photograph Hooded Figure,
he claims Schorr’s image “captures all that is solid yet sensual about masculinity and sport, alluding to a deep well of meaning buried in the image but precluding the possibility of a single comprehensive view.” I also came to appreciate how these ambiguities are what make Opie’s and Schorr’s work so captivating. By recording these young men with such careful sincerity, they access the subtle complexities of their subject.
This is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from their photographs beyond a formal perspective. I believe their work can be studied as an introduction to the social dynamics and implications that arise from male high school athletics. Within this all-male institution, pain and violence play a large role in how athletes are allowed to behave, as well as how they treat themselves and others outside the sport arena. By examining both artists work in relation to popularized images of sports, as well as the canon of art history we can develop a language with which to dissect their content. Their work may not function as a complete view of masculinity in athletics, but it can certainly help to bring some clarity to the subject.
First, we need to understand how viewing this subject within a fine art context differs from the usual media representations of sports. While popular sports and art are both fundamentally rooted in the act of looking, when the critical eye of the art world replaces the entertainment-driven eye of the organized sports world, we see how many facets of athletics are overlooked. Both artists have carefully removed their subjects from their natural environment and placed them in a context where we can examine their situations as highly influential in the construction of their masculinity, sexuality, and overall behavior.
Both artists use specific framing and lighting techniques to bring the viewer closer to their subjects. In this sense, photography becomes a way to isolate specific moments and remove them from their whole. However, it is important to note how traditionally, wrestling isn’t viewed the same way as it appears in Schorr’s photos. Anyone who has been to an actual high school wrestling match can testify to the obvious presence of other fans, coaches, athletes, and referees. Let us not forget that wrestling is a spectator sport often viewed from within an audience. Also, the rapid pacing of moves from each athlete highlights the fact that wrestling is fundamentally an aggressive sport rooted in physically dominating you opponent. Often Schorr’s decisions eliminate the gymnasium, students, fans, and coaches, leaving us with very specific images constructions. The proximity of Schorr’s images place us within the group. We assume an athlete’s perspective.
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 Marybeth Sollins, ed., Art 21: Art in The Twenty-First Century 2 (New York City: Harry N. Abrams, inc., 2003), 98.