Among the Olympians

A few months ago, I had a conversation with someone who repeated an old cliché: the idea that heroic portrayals of idealized human figures are reminiscent of Nazi art, with its emphasis on the chiseled physiques and square jaws of young blonde men. Unfortunately, the person who told me this was someone connected to the production of the latest Atlas Shrugged film, which is obviously a problem. If you’re not comfortable with unabashedly heroic art, you’re not comfortable with Atlas Shrugged.

But this is not just the view of one person. It’s a cultural theme I’ve heard dozens of times over the years, generally used to discredit the pre-Modernist tradition of realistic, idealized figurative art. You can see an encouragingly intelligent discussion of the trend here, examining “the damaged status of representational painting after World War II.” (Unfortunately, none of the artists in this discussion seem to have painted anything particularly worthwhile themselves.)

This trend is based on a deep ignorance of the history of art, and not an accidental ignorance. Under the influence of Modernism and its apologists, contemporary art education tends to begin with the impressionists, treating the previous millennia of art as primitive and irrelevant.

In reality, heroic figurative art is a vast tradition that goes back more than five thousand years—and it charts the rise of human civilization.

It goes back to its earliest, crude form in Sumerian clay seals celebrating the first great epic hero, Gilgamesh. It is eventually refined to produce the high point of the Golden Age of Greece, as captured in the sculptures from the Parthenon.

It returns with the Renaissance (see Donatello’s St. George or Michelangelo’s David), accompanies the rise of science and humanism in the Enlightenment (see Houdon’s Jefferson and Washington), and continues up into the 19th century (the Statue of Liberty being a late example).

In that context, Nazi art and propaganda are an utterly irrelevant historical hiccup. They are not representative of the great five-thousand-year tradition of heroic art but are instead cheap knockoffs intended to ride off the prestige of that tradition—and to cover up a relapse into barbarism.

But you can see why the Modernists would want to discredit the heroic realist tradition so they could replace it with their vision of man as a misfit and neurotic. There is a whole confluence of modern trends—not least our political trends—which depend on a diminished human stature. So out goes Michelangelo’s David and in comes Woody Allen as the representative of human potential. Before the current controversy over whether he is a pedophile—I don’t see why there’s so much uncertainty, since he made a whole film about his interest in underage girls—I began to hate Woody Allen’s films when I realized that the neurotic loser he portrays in them is not a comic disguise meant to be laughed at. It’s the real him, and we’re supposed to embrace it as the essence of the human condition.

But Modernism didn’t wipe out all living legacies of the heroic ideal. In fact, one of them was just in the process of being revived: the Olympic games, which returned tonight with the opening of the Winter Olympics.

For the Sochi games, unfortunately, we’ll have to focus on the athletic competition itself, apart from the context of the oppressive, corrupt, and incompetent Putin regime in Russia, which has gone an astonishing $39 billion dollars over budget to produce a half-finished Olympic Village. It is only a coincidence, of course, that two of the major contractors for the games are childhood friends of Vladimir Putin. As for the opening ceremony of this games, Matt Lauer tactfully describes its presentation of Russia’s 20th-century history as “idealized.”

The Olympics are, fortunately, an institution bigger than any particular host country or its rulers.

When they were resurrected in 1896, the Olympics were intended to create a direct connection to the ancient heroic tradition, and that is exactly what they have achieved. The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, referred to the athlete as a “living sculpture,” and our modern equivalent of the idealized heroic figures that decorated the Athenian Acropolis are the photos we see every two years of the ideal physiques of superfit athletes.

(Hopefully this will not always be done in the overly sexualized form adopted by the Russians, who released cheesecake shots of their female Olympians. I may never look at curling the same way again.)

The ancient heroic legacy is also reflected—to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the year—in the pageantry and spectacle of the games, particularly in the era of television. The traditions of the Olympics, particularly the lighting of the Olympic torch, are calculated to produce a sense of grandeur and extravagant drama. The high point so far is probably the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when they lit the Olympic torch with a flaming arrow. There’s a saying that is sometimes used to sum up the American attitude: more is better, and too much is just right. The flaming arrow was too much. And it was just right.

But most of all, the heroic Olympic tradition is reflected in its music. The iconic music of the games is a combination of Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream” (composed in 1958 and used in Olympic coverage starting in 1968) and John Williams’s “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” composed for the opening ceremony of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. If you have the Olympics in LA, you have to get a Hollywood composer to give it a movie soundtrack. Music in film is yet another preserve for romanticism and a heroic sense of life, and for decades John Williams has been one of its chief practitioners. He has gone on to build an extensive soundtrack for the games, composing “The Olympic Spirit” for NBC in 1988, “Summon the Heroes” for the Atlanta games in 1996, and “Call of the Champions” for Salt Lake City in 2002.

All of this music is instantly recognizable, to Americans at least, as the Olympic music, the emotional core of the Olympic coverage we see on television every two years. The fact that much of this music was composed for NBC is one of the reasons the network has basically owned the Olympics for the past few decades. (The other reason is Bob Costas.)

I usually recommend these on a CD that includes a few other pieces of music that have been associated in some way with the Olympics. A CD seems a bit antique these days, and I am sure you can find these pieces individually by way of your favorite music service. But the CD includes some interesting notes on the compositions, including this quote from John Williams describing his inspiration.

I remember seeing a photograph of a female athlete suspended above the ground, every fiber of her being stretching for a ball just beyond her reach…captured in a shot, freezing time and denying gravity. There is an unquestionably spiritual, non-corporeal aspect to an athletic quest like this that brings us close to what art is all about.

Williams’s music captures this sense of striving. It has the rhythm of a military march, but without the sense of strife; it is the music of competition, not of conflict, of striving for excellence. Listening to this music recently with the connection to Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged in mind, I was immediately reminded of her description of Halley’s Fifth Concerto.

The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising themselves, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive…. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort.

I don’t think this Olympic music is precisely what Ayn Rand had in mind—the “real” Fifth Concerto would be more complex and chromatic, closer to the style of her favorite composer, Rachmaninoff—but it’s the closest thing that you will find in today’s culture. Like Ayn Rand’s works, it is a living continuation in our culture of the ancient tradition of an exalted, heroic view of man.

And for the next two weeks, if you are watching the coverage from Sochi, you will be immersed in it.

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