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Trading Places

June 19, 2008

I've always been fascinated by the idea of what a specialist in one field can bring in terms of his or her perspective to another, completely unrelated sphere of expertise. A couple of years ago, I suggested to my then-editor at SF Weekly that the different arts critics at the paper might switch disciplines for one issue, to see how each of us would bring our specialty to bear upon a different subject. My editor didn't go for the idea at all. Shame really; I would have loved to write a theatrical restaurant review and read what my restaurant crtiic colleague would have said about rock music and what the rock writer would have said about fine art.

Having not given up on the idea completely, I was therefore gratified to see that the UK's Guardian newspaper has asked its sports and arts writers to trade places for a day. Over two issues, the Guardian is publishing what its arts writers have to say about everything from cricket to soccer, and what its sports writers think about the likes of San Francisco Symphony's take on Brahms and an exhibition of works by sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

I read the sports pieces by arts critics with great interest, though I have mixed opinions about the success of the experiement.

In the most successful of these reviews, the arts writer leveraged his special understanding of art to give the reader a fresh insight onto a sports topic.

Theatre critic Michael Billington's terrific summary of a darts tournament in Cardiff is the best of the bunch. The critic not only offers the same sharp portraits of the personalities he meets at the sports event that he would of a character or actor in a play, but he also sets the stage by drawing parallels between darts as a sport and theater. ("Darts," I am told by Sky Sports commentator Sid Waddell, "is working-class theatre.")

Less successful, however, are the reviews in which the arts writer comes off as a complete novice, utterly lost in the new environment and full of naive wonderment or boredom at the task. Rock critic Caroline Sullivan's uninformative, unamusing write-up of an England v New Zealand cricket match is a case in point. I'm not saying that an art critic should pretend to be an expert on sport, but he or she should at least bring something of worth to the table. Are there are pop songs or groups that remind the writer of any of the cricket players on the field? How does sound travel on a cricket pitch in comparison to the acoustics in a concert venue? Instead all we get from Sullivan is the feeling that she'd rather be somewhere else: "It's New Zealand v England - I establish that much, along with the fact that NZ are batting and England bowling. Beyond that, I'm completely lost."

I'm looking forward to reading what the sports writers have to say for themselves. What's crucial is that we get the sports addicts' unique perspectives on the culture. If all they give us are signs of confusion and boredom, then the exercise of trading places for a day is really no more than a gimmick.


  • One of my favorite novels is Dawn Powell's "The Wicked Pavilion," which is, like much of her work, a comedy of manners set in Greenwich Village bohemian circles. One of the characters is a newly-arrived writer in New York. He explains to anyone who will listen that he really wanted to get a job as a sportswriter, but the editor didn't think he had enough education or experience. So he ended up on the arts beat instead.

    A friend of mine has just been re-assigned from cultural criticism to the courts beat. I've been teasing her that she'll start critiquing the court proceedings for too much exposition. Gotta laugh to keep from crying in the dead-tree trade these days.

    By Blogger Kerry, At June 21, 2008 at 9:31 PM  

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