Olympism and Art


Coubertin’s conception of art is akin to the ancient conception from the “classical period” in which art affirmed its place in the “sacral world of cult, which is its source. In its nature, it is agalma, a decoration”. (76) While in antiquity the cult expressed submission to gods who symbolized the eternity of the cosmic world as opposed to the temporary human world, in Coubertin, Olympism is the “cult of the existing world”. This view determines the nature of the Olympic aesthetics: art is not a form in which man confronts this world wishing to escape from it or to overcome it, but is a means for its deification. The chief task of the Olympic cult is to remove everything that mediates between man and world and can enable the establishment of a critical detachment to it: it is beyond good and evil. Coubertin has the same (utilitarian) attitude to art as to pedagogy and philosophy: art does not represent the continuity of a cultural tradition and does not have a creative character, but is reduced to a means for building spectacular Olympic sceneries designed to fascinate people and enable the ruling values to “fill” the souls of spectators and integrate them into the ruling order. Artists are reduced to decoraters and illusionists.

Modern Olympism is not a “restoring” of the ancient cultural heritage, nor is it an embodiment of national cultures, but is a universal political instrument of capitalism for destroying the emancipatory heritage of Hellenic civilization as well as the heritage of national cultures. In antiquity, aesthetics was the basis of man’s spiritual relation to the world, while in Coubertin it is only a means for giving a cultural legitimacy to the primitive belligerent spirit that governs the world. The Hellenic aesthetical norms sprang from their conception of the cosmos: the way of ensuring existence and aesthetical challenges form an organic unity. In Coubertin’s philosophy everything is in the hands of the “elite” which is not thwarted by its fear of gods nor is it guided by its will, but is restrained by “progress” and guided by greediness. Instead in the Hellenic cultural heritage, Coubertin finds his “aesthetical” inspiration in the world industrial exhibitions, the pomps of the monarchy and military parades. The Olympic aesthetics results from the “progressive” nature of capitalism and the endeavours of European colonial states to conquer the world. Coubertin discards the ancient tradition in which aesthetics (proportion and harmony) was a spiritual expression of man’s cosmic essence, and which was expressed in the principles gnothi seauton and metron ariston. In Coubertin, there are no values which transcend the existing world. It is one of the most important flaws in modern Olympism as opposed to the ancient Olympic Games, which had before them an unattainable divine model. In Pindar, “a beautiful work of art” is the main purpose of life which brings you “honour” and a place in eternity. (77) Pindar’s poetry has a cult character and is a peculiar prayer written in the honour of the olympians. Pindar praises the immortal, and it is neither man nor his world, but the divine order as the embodiment of the aristocratic values. In the life-and-death struggle at the Olympic playgrounds man showed his complete submission to the cosmic order and maintaned the interest of the Olympic oligarhy in the survival of the world. “The gods are friends of the Games” – says Pindar. Coubertin’s “Ode to Sport” is the prototype of the modern ”Olympic art”. (78) It poetically expresses an idolatrous relation to Olympism as the “cult of the present world” and serves as a prayer addressed to the modern gods who rule the world. The artistic inspiration, which is reduced to a deification of the existing world,  is no longer the “divine inspiration” but the Olympic inspiration. For Coubertin, just like for Pindar, the Olympic playgrounds are illuminated with the purest of lights, but this light emanates not from the Olympic gods but from the original spirit of capitalism. Coubertin sees in it a reflection of the “immortal spirit of antiquity” – as opposed to the “gloominess” of everyday life – and this spirit, by way of the “holy rhythm” of the Games, is to insure eternal life to the existing world. Coubertin finds in antiquity the cheerful and careless youth of the present world, and not an obsolate past of mankind: the idealization of the past serves to idealize the present time.

In antiquity the relation of the body to the cosmos is mediated by the religious sphere; in modern Olympism the relation of the body to the world is mediated by Social Darwinism and the capitalist way of industrial production (quantity, technique, instrumentalism…). It is a mimetic and normative starting point of Coubertin’s aesthetics in spite of his “negative” relation to the modern age which “moans in its futile efforts”. While in antiquity and in the Middle Ages a bodily movement springs from the aesthetical and ethical code which expresses the statical character of the order, in Coubertin, movement is the incarnation of the expansionist spirit of capitalism. Coubertin does not mould sportsmen according to the ancient geometrically constructed cosmos and its monumentalism which symbolizes its constancy and man’s hopeless integration into it, but departs from the expansionist power of capitalism which destroys all obstacles on its way in order to establish a global domination. Unlike the ancient monuments which express a static unchangeability of the “classical” Hellenic world, sportsmen express a dynamic (progressistic) unchangeability of the capitalist world. At the same time, the bodily movement in sport is beyond good and evil since it springs directly from life which itself is beyond moral reasoning. Similarly to antiquity, Coubertin sees in physical exercises a means for creating the conscious of “racial superiority” and thus a means for a spiritual integration of the ruling “elite”. Coubertin “moulds” the body according to a racist model. However, in antiquity the strivings for physical “perfection” are not only the strivings for attaining an ideal racial model, but are a form of spiritual (religious) strivings for the cosmic (divine) perfection. The ancient paideia does not insist on the creation of a muscular body, but on a harmoneous development of the whole organism and on physical health. At the same time, since a Hellene sought to build a beautiful body pulsating with an open erotic impulse, to achieve suppleness and flexibility of the limbs was one of the most important aims od the Hellenic “chiselling” of the body. Harmony is the basis of rhythm and eurhythmics not only in antiquity, but also in the Middle Ages, in the philanthropic movement, in Per-Hendrik Ling and in Philippe Tissié, which involves the domination of aesthetical criteria and not ”the will to power”, let alone the will to a greater performance and record. “To be better” is required by one’s race, gender and class status and is proved by a behaviour which does not disturb the harmony of the established world. That is why graceful movements and measure (ordre et mesure) indicate a “good taste” and the “gentleman’s manners”. This can also be found in the philantropic movement of physical culture which insists on the maxim “Frisch, Fromm, Frei!”. The body and movement are controlled by a normative model to which man is to conform. Coubertin’s aesthetical model is not based on the principles of kalokagathia and metron ariston, but on the principles bellum omnium contra omnes and citius, altius, fortius, which are expressed in Coubertin’s maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso. The distinctive features of the body of Coubertin’s “new man” are not harmonious and elegant movements, as is the case in the ideaalized model of the Hellen on ancient vases, but an explosive muscular strength and steel firmness which correspond to the expansionist spirit of the imperialist capitalism. At the same time, Coubertin, similarly to ancient sculptors, who deprived their sculptures of eyesight lest their spiritual expression disturb a harmonious unity between body and cosmos (Gombrich), deprives his sportsman of spirituality in order to bring him into harmony with a spiritless world. The  eyesight does not express humanity, but is a harmonious part of a bodily expression which emanates (similarly to Thorak’s “Faustkämpfer”) a merciless oppressive power of order and a resolve to conquer the world at all costs. The sportsman is the moving statue of capitalism.

In antiquity, man was united with nature and thus with his natural being, while at the modern Olympic Games everything has an instrumental dimension and serves to achieve the most important aim: to deal with the emancipatory heritage of mankind and completely control man. In Hellenic cosmogony space appears as a given and static geometrically constructed firmament which acquires its vitality and quality expression in the images of the antropomorphic Olympic gods. In Christianity, God is the quality by which the quantitative dimension of the cosmos is overcome. In Coubertin, the relation to space is mediated by a conquering, looting and progressistic logic. There are no symbols expressing  quality, which would offer a possibility of the human “appropriation” of space, on which insists Sartre who, in his major work “L’ Etre et le Néant”, mistakenly ascribes to sport the characteristics of (emancipatory) physical culture, and who does not understand that man’s original strivings to attain being by way of a free physical activism turns through sport into a road to nothingness. (79) The sports movement does not find mimetic impulses in nature, but in industrial processes and the progressistic spirit of capitalism. In “disciplining the body” the dominant mechanics is that of the physical, while the body bomes a cage of technical rationality, a peculiar machine. The sports model of the bodily movement embodies a dehumanized and denaturalized principle of performance and is not only outside culture but is also outside life. Sport symbolizes the victory of capitalistically mutated Thanatos over Eros. Coubertin’s positive man is walking dead man.

Speaking of the old Greek art, Jäger says that “the word and tone and, if they act with the word or tone or with both of them, rhythm and harmony are for the Greeks simply the forces that form the soul, since what is crucial in paideia is the active element, which in the formation of the soul becomes even more important than in the agon of physical abilities.” (80) In Plato, musical education comes before physical education for “a physically fit body cannot in virtue of its excellence make the soul good and excellent while, on the other hand, an excellent spirit can help the body to become perfect.” (81) In Coubertin, music is an element of the Olympic séance intended to inseminate man with the ruling spirit: “art” becomes a means for destroying the artistic. Coubertin does not hesitate to turn the artistic masterpieces into a decor for Nazi barbarism. At the close of the Nazi Olympic Games Coubertin uses Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to glorify Nazi Germany and Hitler. (82) To what extent was Coubertin prepared to go in the manipulation of the artistic masterpieces is seen from the “cultural programme” at the opening ceremony of the Nazi Olympic Games, which, at Coubertin’s request, contained even Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” together with the most popular Nazi march of the time, “Horst Wesell Lied”, whose main refrain is as follows: “Wenn dass Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht’s nochmal so gut”. (“When Jewish blood splashes under the knife, then everything goes much better”). (83) The true nature of the Nazi monstrosity is not reflected only in killings, but in the way the killings were committed. The killers set out to cut the throats of their innocent victims accompanied by the sounds of the greatest musical compositions inspired by love of man and dedicated to the highest human values. At the gates of the death camps stood the following inscription: “Arbeit macht frei!” (“Labour sets free!”) Coubertin applies the same method when he glorifies France’s colonial “exploits” and Nazi barbarism. He seeks to draw into a death whirl all that appears as a symbol of humanity as opposed to a clear picture of evil. In Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine, all human achievements by which man acquires his libertarian dignity become a means for destroying the human.

As far as the relation between Coubertin’s doctrine and modern esthetics is concerned, of the “three great ideas of modern aesthetics: 1) subjectivization of the world, 2) a demand for the autonomy of art and 3) a demand for removing the borders between art and life”, to which Mirko Zurovac refers, (84) Coubertin, like Nietzsche, adopts the first and the third. “Subjectivization of the world” is reduced in Coubertin to a direct experience of the world and the abolishment of a critical-changing relation to it. Coubertin reached a potentially fruitful idea of the “art of living” which opens a possibility of overcoming the world in which man’s creative powers are alienated from him. Speaking of ancient Greece, Coubertin says: “The life of the gymnasium was an admirable compromise between the two sets of forces which struggle within man, and which it is so difficult to reconcile once their balance has been upset. Muscles and ideas coexisted there in brotherhood, and it seems that this harmony was so perfect as even to unite youth and old age. Your ancestors, as a general rule, knew neither the extravagances of the adolescent nor the peevishness of old men: the art of living was at its apogee, and the art of dying followed from it quite naturally; people knew how to live without regrets for the sake of changeless city and an undisputed  religion – something which – alas! – we know no longer.”(85) Coubertin does not abolish art as a sphere in which man’s alienated creative power is institutionalized, as it is in Marx, but suppresses man’s creative nature and deals with it. “The art of living” does not symbolize life as a creative act expressing man’s whole being and creating complex interhuman relations, but a complete integration of (crippled) man into a life which is a ”fact’ and in which there is no hope of a better world. Coubertin seeks to abolish (not to overcome) the dualism between life and art by turning the existing artistic works into a decor which is to give an “artistic” legitimacy to “muscular primitivism” (Tissié) symbolizing the expansive spirit of capitalism. The imaginative Coubertin goes so far as to demand that boxing be accompanied with the sounds of Beethoven’s compositions. (86)

The spectacular form of the Olympic performance best indicates the nature of Coubertin’s aesthetics. It is dominated by monumentalism and grandomania which have the same role as in antiquity and Christianity: to dazzle the oppressed and arouse their admiration for the ruling order and a feeling of human worthlessness. Coubertin’s aesthetics is much closer to the original period in the development of Hellenic civilization, the so called “cosmological” (Windelband) period, when man was completely submitted to the established order, but Coubertin, following the spirit of the Modern Age, seeks to replace the static monumentalism of the archaic period with a dynamic monumentalism. We have seen that Coubertin finds his inspiration for the Olympic spectacle in militaristic ceremonies, monarchist pomps and industrial exhibitions, whose common characteristic is that of being a spectacular demonstration of the dominant power. Judging by Coubertin’s writings, the Nazi Olympic Games served as the best model for the Olympic spectacle. In the Nazi Olympic spectacle Coubertin found “beauty”, “courage” and “hope”… (87) As far as Coubertin’s insisting on organizing various “literary” manifestations is concerned, they were intended to give the Olympic primitivism a “cultural” legitimacy. At the Olympic Games there is no place for Marcuse’s “silence”, in which the “concentration” of the human occurs; nor is there a place for Ionesco’s moment of “amazement” in which “occurrence of man” take place; nor for Caillois’ “ecstasy” dominated by “obsession”… They echo with the “passionate cry” of the winner, which represents a conquering (oppressive) call of the “master race” and can be heard in Coubertin’s cries addressed to the French bourgeoisie at the start of his Olympic “campaign”, with which he sought to incite it into new colonial exploits: ”Rebronzer la France!” and ”Enrichissez vous!”.

Coubertin’s Olympic aesthetics has a utilitarian character. It turns the “law of beauty” into an instrument of politics: “beauty” is that what is useful for preserving the established order. Not even art, as something that beautifies the present world, is possible as a separate sphere with the laws of its own: the nature of art is determined by its role as a means for building the cult of the present world. In spite of the Olympic Games being the highest religious ceremony dedicated to the deification of the ruling relations and values, Coubertin does not argue for art which tends to mask, but for an art which seeks to the “perfectioning of reality” (Gadamer), departing from the model of positive society in which mankind’s emancipatory heritage is abolished. The Olympic aesthetics becomes an “artistic” shaping of the basic principles of the present world, embodied in sport in a “pure” form, and it is dominated by symbolism springing from life itself and glorifying the present order. Coubertin discarded from art everything that opens a possibility of establishing a critical detachment to this world and of stepping out of it: the nature of art is determined by the nature of the ruling order. This is the starting point for selecting the aesthetical canons which will be used for creating the Olympic spectacle, with its emphasis on a liturgical form designed to create the impression that everything proceeds under the supervision of mystical superhuman powers. Coubertin “exceeds” the demands of traditional aesthetics, which is based on Kant’s dualism between being (Sein) and ought (Sollen), by proclaiming the existing world the ideal world which should be sought for. The task of art is not to bridge the gap between the ideal and life, but to contribute to building an idolatrous relation to the present life. In Coubertin, there is no contradiction between the form of life and that of art: it appears as the highest spiritual form of man’s “reconciliation” to the present world. Hence harmony, as “the sister of order” (Coubertin), becomes the most important aesthetical category. Since according to Coubertin man is completely immerged into the present world, art is not possible as the creation of an illusory world, as is the case in Huizinga, but as a spectacular reflection of reality, with an emphasis on the “details” which enable the glorification of the dominant relations and values. Coubertin’s utilitarian art becomes a prism magnifying and showing in bright colours the events that should arouse people’s admiration for the present order and for ever integrate them into the present world. It is not a means for man’s education and cultivation, or for the development of his creative powers, but for the creation of a positive man in whom all that can enable him to break the bonds with the existing world and soar towards new worlds has been repressed and crippled. Hence dealing with imagination is one of the most important tasks of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. The “artistic” act becomes the confirmation of man’s hopeless adherence to the existing world which contains everything man should and can strive for. Schiller’s postulate that “education by way of art becomes education for art”, turns in Coubertin into a postulate that education by way of art is education for the present life. Sport is the killer while Olympism is the gravedigger of the aesthetical.

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