Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Artistry: An Open Letter to the Women's Technical Committee

After reading The All Around's post about the artistry course at the World Championships, I had to write this letter…

Dear Ms Kim and Fellow Members of the Women's Technical Committee:

This moment in gymnastics history has been coming for quite some time.

Over the years, there has been a steady push to reduce subjectivity and to promote objectivity in the sport of gymnastics. I don't mean to give an exhaustive history here, but to cite one example, in the late 90s, the objectivity debate centered on judges' scores. The big question was, What is the best way to determine a gymnast's average score and to evaluate the judges?

Some pundits pooh-poohed the Swiss Timing system. Developed in the early 80s, the system penalized judges for their variance from the average score. (To refresh your memories, the tolerance for average scores between 9.5-10 was 0.1. Thus, if the average score for a gymnast was a 9.7 and a judge scored a gymnast 9.55 or 9.85, that judge would be out of tolerance.) The detractors thought that a system developed by Jackie Fie and Lance Crowley in the 80s (i.e. the Judges Objectivity Evaluation system) was more effective.

Many gymnastics fans have forgotten about this battle, but in the 90s, it was a big deal in the gymnastics community--much in the same way that artistry is a big deal in the gymnastics community today. In fact, two articles appeared in International Gymnast on the matter--one in the November 1998 issue and another in the January 1999 issue.

Of course, all the late 90s chitter chatter was silenced when this happened
and then this happened

I recognize that the open-ended system was conceived of prior to Hamm-Gate 2004, but it's indisputable that the events of the Athens Olympics pushed the FIG to completely overhaul the way gymnasts were judged. In order to prevent another Hamm-Gate, the Technical Committees decided to take action to ensure that the sport would be as objective as possible. The Swiss Timing system was left in place, and the open-ended scoring system was implemented.

Perfecting the System

We've now spent a full quad with the new system, and the undying question seems to be, How can we perfect the open-ended system? For Bruno Grandi, perfecting the Code means examining skills in light of physics so that we can know whether a triple back is harder than a double-twisting double layout on floor.

For you, the Women's Technical Committee, perfecting the Code means reviving artistry while still operating under the objectivity of the new system. We gymnastics fans have watched you try to break floor routines into their basic components so that you could determine what constitutes a "good" floor routine and so that you could assign artistry deductions accordingly.

I certainly do not envy the task, and I have to say, I have to tip my hat to you. In a short amount of time, you identified several problem areas with the women's floor exercise. (I, for one, do not want to watch women stand in a corner for 5 seconds before a tumbling pass!) Furthermore, I commend you for educating your judges. I think it's terrific that you used music theory to educate your judges. (Theory was one of my least favorite parts of my music education, so props to the judges who sat through that lecture!)

All that said, in your haste to uncover the nuts and bolts of artistry and what constitutes a "good" floor routine, you have failed to address a crucial part of the equation. No matter what you do, artistry is subjective. You can make 100 rules about artistry, but at the end of the day, artistry is a question of personal taste.

Taste. Yum.

Your task of defining "artistry" would be easier task if taste were universal, but it's not. That's why my boyfriend wants to watch Ryan Gosling in The Notebook on a Saturday night, while I want to watch Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. That's why I ignore Mark Rothko paintings in an art gallery, while other people are willing to pay upwards of $87 million dollars for something like this:
Personally, I'd rather have the artwork of a four year-old on my wall.

To be sure, some tastes are more prevalent than others. Over the years, different thinkers have tried to determine which tastes are more dominant than others. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is an experiment by Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid. The artistic duo surveyed Americans to determine what they liked in artwork when it comes to sizes, styles, subjects, and colors. It turned out that my fellow countrymen liked the color blue, images of natural landscape, historical figures, women, children and/or large mammals on mid-sized canvases. Bearing that in mind, they created a work of art called "The Most Wanted." Here it is:
Kind of silly, no?

Now, you could perform a similar experiment. You could spend a lot of money to poll thousands of gymnastics fans to see what they like in a floor routine. Then, you could analyze the data and write a Code of Points according to that data. But you know what you're going to end up with? Compulsory routines--not optional routines. And while some people may want to see the return of compulsory routines, I doubt that many people want optional routines to disappear.

So, if a poll of the gymnastics community is not the answer, how can the Women's Technical Committee deal with the issue of taste and artistry? That's a darn good question to which I don't have an answer, but I can tell you that what you have done over the years has not worked. In a nutshell, the Women's Technical Committee has thrust its tastes on gymnasts, coaches, and on gymnastics fans.

It's kind of funny to see how your thrusting has changed over the years. In the 1979 Code of Points, the Women's Technical Committee told gymnasts what kind of music and dance they could not use. For instance, "exaggerations of 'theatrical' character" were not considered appropriate for women's artistic gymnastics.

In 2013, a "theatrical" character is allowed. Strike that. In 2013, a "theatrical" character is mandatory. As the Code dictates, if a gymnast is unable "to play a role or a character throughout the performance," she will receive a 0.1 deduction.

Of course, this is not the only mandate in the 2013 Code of Points. Nowadays, if a gymnast performs an "incorrect selection of movements for particular music," she incurs either a 0.1 or a 0.3 deduction. I understand that this is a throwback to older Code of Points, when gymnasts were not allowed to do "incompatible elements." ("Incompatible" meaning elements that were not suited to the music or to gymnastics in general.) To be quite frank, this line in the Code of Points has always peeved me, and it continues to peeve me to this day. Let me explain why…

No tangoing to waltz music!

In your recent judging course, judges were instructed that "a routine done to a waltz should not have tango steps." No offense to the presenter, Lasse Nettum of the Norwegian College of Sports Science. I'm sure she's a smart lady, but this mandate overlooks an entire style of dance in Argentina, which is just that: the merger of waltz and tango called the "tango vals."

Now, I recognize that this is a very specific example, and I doubt that the elite gymnasts of today are rushing to perform a "tango vals." That said, who says you can't perform one style of dance to another style of dance? Watch a few minutes of this routine:
Maybe breakdance to Bach is not your cup of tea, but some people like it. I mean, the audience was hootin' and hollerin' during the TV recording. So, what would you do if a gymnast performed this routine at Worlds? It wouldn't fit your definition of artistry, so the judges--if they followed the letter of the law--would have to take a deduction. But I bet that the crowd would go crazy if some girl started doing air flairs to Bach. It would be within their realm of taste to appreciate it.

So, who would be right? Your Code of Points or the taste of the audience members who enjoyed watching breakdance in leotards to Bach?


And I guess that's my problem with laying out hard and fast rules for artistry. Over the years, many great artists broke the rules. To put it differently, many times, artistry is about transgressing, and while I could cite painters from El Greco to Picasso to prove my point, I think that it would be more useful to stay within the realm of gymnastics. Specifically, I'd like to look at some of your favorite floor routines. Yes, believe it or not, your favorite floor routines were transgressive, in that they pushed the Code of Points in a different direction.

Transgressive Amy Koopman

Let's start with Amy Koopman performing to an orchestral rendition of "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones:
That funky turn at the 0:57 mark? Yeah, that wasn't in the 1979 Code of Points, and I'm not just talking about her body position. Turns, at the time, were supposed to end in some kind of balance position, and that turn clearly did not. But that's why you are able to praise that routine for its "fluid flow of movements." Had she stopped to finish the turn, her routine would not have flowed so nicely.

Transgressive Daniela Silivas

Still not satisfied? Let's take another example from your judging course: Daniela Silivas's 1985 floor routine:
Setting aside the fact that the routine was transgressive because Daniela was 12 (maybe 13?) at the time of this meet……………………… (Yeah, you're never going to do anything about that, are you?)

We can see how this routine didn't jibe with the 1985 Code of Points. Sure, she showed an extremely versatile use of the floor area, as was required at the time. Really, what she did with the floor space is pretty cool, but making a gun with her fingers? I would think that would fall under the "unaesthetic exaggerations" rule, which would have been at least 0.1 off her final score.

Not to mention the fact that she was doing a passé with her arms in fourth (ish) position to "Turkey in the Straw." Okay, so the passé might be an attempt at a curtsy, but if my high school social dance class taught me one thing, it is that you do not curtsy with your arms in fourth (ish) position. Technically, that passé curtsy should have been an "incompatible element" worthy of a 0.1 deduction.

Yet, in retrospect, the Women's Technical Committee loves this routine. Hmm…

Transgressive Oksana Omelianchik

Finally, let's look at the inimitable Oksana Omelianchik:
Of all the routines shown at the judging course, this was my favorite. The opening shoulder shrugs give me goosebumps. Every. Single. Time. That said, Oksana could have incurred a big deduction for her music. At the time, "musical accompaniment with orchestra without singing" was allowable. But what did the Women's Technical Committee mean by singing? Does that include birds singing? You see what Oksana did there? She subverted the rules.

So, Ms. Kim and fellow members of the Women's Technical Committee, you can write all the rules you want, but just be prepared for a gymnast to break them in an astonishing way. And when that happens, she might be seen as the true artist--not the girl who followed your Code to a tee.


Uncle Tim

P.S. What would you do if a gymnast decided to perform to John Cage's 4'33? Seriously, what would you do?

More on artistry:

The Evolution of Artistry in Women's Gymnastics: 1977-1980


  1. What brought this on? Incidentally I was JUST reading about the Hamm-Yang incident, which never fails to make me see red. Poorly handled by all parties.

    1. It's related to gymternet interpretations of this article from The All Around:


  2. If someone did a floor routine to 4'33" I would probably die of happiness.

    1. I'd die laughing. I want someone to do it now, just to see what the judges would do.

  3. GREAT letter! I remember that This American Life episode about the most wanted painting and most wanted song. So much of what was on that lecture was horrifying. Let the audience reaction decide??? Beth Tweddle, FX artiste? Dear god.

  4. Couldn't agree more. Artistry is indeed different for everyone.

    All the best.
    Gery, Personal Trainer from Israel

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  6. Great letter. This is much more fair and even-handed than most discussions about artisty. Usually the conversation turns partisan and presumptuous (a la rewriting russian gymnastics).

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