From the Desk of Michael Oriard: An Aesthetic of Excess

The following contribution comes from Michael Oriard, author of The Art of Football: The Early Game in the Gold Age of Illustration (August 2017). Oriard played football for the University of Notre Dame and the Kansas City Chiefs and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in American literature and culture at Oregon State University.

The Art of Football is a departure for me but also a continuation. It’s art history written by a non-art historian but rooted in football history written by one who knows that field. Some twenty-five years ago, when I first started scrolling through microfilm of newspapers and magazines from the 1880s and 1890s, I was repeatedly stunned by yet another gorgeous football illustration or wild cartoon splashed across the page. My initial response was simply to recognize what we lost when photographs became the norm. But I also realized pretty quickly that these images must have had a powerful impact on readers who knew nothing, or next to nothing, about the strange new game being played at a handful of Ivy League colleges.

I started collecting these football illustrations, in part because I needed them to reproduce in my books but increasingly because the collector’s bug took hold. If I had a handful of Collier’s or Saturday Evening Post magazines with football covers from the early 1900s, or a couple of double-page football cartoons from Life in the 1890s, getting all of them became a hobby and a challenge. At some point the images I was collecting began to seem important in themselves, not just to illuminate the early history of the game.

But who would publish a coffee-table-quality “art” book of popular illustration, at an affordable price? Here, I got lucky when I contacted Rob Taylor at the University of Nebraska Press. As the editorial and printing processes played out I never knew what the final product would look like. An author controls the text and selects the images, but the publisher controls the appearance of the pages. When I received my copies of the book a few months before publication, I was absolutely delighted, as I hope readers are, too.

So, that’s how The Art of Football came to be published. The writing of it is a different story. Once I set aside the question whether these images were “art” or mere “illustration,” what interested me were the different forms this artwork took, the varied mechanical processes for creating it, and of course the artists’ individual and common styles. I already knew the football history of the period, but putting all of these illustrations together brought home more forcefully than ever how football’s  early audiences must have responded to the game. Here, the cartoons were most revealing. What strikes a satirist as noteworthy is likely what also seems most important to the audience. The fact that cartoonists during football’s formative years focused on the clash between a sport grounded in brute force and its higher-education setting, on the extreme masculinity of the players and femininity of the females in their orbit, and above all on the violence in what was supposedly a “game,” all amplified what I had already learned about football’s place in American culture.


But the pleasure in research comes less from confirming what you suspect than from discovering what you don’t know. The double-page centerfolds in Harper’s Weekly had provoked my first “oh, wow!” moments when I began researching football, but how wood-engraving techniques changed in the 1880s and 1890s required a cram course in printmaking. I knew Frederic Remington, Edward Penfield, and J. C. Leyendecker as major illustrators of the era, but Howard Giles and the wonderfully named Hibberd Van Buren Kline were revelations. I was already familiar with the brilliant football cartoons in Judge and Life from the 1890s, and with the football covers on Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post from the early 1900s, but football posters were little more than a rumor until I began piecing together their story. I’d had no idea that newspapers sometimes offered readers art supplements in their Sunday editions, or that the covers of their Sunday magazine supplements became another outlet for the era’s top illustrators. Through football illustrations, I had stumbled into an earlier America where popular art was ubiquitous and football simply received artists’ attention during its season. My greatest find came from tracking down a football painting by the great boxing artist George Bellows that was mentioned in some catalogues of his work but reproduced nowhere. I traced its owner to Florida, and he generously sent me the image with permission to include it in my book.

My interests in subject and style came together in what I’m calling an “aesthetic of excess” that has characterized the most distinctive football art not only from this period but down to the present. That idea had been floating around my consciousness ever since I encountered the wonderful term “sanctioned savagery” in an essay in Esquire magazine from 1959. As a player in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and a cultural historian more recently, I knew that football differs from other American spectator sports most obviously in its violence. I have always resisted the idea that playing football is brutalizing as well as brutal—how could I account for my own life if I believed that?— recognizing that football’s violence has always been regulated for players and aestheticized for spectators and viewers, to make it culturally and socially acceptable. “Sanctioned.” The many new images I discovered for this book sealed the case for me and became an overarching idea—prompted also by the new urgency fans feel today following the recent revelations about the long-term consequences of head trauma from playing football. Here, the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words seems more true than ever. The published images from football’s beginnings reveal more powerfully than their accompanying texts how deep runs the appeal of violence in football, not just the concern for its consequences.

From the outset, I wanted The Art of Football to be as comprehensive as possible—to tell readers in effect, here are all of the illustrations of football I’ve been able to locate, what do you think of them?—but I ended up having to be somewhat selective. Yet my primary objective never changed: to share with a wide audience an entire world of football illustrations that had been my private fascination till now, and hope that they found it as remarkable as I did.

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