photo: colin sussingham

Years ago, there was an interview with Simon Evans, an arty British skateboarder with classic 411-era ballerina arms living in San Francisco, that brought up the relationship between art and skateboarding. Evans, an accomplished artist in his own right, claimed that skateboarding was merely an extension of art making. Perhaps a year later, in an interview with Big Brother, Geoff Rowley denied the claim.

This issue is not at all limited to British-born skateboarders. For people like me, who spend a great deal of time thinking about both, the relationship between art and skateboarding remains elusively obstinate. Nevertheless, I’ve come up with my own answer: Skateboarding can be arty, but it can’t be art.

Put bluntly: skateboarding is not art. Let me explain why I used to think it was, but now know that it isn’t.

I was, like a lot of ancient codgers that are pushing 40 now, one of those weirdos who started skateboarding because I didn’t fit into any other clique/sport/subculture. It was the late ‘80s and skateboarding was pretty loud, graphic, and, for lack of a better word, arty. Thrasher had Pushead, TWS was full of stoned San Diego college kid musings, and the triumvirate of skateboarders that everyone admired — Blender, Gonz, and Natas — were all, legitimately, arty innovators.

But that is not to say that they were artists. It was just that everything was a lot more arty back then.

Around 1987, vert skating was kind of winding down, and street skating’s rules were not yet entrenched. There certainly was a more creative vibe to the activity that manifested not only in the tricks, which were either bionic recapitulations of vert tricks on stationary obstacles (curbs, planters, benches, etc.) or stairs, gaps, and launch ramps.

In other words, you could either skate a bench like a quarterpipe that you ollied up to, do boardslides and slappies on curbs, or go big off stairs and launch ramps, but the three weren’t combined (technical finesse, power, and speed) until the early ‘90s when modern street skating was born. I would argue that this occurs with some Mack Dawg productions such as Sick Boys and early H-Street videos.

Graphically, skateboarding was coming out of the mid-’80s inspired repeating pattern aesthetic (think Vision Gator boards or the medieval manuscript/Albrecht Durer/Chinese meander pattern of Powell VCJ graphics) towards a more hand-drawn aesthetic first pioneered by Neil Blender and Mark Gonzales.

This introduced the notion that skateboarders could be artists, but we have to be very careful here. Skateboarders can do graphics, some can even make art, but skateboarding itself is not an art. I define art as a language that functions on a purely symbolic level. Art is not a tool, like the skateboard.

Skateboarders can do graphics, some can even make art, but skateboarding itself is not an art.

Defined by Raphael Zarka, skateboarding is a ludic, playful activity that is an extended form of play. The skateboard, in many ways a toy, playfully critiques architectural space, but that isn’t the whole point. It is a tool, but not a symbol.

In other words, the thing that separates us from, say, primates, is that we make tools out of things, and we shape the world through our crafts to better suit our needs. It is a short step from making arrowheads, which are an improvement upon the flint rock as a weapon/knife/utensil, and a figurine out of a rock, which may symbolize sexual fertility, abundance, etc. It is the unique ability of humans to see the potential of a rock to embody an image of something else. We do this all the time when we look up at the clouds and imagine something else. Artists do this through making art.

Skateboarding, though it does rely on that way of looking at the world — seeing the potential for a backside noseblunt in a bench that most people would merely see as a seat — shares that human quality that is linked to making art. However, what we do is performative, and if it can be considered a language at all, it is a language that is spoken for and amongst ourselves.

takahiro morita’s skate art show

Whereas other art is designed to communicate to the outside world, skateboarding is actually inward-looking. And what we say as skateboarders when we’re skateboarding is significantly less important than what we do as skateboarders. That’s the key difference.

Artists may communicate with one another, paying attention to things that wouldn’t be picked up on by a lay audience, but they are still making something that goes out into the world and is supposed to be seen, understood, and consumed by a wide audience.

Skateboarding doesn’t do that. The outside world isn’t supposed to get it. If you’ve ever been frustrated by seeing a New York Times photographer, for example, completely miss the shot when doing a story about skateboarders, or how mind-blowingly pointless 99% of what is written about skateboarding is when it’s not written for and by skateboarders, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

While we may have a coded and well-protected language that we speak, that language isn’t the point. The act of skateboarding is the point. And this point is often so strong, so compelling, that it somewhat blinds us to the fact that, as skateboarders, we may not be able to pull everything off with the same aplomb that we do our frontside flips.

Skaters-turned–actors, photographers, DJ’s, painters, etc. often, with few exceptions, stand to learn a lot in the other department. The transition from skater to carpenter is never as clean as sponsors may want to make it seem and requires a different set of skills that skateboarding may possibly have prepared them for, but doesn’t necessarily make them capable creators in any other medium.

Knowing that skateboarding isn’t art makes it more enjoyable. From my experience, art is something that you return to, re-read, look at for hours, move through or around, immerse yourself in. It is about slow, contemplative immersion, whose meaning becomes clearer, though never totally defined, over time.

Skateboarding, on the other hand, is about the immediacy of the moment. Wanting to extract some larger sentimental, cultural, or political significance from the act of skateboarding often leads to a lot of hot air (see above) or a dead end. Over-thinking the thing drains it of the joy of doing it.

Art is designed to be over-thought, skateboarding works best when under-thought. Clearly I’m not skateboarding right now, that’s why I’m thinking. I should go skateboarding. So should you.

Comments

  1. 2cents

    January 14, 2019 8:22 pm

    Ted, more than anything else you point out the coopted state of art. I agree that in 2019 it is widely understood to be (and can therefore in fairness be described) as made for an audience (a consumer product if you want to go there). There is nothing like consensus however on this being the origin of art, and in fact it seems pretty unlikely that any of the major disciplines as we know them would have evolved purely in order to be presented to an audience. What I get from your article is that essentially, the artistic aspect of skateboarding remains uncorrupted (as yet) by its full embodiement as a performance disconnected from the act.
    Your argument is pretty analogous to someone saying that kids playing baseball aren’t engaged in “sport” because “sport” has become the symbolic act of watching this activity on tv. And when people in 2019 ask each other if they’re into sports, this is generally what they’re talking about. blah blah, good article.

    Reply
  2. Fellow PhD candidate living in New York

    January 15, 2019 1:56 pm

    It seems that the aim of this article (beyond Jenkem’s desperation for click-bait) is to push the movement of accepting the role of the skateboard as a toy. We are lucky to have been stupid enough to play with a surprisingly deep and rewarding toy, but we must admit that we are nothing more than dignified adults who repetitively play with an intricate yo-yo. This is my personal philosophy about why I have chosen to spend more than half my life rolling around on wood and plastic, but I would never dare say that this denies the use of a skateboard as an artistic outlet.

    My upcoming argument is cheap and unoriginal, but claiming that anything is NOT ART is a dark path to follow from a logical perspective, as one would need a clear violation of the definition, an object we do not even have. Ted, you do recognize the need to give your personal definition as “a language that functions on a purely symbolic level” which isn’t the worst definition in my eyes. It isn’t a very strong definition either, ruling out many fields that are ubiquitously considered artistic such as cooking and fashion. Certainly if some league of artists were gathered in discussion, this definition would stir controversy alongside any other proposal. Personally I believe art can be considered any output of personal expression or emotion. On the other hand, a conservative definition (followed by many) more or less equates art with recreation: anything that which does not assist with our basic survival. To be honest though my problem with this piece isn’t the use of such a definition, but rather the sense of authority over which you decide to define skateboarding itself while getting carried away with your false sense of entitlement as an art analyst.

    Even taking your definition of art, and your own skateboarding, I will give you the credit of being incredibly artistic, expressive, and symbolic every time you go to LES. A switch backside tailslide is a great example of a “language that functions on a purely symbolic level”. Yes, you yourself have the internal desire to land a trick that will make you look cool or feel accomplished. But choosing to do a switch back tail rather than pivoting around and doing a frontside 50-50 back 180 out is itself an expression of character. I don’t mean to misinterpret how you feel about doing a switch backtail, but by skateboarding in the public eye we are revealing ourselves to one another. The acceptance and understanding of expression and character through a well-disciplined craft can be found from painting to video games, and doesn’t violate your definition.

    Now it is true that only skateboarders themselves can do much over-analysis on the act of a switch back tail. We are approaching elitism in that regard. But going from your definition to these claims about how “other art is designed to communicate to the outside world” is completely unfounded. In fact, it’s hard for me to even tell whether or not you are being sarcastic. Outside observers DO appreciate skateboarding on a lower dimension (hence, the existence of competitions and demos) and the existence of expression through craft is a well-understood and beautiful concept. Thinking of art merely as symbols, you could argue that words are thus the most artistic objects in existence: “apple” is absurdly distant from its physical manifestation. Considering that most of humanity does not share a common language, is it therefore not art? Should we take back all Nobel and Pulitzer prizes? I have the same criticism with regards to your statement of art being “about slow, contemplative immersion, whose meaning becomes clearer, though never totally defined, over time.” COMPLETELY FUCKING UNFOUNDED. Since when is improvisation not art??? Is Mozart now more artistic then Iggy Pop? Tony Hawk more artistic than Neil Blender?

    But you know, I am not an art historian, and you are. So maybe I don’t know shit about what deserves to be placed on the art pedestal. But I am a skateboarder, and on that end I know how versatile my favorite toy is. To say skateboarding is at its best under your prescribed circumstance is nonsense. If I want to do a preemptively contemplated trick, let me do so. If you ever land the switch back tail shuv over the manny pad at LES, pat yourself on the back for making “slow, contemplative” art according to this article as well as myself.

    Reply
  3. Ernst Gombrich

    January 18, 2019 7:30 am

    This kind of article is exactly the reason I regularly click on Jenkem. Good work Ted!

    Reply
  4. Kingy

    January 19, 2019 6:32 am

    Skateboarding is performance art. Just like figure skating, you get points for technicality, and points for style.

    Reply