The Professor opines on Beauty and Speed


michael johnson @ atlanta olympics, 1996

[michael johnson at the atlanta olympics, 1996]

Over the years, The Professor has been blessed to have beauty come to him in many different forms. The Professor has seen beauty show-up in his professional work, on time [even on budget once or twice], but he has also encountered beauty when [and where] he least expected it. Disintegrating industrial structures, a mushroom emerging through a tarred driveway, the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion [Ooops! Those were Roy’s final thoughts to Dekkard at the end of Blade Runner].

Nearly two decades ago, beauty appeared unannounced and unanticipated to The Professor. It came with revelatory force during a televised sporting event: the track-and-field portion of the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Professor wasn’t there in Atlanta, but he didn’t feel he had to be. This was about the time that some events were actually better experienced via television than they were live and in-person, and for The Professor, this was one of them. That was thanks to a remotely-controlled high-speed camera mounted on a monorail that circled the track in synch with the runners. The lens kept the runner in constant focus and at the center of the picture]; the side-on views it afforded was visually stunning and awe-inspiring.

From this perspective, The Professor watched, transfixed by gold medalist Michael Johnson’s running in the 400M race. To The Professor, it seemed that Johnson had been designed for this destination, purpose-built for the 400M—an all-out, lung-busting, straight-out rush-of-a-run—in the best tradition of what the design world calls “less is more.” Johnson didn’t just win, he literally showed what’s possible when dynamic form is visually pushed to its functional limits in concentrated and controlled focus. He made it look easy, effortless and inevitable, and the cameras revealed and magnified that perception.

But, The Professor wonders, haven’t we seen something like this before? Haven’t we seen art express what technology, science, media, sport and society are still figuring out?

The Professor’s answer: a resounding “Yes!”

Look at how Johnson’s running form echoes Italian artist Umberto Boccioni’s bronze sculpture “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.”

[unique forms of continuity in space, 1913]

[unique forms of continuity in space, 1913]

Both can be seen as moving in a surprisingly upright and vertical manner, defying the conventional wisdom that “running was falling forward.” Both also demonstrate the intrinsic beauty of speed—a new concept in 1913 when Boccioni’s statue was created as an expression of Futurist ideals—but one that we, individually and collectively, continue to be fascinated by and obsessed with more than a hundred years later. Both are about the purity that form can attain, three-dimensional embodiments of just how amazing a body can look when it is pushed to its very limit through the intentional processes of iteration and repetition. Both bodies demonstrate an intrinsic sense of rightness about them; nothing could be added, nothing could be taken away, without breaking the unity of their composition. Both bodies were also exaggerated, synthesized and elaborated upon to the point where The Professor thought it was possible to glimpse how the various parts of these bodies—operating in tandem, firing-up in clusters, and always connecting to each other in service of a more perfect system—might operate at a holistic level heretofore unseen.

Johnson’s Olympics performance was the realization of the statue’s promise: speed, along with power and energy, contained in a chiseled, edited body that, contrariwise, was able to express rhythm, flux and pure fluidity. Both bodies seemed to have been sculpted by the wind, pared away, and distilled down to their accelerative essence. In short, both Boccioni and Johnson made speed look beautiful. By transforming the sensation of speed from being blurry, choppy, fragmentary and herky-jerky to being participatory, high-resolution, flowing and experiential, both Umberto Boccioni and Michael Johnson changed how we see the world—the single biggest thing an artist or athlete can do—and that’s why they call me The Professor.

n.b., The Professor tips his cap [Red Sox, of course] to New York-based industrial designer William Lansing Plumb who took the time [more than once] to educate The Young Professor about how all modern Italian design [even the Memphis group] stems from the artistic expressions of the Futurists, particularly the manifesto of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the works of Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni. The Professor acknowledges Bill’s wise counsel and continues to try to “pay it forward”  through his interactions with his current students.



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