There's a Dan Flavin exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. He had a simple idea: that shop-sized tubes of neon light could be arranged into subtle variations of geometry and colour. It reminded me of nothing so much as playing at blocks with babies. Can I find a new tower or arch, a new sequence to amuse them, to hold their interest? That is the question at the bottom of most art; most writing, too, for that matter.
Whatever's been done before, that's what I won't do. The war against cliche has a certain perversity - a perfectly acceptable formulation must be diverged from. That is the starting point, but it doesn't always take you nearer to truth. Often the hard part is working your way back to something simple and moving.
One of the charms of this exhibition is that the process of "ringing the changes"
is easy to follow. The examples that please
most manage to seem at once surprising and obvious. They inspire an admiring regret: "I wish I'd thought of that." The failures suggest the opposite: "I probably would have." Art depends on several talents, among them sheer variation. Poets have one category for describing it:
rhythm. The ability to step on an off-beat
with a firm foot, to suggest a secondary pivot. Which brings us back to sports. We praise this sort of invention only in athletes such as tennis players. The strength of Roger Federer - who has just won his second Australian Open - is his variety; it allows him to shape points, to win by surprising his opponent. But most sports depend on just that gift; the instinct for it strikes me as little different from the artistic.
The comparison requires a humble recasting of roles. For writer and reader, or artist and critic, shall we say: offence and defence? A sport which makes an
issue of that relation is basketball. Players
"guard" each other all game long, going from offence to defence and back again. Matches take on a system of references:
in literary terms, foreshadowings, motifs,
and so on. The sporting word for it is one-upmanship. A good scorer needs a number of "moves". How well he plays depends in part on how inventively he can "mix them up". I mentioned pivots.
It's a basketball term, for the fixed foot on
which a player with the ball is allowed to turn without dribbling. The rule allows him to suggest a number of motions without committing to any of them.
A few years ago, during Michael Jordan's first retirement, a man named Hakeem Olajuwon took over his title as the league's best player. Olajuwon was a big man, seven feet tall, but he had played football in his youth. It taught him light feet, and for the space of two national championships, he became unstoppable near the basket. He had at his disposal a baby hook, a head-fake, a turnaround jumper, and an up-and-under move. (I won't explain; just imagine.) A defender could "guard" against each of these if he knew it was coming. There were usually two or three defenders at a time clustered around Olajuwon, but his gift for ringing the changes kept them guessing. In full flow, he couldn't be resisted. Whatever he did seemed simple but utterly surprising, like the fall of water over a rock, as Eliot put it in "The Waste Land": "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop".
I would like to see sporting contests included in Newsnight Review. Critics could discuss Wimbledon, the World Cup, the Ashes. BBC2's trouble may be that sports are criticised internally, as it were: variations that work are rewarded by victory. This is what I like about games: they have the beauty of an art and the rigour of a science. Teams win and lose, and so do the theories that support their play. Which isn't to say there aren't debates - just that the terms of success are clearer, so less nonsense is talked. The Flavin I liked best, by the way, was a wall of upright yellow bars. Through a one-bar gap at the end, a green light glowed, from a wall of green bars behind. The effect, of course, was reversed in the view from the back. It seemed obvious; I would never have thought of it.
Hunter Davies is away