November 21, 2012
Why We Need Sabermetrics
The Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington isn’t about baseball, but it is indirectly about ways of seeing baseball differently. Well, really it’s about ways of seeing everything differently. So perhaps it’s appropriate here to revive the old saw that when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. I left thinking about baseball—or rather, thinking about thinking about baseball. A dancer would probably leave thinking about choreography, a banker about the economy.
Ai Weiwei’s gift is in the way he makes you rethink your own tools, your own subject. The Hirshhorn retrospective is called According to What?, a title borrowed from a 1964 Jasper Johns painting. Ai situates himself in Johns’ pop-art tradition, which is perhaps why thoughts of baseball seem near to hand: it may be a national pastime, but the game is also a pop icon as much as Mao is. Its solemnities are ripe for sentimentality and sentimentality’s (more) evil twin, kitsch, and ripe too for sheer, soulless moneymaking.
Ai’s title adds a question mark to the original Johns title, According to What. This is key. The whole nature and purpose of Ai’s art, which is defiant and confrontational even when it is also plainly beautiful (which it is often not), is to interrogate everything: China and its authoritarian rule, the assumed use and meaning of materials and objects, the number of dead children in a devastating earthquake, the point of art itself.
Ai is less like an “artist” than what we usually think the word means. He is not a gifted painter, sculptor, photographer, draughtsman, or maker of objects. He is, rather, a mastermind, a conceptualist who is part sage, part jester, part provocateur, part showman. He himself appears in much of his work. As he puts it, “the so-called contemporary art is not a form but a philosophy of society.” The work on display at the Hirshhorn—highly political, historically charged, nakedly self-promoting, at times merely prankish, often deeply troubling—backs up his words.
It is appropriate that SABR starts with Society. Sabermetrics is a philosophy of the society of baseball: a contemporary art form. Like conceptual art, sabermetrics has helped complicate and confound its subject, baseball, and that is what baseball needed: the sport was always more complex, more deliciously vexing, than almost any way of approaching it had previously managed to convey. The field is controversial. It is called unbeautiful, even offensive. It edges into the mainstream, where it hangs awkwardly among the established, comfortable, unthreatening, essentially indistinguishable landscapes and still-lifes that still dominate the museum of baseball. The old ways hold sway.
Sabermetrics is a resistance movement. The censorious, authoritarian, fearful voice insists on Miguel Cabrera as MVP. It prevails, and perhaps it should. There is much to be said for accomplishing a season-long feat not seen since 1967. But Mike Trout’s apologists, essentially the sabermetric community (and, sure, Angels fans), throw doubt into the old reactionary voice, make it sound at times creaky, shrill, peremptory. We still got to Miguel Cabrera, but we got there differently.