At a game, fans often see something happen – was it that dunk or that crazy tackle? – that looks strangely familiar. It may look like one they have seen earlier in the season, or was it something they may have seen on their last trip to the museum?
Social media account ArtButMakeItSports connects the dots. The account’s creator, LJ Rader, has spent the last five years matching some of sports’ most iconic moments with artwork masterpieces.
The results show that the resemblance between art and sports is often uncanny.
For Rader, this just started as a hobby, sharing posts with a small following of mostly friends. He says: “I tend to see things through a sports lens, and I guess art is no different for me. I just love sports in general… and for a long time, I’ve had an appreciation of art.”
Rader would visit museums in New York, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and take photos of anything that grabbed his attention. Over the years, he has collected at least 8,500 snaps of artwork.
“I’ve banked this information in my head. I’ve pretty much memorized that folder on my phone… [if] some moment is going viral or the photo is going viral, then I’ll take that and work to find the art,” he explains.
‘Capturing something AI can never do’
Behind the posts, there isn’t an automated computer mind at work either. Instead, Rader just gets to work with the weekend sports and his phone’s gallery folder, full of artwork.
He says: “Using AI to do the matchups, I don’t even know why I would ever even do that. It kind of takes the fun out of it and takes away the reason why I have the account. It sort of extracts out the soul of what I do.
“When I get accused of using AI, it’s partly flattering. Part of it is kind of scary, this destruction of what is truth that we’re dealing with as a society.”
And despite the leaps and bounds made by AI in recent years, it still has a long way to go when capturing emotion. Rader says: “I try to also hit on sometimes a more layered approach and humorous approach, capturing hopefully something AI can never do.”
The emotion found in the sporting moment and the artwork remains key. Rader continues: “You’re trying to capture some of, potentially, the same movement but also the same emotion … It can go deeper than just, ‘This image looks like this other image.’ It has to feel like that other image.”
And these ideas boil down to what makes sports photography a piece of art too. “I see sports photography as an artistic expression. [Sports photographers] are artists in their own right,” says Rader.
Are sport and art all that different?
Since starting ArtButMakeItSports, Rader says the audience has been small for the most part. “For a long time, I was just posting into the abyss of a handful of my friends, my mom’s friends,” he recalls.
Growth was slow but steady, until the account gained more attention during the 2022 NFL playoffs. And interest in Rader’s work skyrocketed this year after Jason Kelce’s bare-chested appearance at the Kansas City Chiefs’ 27-24 win against the Buffalo Bills in January. Over the last month, the account has grown by roughly 25%.
Rader says: “The NFL tagged me in that photo and they said, ‘What do you think?’ which is pretty wild. That blew up and just kept the momentum going.” The Kelce brothers themselves also saw The Feast of Bacchus (1654) by Philips Koninck comparison and featured it on their podcast.
And now, Rader can rely on his following to do some of the legwork too. He says that the community of followers send him a constant flow of suggestions: sometimes good, sometimes bad. Conveniently, it means he can take his eye off sports when he needs to.
Going forward, Rader wants to make sure he is covering all his bases when it comes to sport. “I try to have a pretty nice balance across the board of men’s and women’s sports and some of the stuff I don’t know anything about like cricket.”
The creator also wants to bring artwork and sport closer together. He says: “The account shows they’re not so different, and maybe we need to reexamine what we think somebody is capable of. Somebody can like art and sports, it’s not that big of a stretch.
“I get a lot of messages saying, ‘This brings me closer to my spouse because I like art and they like sport,’ or, ‘I’ve learned a lot about art, I’ve been going to more museums.’”
Of course, Rader has his predictions for this month’s Super Bowl too. “Honestly, I’m just rooting for good content and an interesting halftime show. But I’ll say Chiefs 27, 49ers 24. I just hope it’s a chaotic and interesting game,” he says.
After all, wouldn’t we all love to see a roaring Jason Kelce matched with a renaissance painting on our social media feeds again?
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