Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Sports as Art

Since my last post touched on the ugly side of competitive sports (giving folks all sorts of fodder for the "violence" of football, specifically), I figured it was long past due to finish this post on Sports as Art:

I know a lot of "artists." I'm friends with published poets and produced musicians. My roommate is a professional dance and drumming instructor. I work at a summer arts camp, and am subsequently friends with successful photographers, filmmakers, dance choreographers, and painters.

In my personal life, art plays a major (maybe the major) role: I write, I create original music, I draw and dabble with painting. I am interested in dance, and I try to learn about every genre of music. Art is very important.

And yet, somehow, in all of this, one major form of art remains unmentioned. In my many conversations with artist friends and the artistically-inclined, one huge section of artistic endeavor is not only unmentioned, but noted with contempt: athletics. Competitive sports.

At this point, my readers are probably feeling similar contempt - how are sports a part of the artistic family? Sports are overly-competitive, overly-macho, and violent. It is insulting to think of sports as the same as art -right?

Obviously, I disagree. So much so as to say that it's insulting and degrading for "artistic" people to so readily dismiss athletics, their value, and their aesthetic beauty.

For those who truly understand sports and immerse themselves in it, true grace on par with the most well-known dancer is seen every game. Athletes perfect their movements and body control just as much as dancers. In fact, athletes must be more perfect, due to the unpredictable nature of their art, and the need to constantly adjust and improvise based on the actions of the other artists on the field (or court, or rink, or whatever). Those who cannot see this are no different than folks who can't see anything more than a bunch of colored dots on a canvas by Matisse. It takes exposure and understanding to appreciate the subtle beauties that most people miss. Symmetry and synchronized movements can be derived from every play - just as with a dance troupe's performance.

On top of the physical beauty of the games is the mental aspect. Athletes hone their minds to be able to read the slight muscle twitches and movements of their opponents, so they can adjust accordingly. They must strategize and think steps ahead in the same way as a chess master. They do one thing at the beginning of a game to set up their opponent for a play or move not to be performed until an hour later. They see the way the person across from them orients their bodies, and they know what they are about to do next.

Participants in sports know that playing can put them in "the zone" (or a state of "flow" as eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it) - where focus is so perfect that time slows down, everything else disappears, and we achieve almost supernatural abilities to read other people. This is the exact same state achieved in the midst of intense artistic creation (I should know, as the only comparable state to how I feel when making music comes on the football field). Hunger, sadness, pain - all are swept aside during the minutes (or hours) of flow. It's a state of mental clarity that can only be equated with meditation - and its positive mental effects are the same.

And those who challenge the "overly-competitive" nature of sports are fooling themselves - do anybody but the most "competitive" artists succeed? Can anybody be a successful artist? Of course not. To reach mastery, you must be driven, and motivated, and work and practice all the time. And, in the end, the only way to achieve "greatness" is to be "better than" so many others. And art hardly teaches people to work well with others and recognize the inherent value of different skill sets and different levels of contribution to an overall goal.

Speaking of work, traditional art and sports echo each other in this way: innate artistic and athletic ability are often assumed of the most successful in either field. And yet, none of those people would ever claim that they didn't work their asses off, practicing constantly, to reach their goals. Those people know better than anybody else that you can always get better - they are the ones who didn't give up with recognition of that fact.

And violence? Have the sport-haters ever looked at, or listened to, the greatest works of art? Rembrandt's "Anatomical Lecture." Francisco de Goya's paintings ("Cronos Devouring his Children," for one). Symphonies based on battles and wars. East of Eden and a million other great literary works with violent depictions. The strongest emotions bring on the most beautiful art, and there is a definite beauty to the controlled physical aspects of many sports.

Folks will argue that the traditional arts use violent depictions to demonstrate their wrongness - but, as a football player, I was always taught proper technique so I didn't hurt myself or other people. When somebody gets hurt on the field, we take a knee out of respect, and we applaud their health when they get up. Never is it about hurting another person. People get physically hurt, of course, but it is just as accidental as the mental pain that graphic depictions in art can (and do) readily cause.

Creative expression? Ever know the feeling of pulling off the perfect play? Emotional expression? You should have been watching Bret Favre play the week his father died. Or teams dedicating a game to a teammate. Some of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed.

So why do I feel this need to defend competitive sports in comparison to "art"? And why am I even writing about it on a race-focused blog?

Because the disparate opinions on "the arts" and "sports" are absolutely based on social constructions of race and class.

Who are the most famous painters in the world? Composers? Photographers? Authors?

People's personal opinions will differ, so let's adjust that question: what is the race of the most famous "artists" in the world?

Ooh . . . starting to see where I'm headed with this?

If not, here's another question: what is the race of the most famous professional athletes in the world?

I'll give you a hint - the majority of those answering the former question are very likely white. A large proportion of those answering the latter are probably African-American (or other minority races).

So I ask again - why do people have such differing opinions on "the arts" and "sports"? When people talk about the "savagery" or "violence" of a sport like football, what sub-conscious associations are going along with that? When they talk about the "beauty" and "perfection" of a master painter's work, what associations go along with that? When people consider art more "important" than sports, what social constructs are they upholding?

I work at an arts camp in the summer, and I don't know how long I've battled with the artists about having more physical activity at camp. Not just for the health of the campers, but for the messaging we give them if we denigrate physical competitions at the expense of sports. Because, for our kids of color, there are no (or very few) role models that reflect them in the art world. But there are many in the sports world. So when we tell them (flat-out or more subtly) that "art" is more important and that sports are frivolous or unimportant - what are we telling them about their role models? What are we telling them about the most successful people that look like them?

And I'm tired of it. Because, as an artist who loves sports, I see the value and importance in both. And I see how they are one and the same. And it fills me with frustration and anger when otherwise-well-meaning artists start downplaying sports when interacting with kids of color. Or when youth workers, who claim to value their kids' cultures and that they are "open-minded," do not even put in the slightest attempt to give sports respect or value in this world.

And I'll tell you - sports (football, specifically) gave me an outlet as a kid that did more for me than any art could at the time. Sports gave me confidence that art never could. And sports kept me out of trouble in a way that dabbling in art absolutely could not. It also gave me role models who worked hard and gave back to their community. My coaches were mentors and teachers. The artists I knew/heard of? They all did drugs, drank too much, womanized (or the female equivalent), and died at a young age.

So which is more valuable? These days, they have leveled out more. Now, I am as likely to immerse myself in expression through music and writing as on the playing field. And that's how it should be - equal. And important. Because, when it comes down to it - there is no difference.

Art. Sports. One and the same. And supremely important in this world.


Jennifer said...

You have given me much food for thought. My initial, knee-jerk reaction to reading your equivalency of sports and art was "no."

But...I think you make a compelling argument, and I am obviously intrigued by the racial dimensions that you are drawing out.

While I may not agree with you that sports are a type of art or conversely that art are a type of sports, I do think both are important cultural expressions that should be mutually reinforced in school settings and given equal regard in the public sphere.

I need to ponder a bit more about the top echelon art vs. sports figures (and I'm assuming we're pretty much sticking to American examples since in China their top artists are not white, and their top sports figures aren't either). Because while basketball and football seem to be populated with many African American athletes, baseball and hockey (the two other fairly mass popular sports in America) seem to be, in the case of baseball, more diverese, and in the case of hockey, overwhelmingly white.

And in terms of contemporary art, it's probably largely white, with a few prominent artists of color at the top (the Saar family, Maya Lin).

But I suppose the larger question, from the point of education (since you and I are both in the education biz) is what kind of message are we sending to students about the priorities of art vs. sports, or what can be gained by seeing both as integrated into one another.

So while I don't know that I'm going to get over my knee jerk reaction, I do think that it's potentially compelling to consider what would happen if we collapsed athletic and art programs into one another...that might just be a truly ingenious idea that would be mutually beneficial to both programs as well as to the students understanding of how both should be privileged in their own lives.

Jenn said...

Hi CVT, again interesting topic. I have to say, I never have thought of sports as a form of art. And i must admit to a bit of anti-sports prejudice.

I didn’t have access to competitive sports when I was growing up, so I don’t make the same individual-affirming associations that you describe. I have always viewed sports in the context of a cultural/community defining activity. In the rural Ohio community I grew up in, watching sports is like a religion – the team rivalries are intense (OH/MI are serious stuff) and little kids can recite like decades of sports statistics.

If I took a poll of my hometown asking whether sports or art was a more estimable activity - I think sports would win hands down. This is in part because of the cultural significance of sports and in part because of an anti-art prejudice. I believe that art is perceived to not be sufficiently masculinity-affirming. Of course, this is premised with the assumption (in my part of OH at least) that sports are a male-only activity.

There is definitely an sports/art conflict. I know my own anti-sports prejudice comes a bit from the misogyny/homophobia that seems to be present in the supports culture in OH (especially college football). But, I am wondering if some of the anti-sports scorn from educators you mention is a reaction to sports spectator culture, and all is excesses? Or perhaps there is a bit of class conflict? If this is the case, stereotypes of race could certainly play a huge role. I don’t know. This is complex. Your post is thought provoking. Thanks – Jenn.

Greg said...

In my definition, art is something that must (1) be cognizantly created by a person/people, (2) have some sort of aesthetic value for at least some people (if only the artist), and (3) constitute a mode of communication: it often expresses thoughts and emotions in ways that mere words cannot and/or it makes some sort of comment on culture or society. The only exception to this is "art for art's sake," which can also (maybe counter-intuitively) be construed as a sort of comment -- that this culture should value (a certain sort of) art.

Under this definition, if when people play sports, they understand themselves to be creating art, then I suppose sports can be construed as art. My guess is, however, that the grand majority of sports players are not cognizantly creating art when they play, and there is no message they are trying to convey to spectators.

While physical athletics and competitive sports may be incredibly valuable, aesthetically and otherwise, to me they are (usually) no more "art" than the intricacies of a beehive, mapping non-linear equations, or even natural human language.

CVT said...

Greg -
I would argue that the only reason athletes are not consciously "creating art" when they play is because of the false dichotomy we have created in our culture between sports and art. As Jenn alludes to, sports can (and have been, in the case of Native cultures) be connected to religious experiences - but we have separated that, as well.

So - if the issues of class and race that affect art and sports alike were diminished, I think we would find ourselves more likely to hear of athletes talk about sports in an artistic context (similar to how Cirque du Soleil has successfully blended Olympic sports like gymnastics, diving, martial arts, etc. into art).

Emotion is most definitely expressed in athletics in a manner that cannot be conveyed in mere words. And - as entertainment and something graceful (as I mentioned) it definitely holds aesthetic value for some (by no means all - but that is the way of all other artforms, as well).

That's my take.

Jennifer and Jenn - just as long as you're putting real thought into it . . . that's all I can hope for.