Outside Oberlin

Sports and Art: Just Two Sides of the Same Coin?
by Channing Joseph

“What are sports really?”

A simply-stated but elusive question. One that I have asked before, and one that I will likely ask again. It resurfaced most recently for me while I was conducting an interview with junior tennis-player Laura Koehn, and our topic of discussion turned to the reason why tennis had become her game of choice.
She described to me how the “fluid aesthetic” of tennis had been one of her initial attractions to the game and how it was still one of the reasons why she loved it so much. “I like the sounds of the game, the racket hitting the ball, the ball hitting the net,” she said, adding, “I try to play pretty.”
On hearing this, it occurred to me that with some digging, I could probably find some fascinating connections between sports and aesthetics, even sports and art. After all, there are always connections between any two things if you look deeply enough. Even so, I thought that the Oberlin public, which tends to be much more interested in art than in athletics, judging from the plethora of well-attended college arts events and poorly-attended sporting events, might appreciate knowing that something it seems to hate — sport — shares a compelling commonality with something it loves — art.
And of course, I do not mean to cover only the very obvious things that immediately come to mind, such as those physical activities, like gymnastics, diving and synchronized swimming, which involve such grace and beauty that they naturally evoke unthinking comparisons to art. Nor merely would I want to discuss those athletic events that involve such high degrees of technical skill, comparable to the difficulty levels of arts like painting and sculpture, as to be referred to as arts; for example, “the art of archery,” or “the art of equestrian.”
My point is that even sports like football and basketball cannot really be removed from notions more commonly associated with beauty and creativity. Take the sport of football and the art of jazz for example. Both the members of a football team and the members of a jazz band must prepare themselves to work together to do what is best for their respective ultimate goals; in one case, the game, in another, the music. In both instances, members must be prepared to jump in at the appropriate time and assert their individualities, either to make that touchdown and gain team points or to take a melody in a lovely new direction. In each example, the participants may have some sort of idea of what they want to achieve — e.g., a game plan or an intended musical mood — but are most often just improvising their way through the situations that present themselves. For both, the only reality that matters during a game or a performance is what is happening in the present moment. There is very little focus on a sense of past or future, and if there is, victory and beautiful music are unlikely to result from such a self-conscious approach.

A similar comparison can be made using almost any sport that involves interacting with other people — tennis, volleyball, hackey-sack, etc. — and any art form that involves some level of improvisation — acting, dancing, improvised rapping and so on. At some deep structural level, these sports and art forms are structured in similar ways, which I think is one of the reasons why tennis-player Laura can approach her sport in such an aesthetic way.

Also, both art and sport can be potentially very competitive. Look at the example of figure-skater Tonya Harding, who attacked her rival Nancy Kerrigan in order to prevent her from competing. Look at how ferocious competing freeform rappers can get with each other. Drag queens, who transform themselves into pieces of art, have gotten so competitive that their fights have become a dance form.

Moreover, both art and sport have the ability to deeply affect the emotions. The ease with which one can be caught up in the emotions of sport should be obvious to anyone who has been to a well-attended athletic event. And I would think that few people would honestly say that they have never been touched by the artistry in a painting or a song.

Generally, however, there are simply different cultural expectations for sport and for art. Art, for instance, is usually created to convey some type of emotional, social, political, spiritual or philosophical message. Quite often, nowadays, if it does not seem intended to convey this type of message, it is said by the many who staunchly oppose the notion of “art for art’s sake” that this makes the work somehow invalid or irresponsible. Therefore, it is my perception that, more often than not, it is considered proper and appropriate that art in this era should tackle important issues and should somehow be responsible to communities of people. Art that fails to do this has lately tended to be disregarded by people who care about such things. Hence, the popular music of contemporary boy bands is not often referred to as art, nor is it much respected by many who call themselves “artists.” On the other hand, sport is generally viewed as entertainment, or at the most, an entertaining, often patriotic exercise in boasting of how much better one city’s team, or one nation’s team, is better than another’s.

It is rare that sports events tackle the sorts of hard messages that artistic endeavors routinely undertake, and athletes, though they are now often looked upon to be role models for youth, often cause controversy when they stand up to profess a political stance. Boxing great Muhammad Ali, for example, was considered a troublemaker for merely changing his name from Cassius Clay to one more in-line with his personal beliefs, and started an understandably even greater whirlwind by conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam War draft. Yet even when medal-winning runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested institutionalized racism at the 1968 Olympics by lowering their heads and raising their fists, controversy was stirred to such a degree that the two men were not only suspended from their national team, but even received death threats.

It is thus considered proper and appropriate for sport and sports-figures to be entertaining and apolitical, just as it is often felt that true art should be, in some sense, the opposite: thought-provoking and politically informed.

So in the end, it is my opinion that sport does seem to share much in common with art. However, the most interesting thing about the relationship between the two things lies in the fact that our society views these two things as completely different entities, though they may not be so different at all. This difference is maintained to such an extent by the societal reactions, criticisms and controversies that result when artists and athletes cross their respective boundaries.
So what is the answer to the question, “What are sports really?” Perhaps one possible answer is the stark, “Sport is art, art is sport.”

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