Sunday, June 22, 2014

Can Sports Be Art?

Man, it has been a week and it still hasn't gotten anywhere near old to hear...

The San Antonio Spurs are 2014 NBA Champions.

Even saying the words makes me excited!

However, this most recent moment of glory is not what I'm going to dedicate this blog post to; there have been thousands upon thousands of words, both spoken and written, about that.

With this space, I want to ask a question: can sports become art?  And if so, at what point does that happen?

To begin this discussion, I suppose that I have to find a good definition of art.  To that end, here is what has to say about it:

"Art: The expression of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

Now let's break it down and see if sports can fit in those specifications.

Are sports an expression of human creative skill and imagination?  I would say, at their highest levels, yes.  Unequivocally yes.  Anybody that has been watching some of the goals scored in this most recent World Cup would agree with that.  I would add, on top of that, the design of football offensive plays and defensive formations display a huge amount of creative imagination in order to bring the team's strengths to the forefront and to hide their deficiencies.  One more great example of this are the 2014 Spurs with their passing the ball in order to look for the best possible shot or creative moves to the basket.

Now, sports obviously are not paintings or sculptures, but they don't have to be in order to be considered art according the above definition.  Therefore, I won't sweat that point too much.  After all, there are many movies out there that have been considered art and they aren't paintings or sculptures either.

The third point is the hardest to pin down in general.  Are sports appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power?  For me anyway, I do not appreciate sports primarily for their emotional power.  If I want to watch something for its emotional power, I would choose "Inherit The Wind" over the Super Bowl (although the World Series does come close).  Their beauty though?  I think that this can be debated.  I will admit that sports don't immediately come to my mind when I think of the word "beauty" or "beautiful"; that distinction I usually reserve for impressive, natural vistas or a lovely member of the opposite sex.  That being said, I believe that there is something beautiful about competition at the highest level, where both competitors are going to give their all for pride.  Kind of like a samurai standoff right before the duel to the death.  Also, I have heard even non-sports fans marvel at the beauty of a fantastic soccer goal.  Or at watching Michael Jordan play basketball in his prime.  Or the 2014 Spurs.

So that's two for two as far as points in the definition that apply.  Going by sheer numbers, sports would seem to qualify as art.

That being said, almost no one uses dictionary definitions when trying to decide what is art and what isn't.  Art is a truly difficult thing to quantify, after all.  In my opinion though, after looking at this definition, I can't come up with an argument that sports aren't art that is better than the argument that I just gave in favor of the distinction of art being given to sports.

Now to the second (and perhaps more interesting question), at what point do sports become art?

I must admit, this is the more interesting question to me.  The first question might be more vital to the discussion, but the second one is the most fun.  Sports fans always like to debate: who's the best player ever, what's the best team ever, but the most fun debates that we have are truly about moments.  Moments where the game hangs in the balance and one team makes a play (or sometimes, a series of plays) where they separate themselves.  Those moments are the reasons why we are all fans.  There are so many moments in sports history: The Play (Cal vs. Stanford), Vince Young's drive, The Catch (Dwight Clark), The Immaculate Reception (Franco Harris), Kirk Gibson's home run, Aaron Bleepin' Boone, Boston's 2004 comeback, Michael Jordan's 1998 shot, Bird's steal, Magic's baby hook.

All of those, I believe, are of small periods where sports became art.  Where time seemed to stand still and we realized that what we just witnessed was pure and good (unless your team was on the losing side) and everything right about the world.  Where everything became beautiful.

However, I do not believe that those are the only instances of sports transcending their traditional boundaries of entertainment and becoming truly artistic.  I believe that there are times where one team can master their sport so well that it becomes inherently beautiful to witness their existence.  The moments where they fail to achieve artistic status are actually few and far between.

Enter, the 2014 San Antonio Spurs.

These Spurs have achieved a quality of play that would rival any master at their chosen craft in history.  These Spurs are to basketball what Beethoven was to music, what da Vinci was to oil and canvas, what Shakespeare was to the English language.  Every time I watched these Spurs play, I knew that there was the possibility that my breath would be taken away, not through individual brilliance or through incredible athleticism, but through sheer intelligence, creative expression, and an inherit understanding of what makes team sports in general, and basketball in particular, so wonderful.  No one cared about who got the stats, who got the glory, or who got the headlines.  No one even cared that they were playing basketball in a way that would make Dean Smith tear up in joy.  All they cared about was winning, and there was only one way in which they could do that: with the dedication to craft and the subtle strokes that only an artistic master could have.  It's not just that they're unselfish; after all, any team can pass the ball.  It's not just that they're intelligent; a lot of teams have smart players.  And it's not just that they're creative; a lot of teams have players and coaches with creative ideas.  It's that they linked all three of these qualities together in such a way that they were, somehow, even greater than the sum of those parts.  Watching these Spurs, pass, cut, shoot, rebound, defend and hustle created in me a purity of experience that rivals seeing Macbeth live by the Actors of the London Stage and listening to The Who's "Quadrophenia" all the way through.

Watching these Spurs (especially in the Finals) made me realize that not only were sports capable of being art, but that they're capable of being high art.

And it has been pure unadulterated joy to watch them.

PS: If you would like to see another opinion somewhat on this subject that is honestly an even better expression of this point, than I urge you to watch these two videos:

San Antonio Spurs: "The Beautiful Game"

San Antonio Spurs: "The Beautiful Game" Finals Edition

I would love to hear anyone else's opinions as well, so please watch them!  They're awesome!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Inspiring Event of Awesomeness!

I witnessed a truly awesome event earlier this week that left me quite inspired and joyful.

Those who know me well might think that I might be referring to my favorite team, the San Antonio Spurs making the Finals after last year's heartbreak.  While that is indeed quite inspiring, that is not what I'm referring (that will get a post later).

Instead, I'm talking about the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

*cue derisive snorts*

I'll wait.

*end derisive snorts*

Thank you.

I know that the notion of the existence of a rock music hall of fame is ludicrous to some (and I am not sure that I disagree with that at all), and a museum exhibit cannot measure up to a musical group's impact, even when they aren't especially well-known.  For example, the influence of bands like the Yardbirds or Sonic Youth is absolutely tremendous and certainly felt throughout the world through other bands that emulated their styles.  So, given all of those reasons, one could make a very strong case that the entire existence of the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame is superfluous at best and a ridiculous exercise at worst.

I could not care less about any of that.  The reason?  It's just so cool to see the love and care that goes into each induction speech performed either by a contemporary or a fan (speech highlights are Tom Morello inducting KISS, Art Garfunkel inducting Cat Stevens and Bruce Springsteen inducting his own E Street Band).  Each speech was done so well, that for a second, I believed that each act was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Even Hall & Oates.  And if that wasn't enough, the performances also did a hell of a job in formulating a convincing argument of that very same point.

Speaking of the performances, they were all pretty cool, though the coolest ones were the two tribute performances by artists that were influenced by the inductee, of which there were two: Linda Ronstadt and Nirvana.

Now, I figured that the Nirvana tribute would affect me positively; after all, how could it not?  Some of my first memories dealing with music are hearing Nirvana through the walls to my sisters' rooms as a toddler.  In some ways, Nirvana's music shaped my taste more than any other band in history.  So I was expecting the experience of watching the two surviving members with a rotating cast of frontwomen (which was an interesting choice, but a good one as it turned out) to be a really cool experience, seeing as I don't think that there has ever been any iteration of Nirvana that has played at an age where I could fully appreciate them.

What was less expected was how cool I found the Linda Ronstadt tribute to be.  I will admit that I knew next to nothing of her career when she was one of the choices to be voted in to the hall of fame.  I knew that she was a singer, obviously, but I didn't know any songs that could be attributed to her.  While watching clips of her performances, I thought to myself: "Ah, a country-rock hybrid: this is ok; not something that I would actively search for, but entertaining enough."

Then the tribute started.

First came Carrie Underwood, who is one hell of a powerful singer, whatever my misgivings of her songs in particular are.  I'm not a fan, but anybody can see the talent.  She did a pretty solid job approximating Ronstadt's power on the mic.  Then, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris joined in and kicked ass with Underwood singing backup.  I was starting to like it a bit more.  After that, Sheryl Crow came on stage with Raitt, Harris and Glen Frey (who performed the induction) joining Underwood as backup singers.  At this point, I was all in on this, cause Sheryl Crow is fucking awesome.  Her voice was so strong and so natural; badass and beautiful all in one.  I was digging the performance intensely, and just when I didn't think that it would get any better, one miss Stevie Nicks waltzes up on stage, moves Crow to join the ever-expanding chorus, and belts out a tune the way that only Stevie can.  Finally, everyone joins in to sing "When Will I Be Loved" (the only Linda Ronstadt song that I immediately recognized).  The performance was so strong and so cumulative that I have been inspired to find Linda Ronstadt songs and give them a listen: if she inspired this many great performers, how can I not try her stuff out?

However, that paled in comparison to what transpired during the Nirvana tribute.  Like I said earlier, both Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic decided to be fronted by only women during the tribute, and it was the best possible choice.  First up was Joan Jett, performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit".  One, I'm a big fan of the song and two, I love Joan Jett so goddamn much: is there anyone alive who personifies rock 'n roll better than her?  I think not.  All of that being said, it worked as well as I would have ever expected: it was powerful, angry, relieving and friggin' awesome!  And they were just getting started: next up was Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth (the godparents of Grunge, so to speak), who screamed out "Aneurysm" with a pure, raw energy that is the very essence of punk and honestly looked and sounded like Kurt Cobain's spirit was being channeled by her.  It was poetry in motion.  Annie Clark from St. Vincent followed with one hell of a rendition of "Lithium" that was just a joy to listen to.  Finally, a most unexpected guest performer came up to perform "All Apologies": one Lorde, who is a brand new pop star best known for her hit song " Royals".  Out of all the possible choices to perform that song, a young pop star would not have been the first to come to mind.  Granted, Lorde isn't a prototypical teen starlet; her voice and presence is one of poise, not flash.  And boy, did that come through in her performance, along with a quiet, controlled anguish that really fit the song.  Her performance was the most dissimilar from the original in terms of sound.  In terms of the feeling behind the song, though?  It was absolutely in line with the other three, and capped off a perfect tribute.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performances was that it made me appreciate Kurt Cobain as a performer and songwriter even more than I already did.  Think about this: how large is the the disparity in terms of age and style between Lorde and Joan Jett?  Yeah.  And both performed songs that fit each of their strengths very well, with Jett's confrontational, don't-give-a-fuck attitude and Lorde's composed rage.  Both of those songs are huge parts of Nirvana's song library, and, more to the point, written by Cobain himself.  How amazing is that?

Watching the entire ceremony was a wonderful experience; from Art Garfunkel singing verses from Cat Stevens' songs during his induction speech to the E Street Band finally getting their time in the sun to Courtney Love and Dave Grohl embracing one another on stage to the performances I just spoke of, it was an awesome event to witness and one that was, in many ways, inspiring.  It was a privilege to watch, and I hope that everyone who likes music has a chance to watch it as well.

Whether the Hall matters or not.