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!


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