Is Sport an Art?

A master honing his craft. Such a statement could be applied to all the arts. Whether it is painting a masterpiece, playing in an orchestra, or performing a complicated dance routine, most human practices are derived out of art. I would suggest even sport, though not typically concerned with the aesthetic as most fine arts, should also be regarded as art. Art is an idea, like love, that we all take for granted, but cannot fully understand or define. However, I will offer my perspective in order to demonstrate why I believe sport should in fact be considered art. 

Professor Graham McFee and the late Professor David Best—two accomplished British philosophers of sport, and good friends—have argued sport is not and cannot be considered an art form. With such esteemed views being contrary to my belief, I shall highlight how our definitions of art and sport differ in order to offer my counter argument. As art underlies anything that generates creativity and expression, I fail to see why sport should not be considered art in at least its broadest sense. Can athletes not be creative? Do they not hone their sport as an artist hones his craft? I intend to at least offer an alternative view to Best’s and McFee’s belief that sport is not an art form. 

"Away from the Flock" a contemporary art piece by British artist, Damien Hirst; one of the humorous tangents mentioned by Professor McFee when describing art.  

"Away from the Flock" a contemporary art piece by British artist, Damien Hirst; one of the humorous tangents mentioned by Professor McFee when describing art.  

Much of my inspiration to write this post was actually due to meeting and listening to Professor Graham McFee in my graduate philosophy of sport (KNES 516) class.  We had read his article on dance, as well as two of David Best’s articles on similar aesthetic topics. Since he is an adjunct faculty member at CSUF, McFee was invited to share his background in the topic of aesthetic in sport. Though I thoroughly enjoyed his lecture with all of its humorous tangents and facts about history that vaguely reinforced his arguments, I found some things to be lacking—at least based on my perception of art and sport.    

Soccer, the "Beautiful Game."

Soccer, the "Beautiful Game."

To begin, McFee gave a brief PowerPoint that basically highlighted Best’s views on aesthetic in sport. Basically they had few if any differences. Following Best’s example in the article, “Art and Sport,” McFee highlighted key differences between “purposive” and “aesthetic” sport. “Purposive sport” is what we typically think of when we think of sport. It is any sport that has a basic measurable goal to win: i.e. Basketball the athlete scores hoops, for Soccer goals are scored and for Football touchdowns are made. “Aesthetic sport” is the much smaller division in which as Best says in his article, “the aim cannot intelligibly be specified independently of the manner of achieving it.” Sports like diving, gymnastics, and figure skating are all judged on the manner of performance rather than a measurable score; hence they are aesthetic sport. I completely agree with this notion that sport is divided into these two groups, and that though purposive sport may have aesthetic moments, it is not these that define it. Soccer has been referred to as the “Beautiful Game,” but this does not mean it is an aesthetic sport, or that aesthetics plays any role in the athlete’s purpose of scoring goals. 

During his lecture, McFee mentioned that competition is one of the main elements that distinguishes sport and art. He said competition prevents any potential for a true masterpiece. He also highlighted Best’s view in his article,"Art and Sport," that art needs to offer an expression of “life issues such as moral, social, and political issues.” He asserted athletes in sport cannot express such issues in sport because they are primarily restricted by the sports rules, and thus there really is no room for artistic expression. 

Now, where McFee's and Best’s argument starts to break down is when we talk about aesthetic sport. Aesthetic sport is a competition of grace and beauty. Following this notion I would think that without the competition, an aesthetic sport like figure skating would be considered an art. To make my point, how different is figure skating from dance? Dancing, McFee affirms, is an art, but figure skating is an Olympic sport. But isn't figure skating virtually dancing on ice? If figure skating is primarily a sport due to its competitive nature, then would a dance competition bring dance into the realm of sport? When we asked Professor McFee, he adamantly opposed to such a notion; though he did not offer a clear reason as to why. When asked directly how he would define art, McFee stated he would prefer this not be "a battle of words," but admitted he thinks of art primarily in the fine arts sense, thinking art to be things such as music, painting and dance for example. His view on sport also seemed to follow a similar restriction, as much of his validation for aethetic sport being sport rather than art was that one, it was competitive, and two, it was regarded as sport internationally—specifically in the Olympics.  

The  sport  of Olympic Figure Skating versus the  art  of Competitive Dance; is there any difference?

The sport of Olympic Figure Skating versus the art of Competitive Dance; is there any difference?

I feel McFee has let his own cultural normative views of art and sport form a personal bias that gets in the way of actually discerning whether sport could be a true art. Hence, I shall define art to my understanding, and why I feel sport should be regarded as an art form.  To start I would like to refer to Plato’s philosophy of “Forms.” He believed in an “intelligible world”—apart from the physical actual world—in which ideal Forms existed for each idea and mechanism, and prior to life we are souls that reside in this intelligible world. Thus, everything we create in the real world is merely a discovery of a distant memory of some aspect of a Form. Now though this is an abstract allusion, I feel art could be thought of as each person’s individual expression of a Form. It is my firm belief that virtually everything is governed by an art "Form," from the art of painting, to the art of debate, to the art of war. In my opinion, to limit the definition of art only to the fine arts limits its real impact, as well as our understanding of art in the world. I feel it would not be outrageous to think that there is also an art of sport, contrary to Best and McFee's assertions.  

Sport, in all its variations, highlights a great deal about the human body and the society that creates them. Though McFee suggests sport does not address social issues, I feel sport actually in many ways reflects society. As the late anthropologist and philosopher Clifford Geertz said, "sport is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Based on this idea, sport fulfills the function Best highlights is necessary in all art: it expresses issues in society. Though each game may not highlight a specific issue, as a whole, sport very much represents society and expresses social norms around the world.

Lastly, possibly the most important reason to consider sport an art is its great potential for expression of creativity even within its rules and regulations. The coaches that create the plays and strategies and the athletes that express them excel the most when they act creatively. The renowned Australian coach and sports thinker, Wayne Goldsmith, in his keynote address at the 4th Symposium of Sports Creativity in Dubai 2012, stressed the importance of creativity in sport and even directly said sport can be "considered an art form." 

Best and McFee argue that sport could not be an art due to its restriction to rules and focus on competition, but I would like to counter asking, do not all art forms have barriers? Even in the fine arts, the artist is always restricted to some medium—whether it be the quality of the paper, type of dance, or style of music—and it is their creative use of such restriction that allows them to express the art in a unique and meaningful way. To take it further, I would even suggest all art involves competition to some degree if one is to actually make it in the art world. Thus, we can see just because sport has rules and competition does not restrict it from being art. In fact, it is those restrictions, and the stress of competition that brings about the most artistic moments in sport. If you think of the greatest moments in sport, they almost always involve some unexpected play that changes the game due to its ingenuity  to overcome and succeed against the odds. Art, likewise, offers unlimited potential for expression and success even with restriction. In a sense, restriction and rules do not prevent something from being an art, but in fact form the outline of what that art actually is.  

I feel separating art and sport limits our understanding and appreciation of sport as a form of creative human expression. Adopting a broader definition of the idea of art to incorporate all forms of human expression is the first step to realizing sport is very much an art, with just as much influence on society as the fine arts. With this understanding, sport is not changed, but instead given a more meaningful place in the pages of human history.