October 24, 2012

Is sport an art?

It may have more in common with craft, but it does also provide timeless stories and reveal elements of the human condition

In the early 1990s, there was a famous Reebok t-shirt with the simple slogan: "Sport is an art." Nice idea, but is it true? Can sport - which, by definition, is practical (score runs, take wickets) and competitive (beat the other guy) - belong to the same sphere as painting, literature and music?

The debate is not helped by the fact that sport and the arts are usually portrayed as antagonistic opposites - athletes v aesthetes, hearties v arties, jocks v thespians. From school to adult life, it is often (wrongly) assumed that there is little overlap between artistic creators and sporting competitors. (Writers, in fact, are often just as fiercely competitive as sportsmen.)

And yet no one (well, almost no one) disputes that sport can be beautiful. Last month, I tried to describe the aesthetic pleasure of watching David Gower bat - or just seeing him stand languidly and unhurriedly at the crease. When we watch Sachin Tendulkar turn his wrists at the very last moment, flicking the blade of the bat towards the on side just as the ball arrives under his eyes, we have experienced something beautiful: not just poise and grace but also concision and completeness. Nothing can be added or taken away from that Tendulkar flick that would not diminish the shot. Within its own terms, it cannot be improved upon.

A couple of years ago I watched Arsenal play Barcelona. The game finished a draw, but it was the spectacle rather than the result that left the deepest impression on me. Judged in terms of pure beauty - the physical grace of the players, the inventiveness of their movement - the match was surely the equal of any artistic or cultural event taking place in London that evening. Only someone with his eyes closed could pretend that the match had been defined completely in terms of goals scored and points bagged.

Occasionally I still hear arts-lovers complain that all sport is dull or anti-aesthetic. They are watching the wrong stuff. Anyone who loves ballet must surely recognise Roger Federer as one of their own. Again, elegance is matched by economy: the Federer effect is created not only by what he does but by what he avoids doing. There are no false brush strokes, no unnecessary chords, no superfluous sentences. There is no straining for effect, nothing is artificially tacked on.

There is another parallel between sport and the arts. In each sphere, the greats often have golden, productive spells late in their careers - periods when the insecurities have faded, when the urgent confusions that follow from deep ambition have receded. In his essay "Late Style", the academic Edward Said described how "age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works". Yes, the artist may have been at the peak of his powers in his middle or "High" phase. But there is something even more moving about the final creative outpouring. (If you take only one thing from this article, listen, as I am doing now, to Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs - true Late Style.)

Said was writing about the arts, but the same principle applies to sport. The discerning fan will know the feeling of having watched a great player near the end of his career play sport on a higher level - without the fear and frantic-ness of his younger, restless days. We saw Late Federer in the Wimbledon final this summer, conjuring victory despite being outplayed for most of the first two sets. Late Zidane, too, seemed to grasp the whole football pitch before he made even the simplest pass. There was greatness in the small things - especially the small things.

But being beautiful does not make something an art. Many things are beautiful that cannot be classified as art. In The Principles of Art, the English philosopher RG Collingwood (no relation) set out to define the difference between an art and a craft. A skilled worker in a furniture workshop might be highly skilled - and might derive deep satisfaction from his work - but he is not an artist. He is a craftsman. A carpenter assembles bits of wood according to a plan for a table and, usually, the more exact the plan the better the table.

In contrast, art (according to Collingwood) demands a separation of means and ends. There must be an act of alchemy, the emergence of a creative vision. A poet "converts emotions into poems". Unlike the assembly of a table, the final poem is more than - and different from - the sum of its parts.

A great sportsmen, very occasionally, does something that transcends the activity of scoring a goal or making a shot. He taps into a deep instinct that he cannot quite understand

Where does this leave sport? I would say sport usually has more in common with craft than art. The batsman practising in the nets over many years is honing his craft. He is searching for a technique that is reliable, consistent, resilient and robust. And if one bit breaks or becomes damaged, he hopes the rest of his game will function adequately while he makes running repairs. The job of a good craftsman is to create a finished article that can be repaired without the whole thing always needing a structural refit.

But sport is not limited to being a craft. A great sportsmen, very occasionally, does something that transcends the activity of scoring a goal or making a shot. He taps into a deep instinct that he cannot quite understand, let alone articulate. But I suspect this artistic strand can only be achieved by accident. If I was a coach, I would be worried if my star batsman said, "Today I am going to bat beautifully." Far better that he tried to bat as simply and naturally as possible - and the beauty happened along the way, as a happy but unintentional by-product.

Sport, I think, can momentarily touch the arts. But it cannot permanently belong as one.

But sports certainly fulfil some artistic roles. In the classical world, the arts had a defined religious purpose. For the Greeks, watching a play was a communal act of piety, a form of shared worship. Modern sport achieves something similar. What do we feel when we walk among the masses to a vast sports stadium? We are part of the crowd, we share a purpose and sense of hope with the thousands around us - we belong to a broader congregation. That religious language follows naturally. The art critic Robert Hughes famously wrote that train stations were the cathedrals of the industrial age. To update Hughes: sports stadiums are the cathedrals of the post-industrial age.

Above all, sport provides us with timeless stories. It reveals, in dramatic ways, essential elements of the human condition. A few years ago, speaking at a BBC debate called "Sport v the Arts", the classical scholar Edith Hall made this startling claim: "Sport has only two narratives - either you win or you lose - how boring!"

The truth could not be more different. A moment's reflection reveals that within the overarching narrative of victory or defeat (there are also draws and ties, Edith), there are countless twists and subplots - often far more interesting and affecting than the headline-grabbing result. Sometimes you have to look more carefully to see the real story.

Sport can be experienced at many different levels. Just like the arts.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • K. on October 26, 2012, 3:37 GMT

    In any field ,actually, excellence can be equated to beauty and conciseness both. Even Mathematics. The "correct" equation is always the most compact, concise and beautiful - with no requirement of any additional element. You "know" when something is added just for the sake of "making" it appear beautiful...The beauty is in the functionality...Just like nature.

  • Trevor on October 25, 2012, 22:12 GMT

    Ed, stop using so many brackets! It detracts from your works of art!

  • Harsh on October 25, 2012, 18:03 GMT

    Sport certainly has it's artistic significance.Infact the game of cricket would never have reached it's heights without this.Batsman like Zaheer Abbas,Denis Compton,Gundappa Vishwanath,Mohammad Azhauddin letc looked more like artists or poets while batting in full flow.They dominated bowling mercilessly but with the grace of a bird flying and the imagination of a musical composer.Watching Michael Holding bowl was also like seeing poetry in motion.Without this art it would not be cricket.

  • Haroon on October 25, 2012, 14:53 GMT

    Very eloquently put Ed. There is a lot reflective analysis on show. As a physician, I sometimes reflect on the nature of medicine. Is it the science of medicine or the art of medicine? The answer lies, as in sport, somewhere in the middle. There are brief moments in sport (as in my medical career) which are crystallised as being unquestionably artistic, and confer that sense not just to one person, but to several people at once. Again, lovely article.

  • Dummy4 on October 25, 2012, 12:24 GMT

    The difference lies in the approach. An artist strives to create something beautiful, a craftsman strives to get something done. Roger Federer plays a backhand because he wants to connect racquet to ball and make it difficult for his opponent to retrieve. What defines his movement is where he wants to get the ball, at what speed and what sort of spin he wants to impart. If a prettier but less effective option exists, he will not choose it. A ballerina, on the other hand, only strives to be more beautiful. If a flourish is prettier, she will include it.

  • Dummy4 on October 25, 2012, 6:23 GMT

    loved the article. how can an sports article can be complete without Wasim's artistic bowling, and Shahbaz Ahmad Senior's art work with hockey stick.

  • Dummy4 on October 25, 2012, 3:19 GMT

    In my cricket team, there are currently 9 of us who have been or involved in the arts across writing, music and acting. A majority of us were Jocks and Artists at school so the two can coexist and also be mutually beneficial. One close friend and I hit the nail on the head one night out drinking and feeling very philosophical - Acting and Sport are the same thing. Before you head out there, you are nervous as hell, one performance can vary greatly to the next and to the previous. All the preparation in the world cannot prepare you for what is thrown at you and sometimes, best laid plans fall apart. The reason we do both is the challenge, the ability to make ourselves and those around us feel great about what they witness as spectators/audience and the buzz you get as a team-mate/cast member from someone doing well or the game/show being a huge success. Sport is about Performance and Performance is the key ingredient for entertainment.

  • Dummy4 on October 25, 2012, 1:13 GMT

    Great article Ed! I will use this in my Theory of Knowledge Class. Art is an Area of Knowledge and this is definitely a knowledge issue. Cheers!

  • Tequila on October 24, 2012, 23:44 GMT

    @py0alb "Art defines the means, the artist searches for the ends. Sport defines the ends, the sportsman searches for the means"

    Beautifully said. Ed, you made another point about countless twists and subplots - often far more interesting and affecting than the headline-grabbing result. That is the main reason test cricket needs to be saved. It provides a broader canvas for cricketers to showcase their craftsmanship and more importantly, their artistry.

  • Tequila on October 24, 2012, 23:21 GMT

    Very well crafted (?) article with an artistic pen. Like any artistic work,in case of sports the audience needs to have an eye for artistry to really appreciate it.A person who is new to cricket would not see the beauty and artistry of a Sachin's flick or languid Gower cover drives, Holding's elegant bowling action or Laxman's supple wrists creating beautiful angles.For them, it's just another couple of runs added to the score card or another wicket down. Like sports,art also requires practice and honing of the skill.It's not like you get up one day and start making mesmerizing paintings or melancholic poems. Sometimes,there is that magical moment which can not be articulated where craftsmanship transcends itself and becomes artistry.This is by accident,even in case of artists.Those couple of extra brushstrokes, use of a particular word or sentence when there are 5 more ways to say the same or for that matter, choosing a particular shot over other perfectly acceptable shots,thats art!

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