Aesthetics and Sport
People participate in sport, and also watch it. While they overlap, the attractions of playing sport are not the same as those of watching it. The field of aesthetics and sport is concerned with exploring and spelling out the kinds of interest and fulfillment sport can offer spectators. This article surveys the main themes of reflection on those issues in the last fifty years or so. During that time the focus of those reflections has changed. A tendency to separate off an interest in the competitive and ‘agonistic’ dimensions of sport from an interest in its ‘aesthetic’ dimensions of grace and beauty has given way to wider-ranging attention to ‘the whole experience of sport’ and its human meanings.
As well as benefits for participants, sport evidently provides entertainment and recreation to spectators. The field of aesthetics and sport reflects on whether sport can and does offer spectators more than is readily captured by those words “entertainment and recreation” and, if so, how that might best be described and understood.
Of course there is an important question about what benefits sports offer participants. That question has a long history. In addition to “the pleasure of physical and competitive activity,” one very common answer given to justify giving sports a prominent role in school curricula was that it was character building. Reflections on aesthetics and sport, however, focus mainly (though not exclusively) on the perspective of those witnessing sport rather than those playing it. The proliferation of spectator sports in the Western world from the second half of the nineteenth century is obviously an important factor in the growing interest in such reflections. For many decades, their main source was the writings of sports journalists. Philosophers and others outside the media entered the fray only from about the 1960s.
Aesthetics was long regarded as chiefly the study of beauty, whether beauty in nature or in works of art. When sport came into the purview of aesthetic reflection, two broad questions then became salient: whether the satisfaction of watching sports is helpfully explained in terms of sport’s aesthetic value, understood broadly in terms of beauty, and whether sport is a form of art.
Heeding Friedrich Schiller’s description of grace as “the beauty of the freely moving figure,” it is evident that sporting performance can manifest grace and beauty. This might be the grace of specific movements – the running back’s fluid evasions, a downhill skier, Roger Federer’s backhand – or perhaps of a pattern of play, for example, a buildup of moves and passes in soccer or rugby. Much early discussion highlighted such aesthetic attractions of sport (Reid 1970; Vivas 1959, among many others). But it also seems clear that beauty and grace – even if we extend the range of aesthetic qualities beyond beauty/grace to include harmony, fluidity, balance, and elegance – far from exhaust what can compel and reward our attention to sport. Vivas speaks of watching a slow-motion film of ice hockey and focusing on “the beautiful rhythmic flow of the slow-moving men.” But that is no longer to see it as sport. What then is being left out in the appreciation of sport by a focus on its aesthetic attractions?
David Best (1974) undertook to locate sport’s aesthetic value in a wider context of spectator interest in sport by contrasting “aesthetic” and “purposive” sports. In purposive sports – for example, “football, climbing, athletics, orienteering, and squash” – what counts is the achievement of an end (“scoring a goal, climbing the Eiger”), and provided this is achieved within the rules, it doesn’t matter how it is done. Clumsy or fluky goals are still goals, and players would generally choose a clumsy goal over a graceful failure: “In sports such as these, the aesthetic aspect is subordinate to the main purpose.” In aesthetic sports, by contrast – for example, trampolining, gymnastics, figure skating, and diving – how one performs the relevant movements is not incidental but central: “doing it gracefully” is required for success, and the requirement is built into the judging of these sports. “Purposive” sports can be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, but much of their interest for spectators lies elsewhere. This still of course leaves open the character of any further such interest. Is a spectator interest in victory, for example, an interest in sport as sport, or only in an “external” feature, a consequence or outcome, of the sporting action itself?
In response to Best, Joseph Kupfer (1975) argued that “competition and the possibility for victory add to rather than detract from the aesthetic in sport.” Best and Kupfer thus seem agreed that much of the spectator value of sport cannot be captured in terms of its grace, beauty, harmony, fluidity, and elegance. But Best takes this to mean that such further value is not aesthetic, while Kupfer thinks the concept of the aesthetic is capacious enough to include these further values. Perhaps an ambiguity in the concept of the aesthetic generates some confusion here: on the one hand, “the aesthetic” is marked out by the supposedly “formal” qualities of beauty, grace, and harmony, and on the other hand, “the aesthetic” is whatever makes something (in this case sport) compelling or interesting to watch. The latter usage explains how the name of the field can still be “aesthetics and sport,” even given the recent dislodging of aesthetic value by some thinkers from the center of concern. The concept of the aesthetic needs further comment, but, first, Best’s discussion focuses another widely discussed question.
Is sport art? Best’s own version of the question is more restricted: can the aesthetic sports, undertaken with the aim of producing aesthetically pleasing movement, justifiably be considered art forms? Others though have argued more generally that sports are forms of art. Despite his more restricted question, Best’s answer to it provides a perfectly general reason that no sport, “aesthetic” or “purposive,” can be art. He holds that the possibility of “the artist’s comment, through his art, on life situations” is essential to an art form, while the sports performer “does not have the possibility of expressing through his particular medium his view of life situations.” Art has the capacity to be about war or love or suffering, while sport can only be symptomatic of cultural or social or moral or life issues. If the interest in the Louis versus Schmeling boxing bouts in the 1930s was a symptom of tensions between America and Nazi Germany, still the bouts themselves could not possibly be about those tensions. Best linked his distinction to the symbolic or representative capacity of art. For instance, when Hamlet dies on stage, the actor playing him does not, but if the quarterback breaks his leg, then so does the man filling that position. Unlike actors, athletes appear and perform as themselves. Art’s symbolic capacity is what enables it to be “about” human life, as sport cannot.
Best’s distinction crystallized a fundamental issue. If sport is potentially meaningful in ways that exceed its capacity to offer entertainment and diversion (even if these things themselves need not be trivial), focus on sport’s grace and beauty is a first attempt to explain this further meaningfulness. When the attempt shows its limitations because it misses too much of what can compel our attention in sport, a natural next move is to suppose that other dimensions of sport’s meaningfulness owe to its sharing art’s capacity for meaning. Then whether sport really does offer something more than “mere” entertainment may seem to hang on whether sport is, or is not, an art. Playing some role in preoccupation with this question was also, perhaps, the assumption that the status of sport watching would be bumped up if sport could be given the imprimatur of art. One way of seeing developments in sport aesthetics in recent decades is as exploring a variety of ways of thinking about the meaning of sport that extend well beyond answering this specific question of whether sport is art.
One line of response to Best’s view undertakes in effect to identify things that sport is indeed “about” and so has the capacity to deepen and perhaps transform our understanding of, for example, the capacities and nature of the human body, the capacity for creative response to physical challenges (within the constitutive rules of a given sport), and the limits of effort and will in relation to chance in how things turn out. While this response has some force, it perhaps also seems rather limited in scope.
A second and somewhat different response allows that while there is something right about Best’s claim, its import may be limited because it risks over-intellectualizing art. Best himself admits that there are “difficult cases” for his view. It is hard to see how music or abstract painting even allows for the possibility of “commenting on life issues.” But even with art that can and does offer such comment, its expressive power may very often not be a function of that “comment.” William Blake said that in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem intended to “justify the ways of God to man,” Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Cordner (1988) therefore instead suggests that the deepest meaning and value works of art have for us may lie in the “life values” – including indefinitely many and complex modes of vitality, energy, and affective power – they manifest or express in and through their particular artistic medium. Lacking the capacity some (but not all) artworks have to “comment on” life issues, sports too may exemplify in their own bordered domains an indefinitely wide range of such life values.
A kindred theme is found in Andrew Edgar’s view (2013) that “sport is expressive of a world,” as art is. The “world” that a work of art is expressive of need not be most importantly shaped by the intentional or self-conscious comments of the artist. The world-expressive vitality of art is shaped by the total activity of the artist in his/her artistic “medium” – and the artist’s “comments” on life issues are but one aspect of that. Analogously, the world-expressive vitality of sport is shaped by the total activity of sports participants in their medium.
These alternatives to Best’s distinction suggest that the question of the identity or nonidentity of sport and art has moved from the center of discussion. Even deep connections between what art and sport have to offer the spectator need not be thought to depend on sport being art. More interesting and revealing is a sustained working out of similarities and differences.
Another recent theme of sport aesthetics is crystallized in Edgar’s claim (2013) that “discussion of sport in terms of its beauty tends to conceal more profound and disturbing questions as to sport’s meaning.” A focus on “traditional” aesthetic values of beauty, grace, and harmony distracts from what a “modernist aesthetic” can appreciate: the agonistic dimension of sport – the qualities given rise to by its elements of struggle and striving. As examples of such qualities, Paul Davis (2015) mentions doggedness, tenacity, resourcefulness, faith, command, plenitude, repose, urgency, patience, and dignity. And he highlights some related “defining qualities of (the world of) sport, e.g., visible toil and strain, the intrinsic possibility of failure, the visibly strenuous working with materials (most obviously the body), one’s exposed vulnerability to conditions, luck, loss of form, and the injured or aging body,” crystallizing this as “the visible realization of life values (only one at most of which is beauty) in a self-enclosed domain.”
This emphasis by Edgar and Davis presses further Kupfer’s much earlier (1975) resistance to a preoccupation with beauty and harmony: “some games are tense, stingy encounters in which defense dominates and scores are hard-earned as if squeezed from a resistant world.” But where Kupfer still confined his picture within a frame of “inclusive rhythms, denouements, consummations… wholeness and finality,” Edgar and Davis open their picture up to the compelling character of the disruptive, the fragmentary, and the dithyrambic in sport. Edgar sees this bringing of sport under a modernist aesthetic as thereby linking sport’s spectator value to the affirmation and renewal of everyday life, a link he thinks is broken by a focus on sport’s “traditional” aesthetic value.
Lev Kreft’s (2012) locating of sport aesthetics under the concept of the dramatic advances a related line of thought. He speaks of sport as performance which, while it is “under suspension of everyday reality,” yet retains a more intimate connection with everyday life than art does. Kreft “brackets” sport, but brackets it within the everyday rather than from it, and so in a way that distinguishes sport from art in several related ways already touched on. Unlike actors in a role in the theater, athletes and sports people perform “as themselves” and so are themselves humanly present and vulnerable in what they do. Partly for that reason and partly also because sport is (again unlike theater) unscripted, as real people performing in real time, sports performers are exposed to an ever-present risk of failure in their activity. Awareness of this vulnerability and exposure is then also a crucial element of spectator experience of sport. So is their uncertainty about the outcome: what will happen is not just unknown (as the outcome of a film or play seen for the first time may be unknown). It is also undetermined, to be actually created by these participants, and witnessed and commonly affirmed by those watching. These differences do not make sport either “better” or “less good” than art (even though Kreft himself suggests “real” sport drama is more compelling than “representational” theater). But the differences do help shape the distinctive character and possibilities of sporting drama. The “staging” of sport that gives it a distinctive space within the everyday – sports arenas and courts and stadiums – plays its role here too: any “failure,” for example, is (or should be) held within that frame, whether it is just a loss by a team that has given its all or instead a failure of nerve or of courage or of stamina, by individuals or most of a team. These are indeed real failures of nerve, stamina, and courage, but not all of their everyday implications are in play.
A shared theme of these (but also of some other) recent developments is the centrality of the human body to the dramatic significance of sports. Stephen Mumford (2011) says that “Sport shows us the excellences of embodied agency” – and not only the excellences of it but also, and poignantly, its limitations and vulnerabilities in the face of many challenges and strains. (This explains, in passing, why chess and scrabble are games but not sports – the excellences and vulnerabilities of the players’ embodied agency are not intrinsic to the drama of these activities.) While these excellences and vulnerabilities can be expressed in all sorts of other activities too – in war, perhaps, or in the performance of intricate surgery or of chopping wood, in peeling potatoes, or in rescuing a cat from a tree – in sport the activity is bracketed from the everyday purposes served by our embodied agency. Sport’s very “pointlessness” invites us just to attend wholeheartedly and whole-mindedly to the display itself.
What Edgar calls the meanings of sport, Kreft its distinctive dramatic mode, and Cordner and Davis its realization of life values can be seen as differing but related formulations of a common theme. In none of these formulations is the concept of the aesthetic salient. Indeed Edgar holds that a traditional preoccupation with the aesthetic has distracted from appreciation of the import of sport’s agonistic dimensions, for him the most important site of sport’s meaning: “while something that is beautiful has thereby intrinsic aesthetic value, it nonetheless lacks relevance to everyday life.” Edgar therefore urges a shift from an aesthetics to a hermeneutics of sport – as part of an attempt to bring out the full human range of sport’s implicit meanings. This reorientation is finding wider favor in the field. Cordner (2003) sounds one note of caution. Edgar expresses some plausible skepticism about a widespread admiration for beauty in gymnastic performance: there is perhaps less grace in the classical gymnast’s dazzling set piece than in some footballer’s marvelous intuitive negotiation of heavy defense, for example, or maybe even in her single momentary pivot. Cordner argues that the meaning of graceful movement lies in its affirming for us the possibility of finding ourselves “at home” in an uncontrollable and recalcitrant world. The wonder of the footballing moment is then this glimpse of harmony marvelously wrought from an erratic contingency of forces ever threatening our embodied agency. This is no reversion to a grace hermetically sealed from the agonistic struggle in a domain “lacking relevance to the everyday.” As enacting a transformative self-presencing out of the world’s chaotic energies, such grace is already the site of experienced meaning, intelligible only in intimate relation to both sport’s and life’s agon. If past discussion of aesthetics in sport has often reflected a devitalized conception of beauty, that was perhaps a limitation of the discussion rather than of beauty or grace itself.
The field of aesthetics and sport has continued to become richer. One effect of the ways it has become so is that the two questions arguably framing the field in its early days – “is the satisfaction of watching sports best explained in terms of sport’s aesthetic value,” and “is sport art?” – have been not sidestepped but transcended. Better and richer ways have been found of engaging with concerns that can be seen to underlie and to have motivated those questions. Increasingly, those working in the field of aesthetics and sport have reached for, and uncovered elements of, “a language that embraces the whole experience of sport” (Edgar 2013). The exploration will undoubtedly continue to range further.