I’m frequently asked why I feel compelled and connected to the culture surrounding most of America’s professional sports leagues. As a lifelong fan of most major professional sports (sorry, Hockey), I’ve never been able to form a solid answer. It is puzzling to most friends of mine how and why I balance a connection to the litany of “high-art” productions as well as the typically frowned-upon culture of sports and sports media.
It has only recently occurred to me that perhaps my fascination with art is not dissimilar from my fascination with sports. To that end, I’d like to open up a space for exploring the possible “aesthetic” of sports. A few disclaimers: This was written with minimal to no research on any precedent or prior work regarding this topic. This is solely speculation. Also, I’m fully aware of the depths of pretension this analysis will dive into. That’s okay. It’s for fun. Calm down.
Alright, now let’s get to it. To have a starting point, I’d like to simply attempt to draw a few parallels between the way we think about sports and the way we think about art, and see where that gets us.
First off- What exactly is the medium at hand? In art, obviously, there is an endless degree of delineation one can consider when attempting to ascribe a single “form”. At the broadest possible level, there are performing arts (music, theater), visual arts (painting, photography), literary arts (prose, poetry), and an ever-changing array of combinations made especially possible by the affordances of digital technology. In sports, one could draw a similar delineation between types of games- Team Sports vs Individual Sports comes to mind, as well as a variety of other possibilities. Genre is a key component of sports culture. Each genre demands specific participation practices.
Who are the artists at hand? The players seem most apt to fit the bill. These players apply a degree of rigor in order to end up with a product that ascends to high degrees of visual and performative pleasure. They practice and work under specified regimens, for the purposes of consumption and, of course, profit. Coaches are directors- devisors of strategy, big-picture seers, seeking the greatest strengths from the individual participants.
Strategy itself is akin to method. Within every art medium, different methods are applied that roughly align with movements, schools of thought, and legacies left by individual titans of the craft. Sports are no different. Every game can be approached differently, and style of play is highly malleable to the trends and demands of the time.
These all may seem like superficial comparisons, but there is an essential foundation to all of this. These elements all come together in order to engender a symbolic space for the consumer. Sports, like art, are meant to allow ourselves to explore emotions, actions, and interactions on a plane that requires nothing of us besides our attention. We consume sports in awe, unaware of the exact processes that went into producing a final product, but highly observant of what is being presented. Many sports are violent, indeed, but that doesn’t equate to mindless participation. Violence is a mainstay in the human psyche- it always has been. If sports provide metaphoric space to explore traditionally repressed elements of the psyche, then the goals and the possibilities are aligning with art in a way much closer than initially imagined.
There are obviously key differences as well. The notion of the participant in sports troubles pinpointing the “creator”, a mainstay in aesthetic thought that is difficult to live without. And, of course, arguably the key difference is that sports are traditionally played with goals and outcomes in mind. There is no neutral exploration in Sports, only a desire to Win.
There are other realms of my personal interests that I think would benefit from such an exercise (electoral politics, for one). But, for now, applying the frameworks and logics of the aesthetic to realms traditionally reserved for other purposes provides for a useful experiment in the blending of symbolic and material space.
There isn’t nearly enough space here to go over more direct parallels as well (i.e., the “beauty” discourse surrounding plenty of sports and their unique human feats). As I’ve said, this is more of a creation of a problem space than anything else.
Anyway. Go Padres.