I’m afraid that my thoughts on Denis Dutton’s new book, The Art Instinct, are still heavily disjointed. Before I address the book in a more steady fashion, there is one point that I feel capable of writing about coherently now. May sports be a subset of the set of things categorized as art? My opinion is no secret: I think every human endeavor is art. Professor Dutton disagrees.

He argues in chapter 3, “What Is Art?”, that when answering the question, we should work backwards, not trying to find a universal (or minimal, and therefore useless) answer to the question, as some believe I have, but rather by identifying works of unarguable distinction as art first. Then we should identify features of these works or qualities of the experience of these works that ought to be generalized. In the book, Professor Dutton identifies (1) direct pleasure, (2) skill and virtuosity, (3) style, (4) novelty and creativity, (5) criticism, (6) representation, (7) special focus, (8) expressive individuality, (9) emotional saturation, (10) intellectual challenge, (11) art traditions and institutions, (12) and imaginative experience as these criteria. None alone, I believe he argues, is a necessary and/or sufficient condition for the work to be considered art. He omits two conditions that he basically says go without saying (13) being an artifact and (14) being normally made or performed for an audience.

To address the question of what is art is beyond the scope of this post, but let me say that I think the Professor overreaches on 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14. In the case of sports, the Professor argues that while 1, 2, 5, 7, and 9 may apply to sports, one of the most important ones, 12, is missing. ( It seems maybe this is a necessary condition? ) According to the Professor:

For the ordinary sports fan who cheers the home team, who actually wins the game, not in imagination, but in reality, remains the overwhelming issue. Winning and losing is the principal source of emotion, which is not expressed, as it is in artistic works, but rather incited in crowds by a real-world sporting outcome. Were sports fans authentic aesthetes, so my speculation goes, they would care little or nothing for scores and results but only enjoy games in terms of style and economy of play, skill and virtuosity, and expressiveness of movement. […] [ A game is not a make believe event ] offered up for imaginative contemplation but is rather a real-world event….

Arguing on behalf of sports as art, I will make several arguments that I do not think are mutually exclusive. First, at times, the Professor argues that we should engage in naturalistic definitions of art that seek the fundamental values of the category “art” instead of seeking a universal definition that somehow encompasses everything from landscape paintings to Duchamps’ “readymades.” If he accepts this premise, I would gladly take my chances that most would recognize in sports a highly aesthetic quality as Plato did. I believe from something I read many years ago, but have since lost sourcing on, that Plato argued (amateur) athletic performance was among the purest of arts because of the sacrifice involved by the athlete who worked so hard to train and perform for the benefit of audience. Barring this argument, second, seeing the art in diving, synchronized swimming, and gymnastics is easy to concede based on Dutton’s principles alone and they do not contravene his warning that concern for victory is a dealbreaker.

Third, consider golf. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the relative beauty of this swing compared to this one is simply blind. ( The element of virtuosity doesn’t even come into play! ) Then there’s the golf course, the distinctive ways in which players approach a putt, a chip, or a drive. There’s a million ways a woman or man can play golf for a particular hole, round, or tournament. After a swing, there’s a million things that could happen — we watch because of much more than just a concern for winning. We watch to see what will happen next, which is certainly an imaginative endeavor before the event occurs, but is implied in every moment of a sporting endeavor, especially golf, especially this past weekend when Paddy Harrington rushed some shots so poorly while Tiger Woods kept his form.

Fourth, consider that in American football, there are almost two dozen players simultaneously performing on the field. Each of these performs according to her or his practiced and focused talents, sometimes quite independently of the rest of the team. Although Dutton is right that winning is usually of paramount concern, we all watch with bated breath to see if Tom Brady can break a single game yardage record. If that’s not art, then what about how perfect the spiral throw is? How well the right shoulder fade is executed into the end zone? Are viewers not often prone to commentary on these measures? We all know who throws the ball the most beautifully whether in short or long-yardage situations. Personally, my favorite football artist of all time is Steve Spurrier, who came up with and executed more trick plays than any coach I know, not to mention the most glorious offensive scheme of all time. Check out this, this, and… if I stayed doing this I’d be here all night. It will suffice to say that I whole-heartedly believe that pass-heavy offensive schemes raise the football art to new heights, while old fashioned 1960s style running, and even spread option offenses, make me sick.

Fifth, consider the transcendent moments shown in movies which are mere derivatives of it. We root for the characters and want them to win just the same as we do in sports, though it may be said that it is not usually the primary concern, which was one of Dutton’s entirely arbitrary condition to distinguish sport from the rest of the arts. Here’s a clip from The Legend of Bagger Vance where Bagger explains, as best he can, the concept of artistic inadvertency that I wrote of only a few weeks ago.

Or how about this, from the “new classic” Rudy?

That was based on a real story and almost all of that final scene substantially occurred in real life. Far from being concerned about winning, tens of thousands of people wanted to see a never-used player finally get a shot. No, art is not about drawing arbitrary lines based on what suits us to be called art. Art is about possibilities. And that is why, if it must be so, sports satisfy the 12th condition. We’re always imagining possibilities with what could happen — the way other shots would have been taken in golf, other approaches occur in football, and there’s absolutely no shortage of metaphor coming from sports that applies to real life, which also has artistic connotations.

In truth, though, all this demonstrates the fallacy of the 12th condition. It shouldn’t be there. I suspect it is only articulated for the purpose of keeping sports from the arts. In this, perhaps Dutton resembles some of his aesthetician forebears, Immanuel Kant and Clive Bell. Dutton writes,

Philosophers of art naturally end to begin theorizing from their own aesthetic predilections, their own sharpest aesthetic responses, however strange or limited these may be. Kant had a keen interest in poetry, but his dismissal of the function of color in painting is so eccentric that it event suggests a visual impairment. Bell, who candidly acknowledged his inability to appreciate music, centered his attention on painting, extending his views fallaciously to other arts, such as literature.

It seems to be the same case but with Dutton and sports. Much to the author’s credit however, he writes that some conditions may be added or subtracted from the list, and that in any case, he is aware of the sports point as a jumping off point for further debate. Hence this post.

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