Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Art vs Sport

As I said in a previous post, I wanted to talk about figure skating a bit more. One of the criticisms I read somewhat frequently of the Winter Olympics (particularly in comparisons between the Winter and Summer Games) is that the Winter Olympics doesn't have as many actual sports as Summer does. For one reason or another, the Winter Games do seem to have a higher percentage of events that are "gray area" sports - they blur the line between art and athletics, and this causes some viewers to quibble over whether or not those events qualify as worthy of inclusion in the Olympic Games.

This debate is particularly relevant in figure skating. At some point during the men's competition, host Bob Costas was interviewing guest Dick Button, Olympic gold medalist and current television analyst for figure skating. Button made a comment about the ongoing "art vs. sport" debate, and his argument essentially was that figure skating couldn't be just art because it was so physical, and physically demanding. I've never liked this argument, and I've heard it applied to defend cheerleading and gymnastics in addition to figure skating. The reason that I don't like the argument is that having danced for some fifteen years of my life, I can sure as shootin' stake the claim that dance is some pretty damn physical performance art. And it's not like dance is some obscure thing that people won't have heard of when they argue that any "stuff" that requires strenuous motion is sport, not art. The implication behind this whole argument, of course is that art is inferior to sport; otherwise, fans of "sparts" such as gymnastics, cheerleading, and figure skating wouldn't feel like they had to justify the validity of those things as sports rather than arts in the first place.

In the case of the Olympics, the tendency seems to be to believe that in the world's most prestigious and anticipated athletic competition, the events need to be Real Sports™. Anything else is just taking up space. But if events that can be arguably considered art are in fact highly athletic, then why should it matter if they're more arty or if they're more sporty? Why is it so important for so many to place sports above the arts?

The two being set at odds goes back to the root of high school tropes that everyone recognizes, where you have the arty set usually inhabiting a more geeky nature, while the sports-playing jocks are typically seen as ruling the school (even if their stereotype states that they're deficient in brain matter.) Granted, (female) dancers usually tend to get a pass from the geek treatment when these tropes are employed, but even if they're not necessarily painted as nerds, they're largely ignored. As far as the arts go, dance may be more or less respected, but it's still art, and no one has really tried to make the case that it's a sport just because of its physicality.

I kind of wonder if in the minds of many, one of the biggest distinctions between (performing) art and sport is something that is never articulated. Namely, that people see things that are traditionally graceful or "feminine" and they associate that with artistry; meanwhile, things that are traditionally aggressive or "masculine" never are questioned as anything other than sport. This gets interesting when you consider, as I mentioned earlier, that the art vs. sport debate generally begs the question that sport is better than art. In fact, I wouldn't surprising at all if subconsciously, that is a distinction that people tend to make. It would fall right in with a well-established pattern of activities that are seen as traditionally feminine being considered in society as of less worth or value that activities that are seen as traditionally masculine. And it makes perfect sense that events like figure skating would be questioned as a sport given the delicacy and fluidity of many of the movements; like ballet, figure skating is meant to look smooth and easy - "feminine" - even as the dancer or athlete is truly working his or her butt off.

For me, I draw the line very simply: if one's standing in the event is determined by a subjective measure, like a score from a panel of judges, there is probably a strong artistic component to what you're doing. My standard, therefore, includes not only the more hotly debated events, but also events like snowboard half-pipe and ski jumping aerials. Art in practice is in the eye of the beholder, and its merit is generally appraised via the net sum of its praises and critiques. This includes the performing arts, which again, can be highly athletic. Therefore, frankly, I'd say that all of the events I mentioned in this post are things that I would consider to be more on the side of art than sport. But for me, I don't value one more highly than the other, so it's not a put-down to the events that are competitively scored by a judging panel. I understand the competitive and athletic value of physical and performing arts.

But what does that say of the Olympics? Is it not supposed to be a sporting competition? Frankly, I'm not sure that I have the answer. If one concludes that it's a celebration of athleticism, and a competition among athletes, then I think the inclusion of all of the current events is pretty justified. Certainly everything in the Winter games requires tremendous strength, endurance, and physical performance. All of the athletes have trained their bodies to be in peak physical condition, whether or not their events are judged by a human for artistry or by a clock for speed. Not everyone has to like every event - I find cross-country skiing pretty boring to watch - but I'd love to see people move away from the tired denigration of some events by accusing them of being art instead of sport. For one thing, it's not an insult, and for another thing, it's quite inconsequential in the end. If any one of the civilian critics could get up on an ice rink and manage to look graceful on their first pass around the rink, let alone complete a triple jump and suspend the arabesque landing, they'd probably have to admit that there is a ton of athleticism there and that indeed, the property of physicality is not restricted to traditional sports.

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