Can art be sport and sport be art? Is the difference between the two as clear as the finest Rembrandt masterpiece? Or are the boundaries between football and art as blurred as the lines on an abstract Picasso?
It seems that nearly every week players such as Messi and Ronaldo display groundbreaking feats that wow the worldwide football community. Football has been played for 150 years and yet these superstars continue to perform in ways never seen before. As pundits eulogise such skills, the language used is the same as when debating theatre, literature, or music. Watching this ‘beautiful game’ of ours we witness ‘finesse’ in the form of Pirlo’s passing, whilst experienced ‘virtuosos’ and youthful ‘prodigies’ such as Francesco Totti and Neymar inspire and impress. Matches between rivals hold ‘romantic’ undertones, penalty shootouts are ‘epic’, tactics become ‘contemporary’ and players ‘icons.’ In a nutshell, when one falls in love with football, every aspect of the sport is perceived as an art form.
This is a highly glamorised notion however, as in truth football is very seldomally judged as true art with most recognising a division between the two. In calling Ronaldo an ‘artist’ it is not meant to actually represent his occupation, but used as an evaluative analogy as opposed to a illustrative one. The key issue is deciding if the division that separates football (and all sport) from art is as obvious as we imagine? Perhaps there is a case for arguing that football actually is art? Any reasonable debate must depend upon what the definition of art is.
I am no scholar in the issue of determining what art is, however it seems logical to pinpoint what features connect all forms of art together, combining them as one, and marking them as different from all else. Philosophers such as Descartes and Sartre, explain art in terms of representation, however the increase in modern day abstract and conceptual art show that everyday items can be art (even if they symbolise nothing). In the 21st Century even an unmade bed (see Tracy Emin – ‘My Bed’) is art. As modern art galleries fill up with such examples, an accurate definition appears difficult.
I have read of academics that differentiate art from non-art by the sort of experiences they cause. Simply, art is designed to inspire involvement on an aesthetic level. But then the problem occurs of how to you define this ‘aesthetic involvement.’ Others believe that something can only be deemed a work of art if it’s been given the rank of ‘art’ by those considered part of the ‘art world’ – a collection of experts that create, safeguard, and review art. Again, this broad definition also appears flawed as interpreting art in terms of the artworld and vice versa, seems like an endless cycle of undefined stupidity.
Arts definition vs. Football
The reason all of the above is relevant is that since art today is such an undefined subject, it’s hard to argue that sport, and football, shouldn’t be considered part of it. At first glance football seems to tick the boxes that all the attempted definers of art agree upon. It is an ‘artefact’ (something created, managed, or installed by man.) It is also designed to be the focal point of our attention (another thing that scholars agree separates art from non-art.) Unlike a TV advert (which isn’t considered art), football and artwork are not means to an end but ends in themselves. Be it a multi coloured vibrant painting or the electricity of a sporting event; we are fixed upon what’s directly in front of us and see the opaque beauty, not looking through its transparency.
In the subject of classics, the arts went hand in hand with religion. For the Greeks, watching a play was a communal act of devotion, a form of shared worship. Football can provide comparable situations. Joining the mass sea of excited bodies walking towards the stadium we become a part of the crowd, one with a shared hope and that is united in faith, we belong to a thousand strong congregation. Art critic Robert Hughes said that, “the cathedrals of the industrial age were the train stations.” To update Hughes: football stadiums are the cathedrals of the post-industrial age.
Personally I watch football like I was at the theatre. An attention gripping drama performed in front of a live audience, with a set time period, and a restbite midway for refreshments and debate. There is a cast of characters that divide opinion, we support the protagonist like we do our football clubs, feeling their highs and lows and putting our hopes on theirs. The villain in both shows is nearly always dressed in black.
Competition; the deal breaker?
There is one fundamental difference between football and art, something that separates actors from athletes, and that is that the issue of competition. Playing to win is the primary principle of football. Competition is so important that if it you withdrew it’s existence from the game, then you’d no longer have a game. Despite competition being specifically what separates sport from art, it doesn’t necessarily suggest that football cannot be considered an art. Take architecture for example. The architect, like the footballer, is driven by non-artistic goals and constraints. The footballers primary aim is to be victorious, the architects is to create a practical structure. Yet far from preventing architecture from being an art, these non-artistic goals serve to condition and facilitate the architect’s peculiar form of artistic activity. The necessity to design a functional building (considering the financial, spatial, and material limitations) is what makes architecture an art form, and let’s the architect perform their work. Using this example, is it therefore possible to say that it’s precisely competition that makes footballers go about their work? To perform their art? Is the opposition a tool emplace to allow the games greatest footballing ‘artists’ to display their skills and create theatrics?
To some the ‘Beautiful Game’ is an ugly one, and to others an unmade bed is not just an unmade bed, but what is universally agreed upon is that football, like art, will continue to divide opinion and we are all richer for it.
“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.” – J.B. Priestley