How are sport and art related, if at all? This was the question to which Andrew Edgar produced some thought-provoking answers yesterday at the Gate, in our special Made in Roath edition of Cardiff Philosophy Cafe. It’s evident that there are some sports for which aesthetic criteria are important in deciding who wins or loses, as in ski jumping or figure skating. But, as Andrew pointed out, there are numerous ways in which sport connects with everyday life in ways that provoke us into using aesthetic concepts to understand what is going on.
Narratives of various kinds, and the ways in which sporting events fit into, express and extend these, provide excellent examples. Andrew mentioned the Foreman-Ali fight that formed the basis of When We Were Kings as one example of an event which relates to broad cultural narratives of endurance and self-sacrifice (Ali soaking up relentless punishment for eight rounds before knocking Foreman out in the ninth). Narratives of self-development, tragedy and comedy also make their way in, at different times and in different places (although, as Andrew pointed out with respect to This Sporting Life, there are other kinds of sporting narratives than ones about self-overcoming through discipline). But finer-grained stories also feature: the relationships between football clubs, like Rangers and Celtic, or Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, invest individual matches and incidents within with added significance, born of religious, cultural or class conflict.
participants explored these and a variety of other ideas, with the role and value of improvisation in sport and art, and the common root of both in play being prominent topics (what do we add to play to make sport, and what do we add to it, on the other hand to make art?). There was a tension, some felt, inherent in sport between ideas of competition and beauty: Immanuel Kant‘s definition of beauty as “purposefulness without [external, instrumental] purpose” was introduced by Andrew as one way to think about what might be beautiful about sport.
Some in the audience felt that there was a problem here. it was hard to think about sport without thinking about one particular kind of purpose – winning or excelling, which might require beating a record, scoring most points, coming top of the league at the end of the season, etc. And this might mean that the teams or individuals who are judged as the most excellent players of their sport may not be the ones who play “beautifully”. The idea, as expressed by Arsene Wenger, for example, that one should not only win but win in a particular way (one that involves particular aesthetic or ethical criteria), may not hold general assent in all sports, though it might be more essential to some than to others.