How can people not tell the difference?
I am not an athlete. One look at me pretty much lets one know that. Not that I didn’t try, though. All through Jr. High I did my best to fit it. I tried ’em all: football, baseball, and basketball. One coach even let me on the basketball team in eighth grade. I played for the last three minutes of one game where we were already losing by 18 points. Other than that, I did my best to be encouraging from the bench. Because of my experience, however, I have an incredible amount of respect for those whose eye-hand coordination is sufficient to allow them to be successful at a sport or two.
When I got older, I tried my hand at some other sports that weren’t quite as dangerous, such as tennis and racquetball. Uhm, did I say they weren’t dangerous? That would be an error. One of my worst sprains ever came from diving across a racquetball court and missing the damn ball. It was fantastic exercise, mind you, but I was repeatedly covered in bruises and spraining something, which probably contributes to the arthritis pain I have now.
Sports are wonderful. I can sit and watch football for as long as the chips and beer hold out. I can watch baseball live if there are plenty of hot dogs, and I can sometimes even tolerate an NBA game as long as 1. I didn’t pay for the seats, 2. We start drinking upon arrival, and 3. I don’t have to drive home, ‘cuz I’m not going to be sober by the time we hit the fourth period. I have absolutely no axe to grind with sports in general. I’ve even been out on the golf course and am pretty sure the solution to doing well is taking four or five Xanax before hitting the course. Although, that probably violates some rule about athletics and drugs.
So, given that sports are sports and involve getting all sweaty and worked up and physical in one way or another, I am totally perplexed why entire athletic organizations would get so freaking upset by being told that they’re not arts. What the literal fuck? How can anyone in their right mind even begin to put the arts and sports in the same basket? Why would you even want to try? They are both two very distinct and different things with two dramatically different purposes. Why are we even having this conversation?
Blame Meryl Streep.
Here’s What Happened
When I wake up each morning, one of the first things I do is check to see what’s trending on Twitter. I try to prepare for our 5 Things You Should Know article before I go to bed each night, but there’s always the chance something can happen while I’m sleeping. I went to bed Sunday night before the Golden Globes because, 1. we had been up 17 hours already and was exhausted, and 2., find awards shows to generally be a complete waste of time. Monday morning, however, I get up to see that not only is #GoldenGlobes trending, so is #SportsAreNotArt and #MerylStreepForPresident. That was my first clue that something of reasonable significance had taken place.
Sure enough, it didn’t take long to discover that Ms. Streep had pretty much eviscerated the president-elect, who deserves every last bit of the condemnation heaped on him last night. That was a big story in of itself. What was getting just as much attention, at least on Twitter, was when Ms. Streep had said that football and MMA are not art.
Oh. My God. You would have thought that Ms. Streep had plunged a dagger into the very heart of the planet and that we all were about to die. The President of MMA even wrote and posted a huge ass response trying to convince Ms. Streep and the rest of the world that there is something remotely artistic about two people stepping into the ring and proceeding to pummel each other to the point of concussion and, most likely, permanent brain damage. Yeah, some people apparently think that there’s an art to bleeding.
Now, before we go too much further, we should take a look at Ms. Streep’s words in context. So, here’s a larger version of what she actually said:
I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates?
And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no, in Ireland, I do believe. And she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania.
So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts. They gave me three seconds to say this, so. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that — breathtaking, passionate work.
The longer point Ms. Streep would go on to make is how the president-elect continually demonstrates a lack of regard for anyone who is not white and rich and that the press needs to habitually call him out on his nonsense. Like the opinion or not, Ms. Streep has a right to it and since she had the platform to make that opinion heard she had every right to take advantage of that situation.
What she said about football and mixed martial arts not being the arts, however, is correct. They’re not the arts. They never have been and they never can be in their current forms. Moreover, we really don’t want to think of them as art. To put athletics into the art basket would require fundamentally changing their reason for existing. We wouldn’t like most sports if they concentrated on being artistic. We want them to be the physical display of training and skill in a competitive format that they are. We like them that way.
So, what’s the difference, really?
The MMA world seems to be much more upset about Ms. Streep’s remarks than is anyone in the NFL. Bellator CEO Scott Coker even took the time to write and tweet a response which says in part:
Please be my guest at the LA Forum on January 21st and you will see that Mixed Martial Arts is truly artistic – which will feature fighters from all over the world competing at a world class level.
Now, in case you’re not a huge MMA fan, which I am not, we looked up the event scheduled for the LA Forum on January 21. The multi-bout card includes the following people beating the living hell out of each other: Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen, Georgi Karakhanyan against Emmanuel Sanchez, Paul Daley against Brennan Ward, and Ralek Gracie against Hisaki Kato. The event is broadcast free on the SPIKE cable network. All the young men on the card are big, tough, and athletic. I’m sure they will all give their best in the ring. Those who enjoy watching this type of competition will be thrilled. However, not a damn thing about this event is going to be artistic except, possibly, the singing of the national anthem.
Why? Because sports are not arts. In case you were sleeping during your humanities class, or completely skipped out that semester, the are five basic arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry. Those have existed since the beginning of time and deserve to be respected as such. As society developed, somewhere along about 3,000 BCE, theatre and dance were added to the list. As part of that gradual progression and the development of technology, film was added as an extension of the theatre. Photography, video production/editing, design, sequential art, conceptual art, and printmaking have been added as an extension of painting. Arts related to painting, sculpture, and architecture as generally classified as visual arts while those related to music, dance, and theatre as classified as performing arts.
Now, please, take a close look. Do you see anything in that list that looks like a competitive sport? Granted, dancing is extremely athletic, which probably explains why I suck at that, too. Still, a dance performance isn’t a competition like a sport is. No one keeps score. There’s no audience hoping that the prima ballerina pulls a hamstring so that the understudy can win. Dance is not a sport. Sport is not an art.
While I could spend hours nit-picking all the minute details that hold arts apart from sport, the primary difference is that one is a competitive exhibition whose purpose is to determine a definite winner while the other is a presentation for the visual and visceral pleasures of its audience over that of those creating. Athletes want to win, to beat their competition. Artists want only to please an audience in some form or fashion. There’s no contest. In the case of visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and architecture, there’s not even an end point so long as the works still exist. They can go on and deliver pleasure and expression for centuries provided they are given appropriate care.
To be art the work has to attempt some significance outside itself, either through its impact on society and culture or to the greater art itself. There must be an aesthetic element to the work and contain an element of emotion that varies from artist to artist and work to work. Art requires no participation of anyone outside the artist and yet is fulfilled in its exhibition. If one is an Art History major, one classifies art through both form and function. Art requires a unique creative act whose interpretation is variable by either the performer or the audience, and sometimes both.
I suppose, if one really stretches the definitions, one might claim that some sports figures are artistic in their work, but then we still come back to the fact that sport must, inherently, be competitive. Sport is a contest; there is a constant adversary. The fundamental of success in sports is that one follows the rules for their function within their sport or one is disqualified and penalized. Even in a sport seemingly as benign as golf, one must still exhibit some form of aggression against that stupid little ball if one hopes to ever win. None of those things are appropriate for art.
And none of this explains why anyone would bother to be upset that the two are distinct and separate entities. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone trying to turn art into a sport. Most artists I know would bristle at the very idea. So why would a sport try to portray itself as an art? What is the purpose of such an attempt? Are athletes feeling left out that, despite their million dollar salaries, they’re somehow left out or cheated by being portrayed as artists? If football players want to feel more like real artists, then perhaps they could start by attempting to get by on one-tenth their current salaries; that would still have them being paid more than most artists. I simply cannot imagine why anyone in sports would be offended by Ms. Streep’s comment.
The only thing I can surmise is that the athletes who are upset are simply jealous that there’s an arena from which they are excluded, which is interesting since I’ve known multiple athletes who were also wonderful artists in genres that are actually art. It’s not that the person can’t be an artist, but more that the sport itself isn’t art.
Sports are sport, and they’re a lot of fun and have an important place in our society. The arts are art, and they’re a lot of fun and have an important place in our society. Yet, art and sport as distinct, separate entities occupying different spaces that have no need to overlap. Together, with other fields such as science and math, and philosophy and literature, they make our world a very wonderful place to be. We don’t all need to occupy the same space. Be cool with what you are and let others be what they are and we’ll all get along much better.