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Artists May Be Like Athletes…But Art is Not

by Andrew Swensen

In a recent article here at The Muse Dialogue, my colleague Erin Yanacek put forth the proposition that artists and athletes share much in common. Indeed she is right. Yet she opens the article with the statement that I disagreed with her basic premise, and indeed she is right again.

Erin makes the point that both artists and athletes share a common trait in their pursuit of excellence, in their will for mastery. Quite true, to be sure. Yet that claim does not separate athletes and artists from a host of other human activity that involves mastery. By this line of thinking, we could also conclude that artists are much like computer programmers, electricians, and someone who spends 10,000 hours to master the latest version of the Legend of Zelda. Yet 10,000 hours committed with uncompromising will to mastery of the 18 different Zelda titles does not make artists out of video game devotees.

Athletics Meets Art in the Form of Mario Lemieux (Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins)

Athletics Meets Art in the Form of Mario Lemieux (Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins)

I was trying to think of activities to which I have devoted 10,000 hours of my life. Having lived in Boston for seven years, I think that I spent 10,000 hours in my car. Unfortunately, there is nothing artful about spending three hours on Route 128 to cover the 10 miles from Burlington to Waltham. Of course, Erin is talking about the pursuit of excellence, and so motivation is important to how we spend 10,000 hours. My point for the time being is simply that devoting the same amount of time to two things and even developing a level of mastery do not mean that those two things have kindred natures.

As I was reading Erin’s article — and it is an excellent argument, to be sure — I could see the fascinating psychology that lies behind her commitment to both the trumpet and athleticism. I will go even further to add a few details that impress me greatly: in a single week this month, she has 1) run a half-marathon 2) performed a weekend of concerts with the River City Brass, one of Pittsburgh’s best ensembles, and 3) passed through the final requirements of her academic year in the conservatory of Carnegie Mellon University. I am impressed — and exhausted just to read that list of achievements.

The psychological experience of pursuing excellence is distinct. Being in the “zone” can be similar in two separate activities. Yet once again that similarity does not make the activities alike. We can pursue excellence at many things. Equities traders spend years honing their excellence in buying and selling at exactly the right time, surgeons spend years learning to diagnose and treat illness, and electricians spend years to earn the professional title of “master”. Yet the presence of excellence and mastery does not mean that art resembles stock trading, surgery, and wiring a house, even if one performs them with talent and skill in the pursuit of excellence.

Sports at their highest level come down to a competitive motivation and outcome. The goal is to win. While there is tremendous drama in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup, the goal is not the drama, and no team wants to lose three games just in order to guarantee drama for their fans, for achievement is measured by victory. Similarly, achievement lies in profit for the stockbroker, patient recovery for the surgeon, and 120 volts of safely directed current for the electrician. As for the Legend of Zelda,as far as I can tell achievement seems to lie in the number of hours squandered in a non-communicative state.

Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Photo: The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration)

Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Photo: The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration)

The goal of making art is art. One does not make a work of art in order to “beat” someone else, which is precisely why the dance competitions that are such the rage of the moment are really corruptions of an art form. Some art works are better than others — Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will always be better than most anything on the shelves at the local Target, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is better than anything at the cineplex this weekend. Nonetheless, the purpose and success of a work exist independently of any notion of winning or losing. Once one rises to greatness, it is simply great because it has achieved something sublime, something uniquely aesthetic — and not because it “won” over another work. To put it differently, Anna Karenina and The Godfather will always be great, but not because they are “better.” They need nothing else to which to compare their greatness.

So art has an entirely different, and frankly unique, set of goals. Did it move you? Reach deep into your heart? Make you laugh or cry? Make you delight in wonder? Did it say something important in a compellingly aesthetic way?

This is not to say that artistry lacks athleticism, especially in the sense of the mastering physical technique such as in music performance and dance. Yet a technical master is still only a vessel awaiting the distinctly artistic moments of inspiration and imagination. As for artistic athletes, there might just be some moments where the artist and athlete do become one. Consider Evgenia Kanaeva (video below). What she does is stunning, but it almost seems a shame to call this a sport and even award a “winner.” I would have rather seen her at Cirque du Soleil, so that at the end we could just sit in awe — and not wait for the medals podium. Then consider Mario Lemieux’s goal in Game 2 of the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals. OK, now that is art.

Mario Lemieux, Game 2 of 1991 Stanley Cup

Evgenia Kanaeva, 2012 Olympics

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Whoa. The gauntlet has been thrown. As a computer programmer, I believe that programming is first and foremost an art, so I’m going to write a rebuttal to the entire mindset that this article seems to have.

  2. To argue that computer programming is an art is not a rebuttal to the article. In fact, it could well be a support of the article, and so I look forward to your upcoming comments.

    Computer programming can be an art if it generates art. The distinction in the article is about goals and outcomes. I have seen computer programmers generate a great deal of art. I have also seen computer programmers generate things that are not art — though certainly are works of talent, skill, and mastery. Wood carvers, painters, and weavers can all make things that are art, and things that are not art. My principal point is the fact that their skill or talent alone does not define the outcome as art.


    Andrew Swensen

  3. Though the question ‘Whay is art?’ can of course only be answered subjectively, it seems obvious to me that everything is art, and everybody is an artist. The bigger question–also subjective–is: ‘Can this art show me something that is worth my time?’


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