Sports are culture, not art

A few weeks ago, “The Hilltop Monitor” ran an editorial that was critical of Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe award acceptance speech, in which she made some—seemingly—disparaging comments about Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and football.

“Hollywood is crawling with foreigners and outsides, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and Mixed Martial Arts, which are not the arts,” Streep said, met by thunderous applause.

In this editorial, Streep was criticized for contributing to a stereotype that “Hollywood stars are arrogant, hypocritical and out of touch.” This is a fair point to make. Saying that without cinema there would be nothing to watch but football and MMA is an unnecessary inclusion, and it certainly sounds elitist. Implicit in this comment is that whatever Streep and her colleagues are doing is more important than, say, an MMA athlete.

As divisive and pointless as this is, I can’t help but be annoyed that her much more important point, that President Trump’s (although she never refers to him by name) stance on immigration is highly damaging, was overshadowed by this throwaway comment about sports. In the days following, commentary about her acceptance speech was dominated by this flippant inclusion in what I can only suspect was a tactic to divert attention away from her political critique.

This should really come as no surprise. Right-wing media outlets can’t be expected to take seriously the liberal Mother Theresa who is Meryl Streep, nor the oasis of wealthy Democrats that is Hollywood. But criticisms of Streep’s comments about sports do take away from the other aspects of her speech, and it should be recognized as a political maneuver.

That all being said, Streep does have a point that sports are not the arts. This is not to say that sports are not culture; they most certainly are, considering that, as this editorial pointed out, football events attract millions and millions more viewers than award shows. Anything that attracts that much attention and contributes to a shared cultural consciousness on that scale must be recognized as culture.

Yet, to take issue with the comment that sports are not the arts seems misguided. Sure, one can emphasize that MMA has the word “arts” in it. And there is something to be said about the way sports uses the human body as a kind of canvass. That because there is a degree of intense athleticism necessary to have a career in professional sports, the human body does need to reach a certain level of perfection, and this can seem artful.

But if art encourages us to think differently about ourselves, about the world, or if art invites us to make observations about the human condition or experience, I neglect to see how a football game or an MMA fight measures up to painting, sculpting or filmmaking.

Recognizing that I’m coming from a particular bias here, as a student of the humanities, it is not my intention to seem exclusionary or elitist. Rather I hope to problematize and add to a discussion about what is at stake when we broaden our sense of what can be called “art.”

If football or MMA is a particular passion or pastime to you, I want you to be able to enjoy it. It would be judgmental of me to assert that everyone must value, say, postmodern French cinema, and that this is even better than sports.

People should enjoy what they enjoy, yet at the same time be critical of how they engage in culture.


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