In the late 1990s, Reebok sold a shirt that said, “Sport is an art.” It’s a nice idea for the LeBron James or Muhammad Ali fanatics, but is it really the case? Can cutthroat, competitive athletics correspond with the same flowery, melodic sphere as Claude Monet and Johann Sebastian Bach?
Sports are a manifestation of human expression often disregarded as an art form for being too combative, too violent, too limited and just simply not beautiful enough.
Getting punched in the face doesn’t seem to live up to the beauty of the “Mona Lisa” or “Starry Night”, but for professional boxer Brandon Brewer, art has no boundaries.
“A true artist will not discriminate against something that is or isn’t art. There is no such thing. What is [next to the definition of] art should be a picture of infinity,” he said. “That’s the answer to, ‘What is art?’ Who’s to say ‘This isn’t an art form,’ or ‘That isn’t an art form,’?”
The 32-year-old light middleweight champion has spent the last eight years of his life eating, sleeping and breathing combat sports. He often walks around, hands blocking his face, dodging imaginary fists. It’s a vision he sees in his mind constantly.
“It’s a physical art form. It’s the art of body movement. It’s the art of human movement. It’s the art of how this guy moves his body compared to this guy, how he moves his body. It’s so interesting when you really look at different styles and different types and structures of body, and then to see them move in the purest form,” Brewer said.
“That is art. It’s art in one of the most beautiful forms, really.”
What Brewer sees in his mind is no different than what a painter sees when he approaches a new project. It takes months to form the perfect execution of what he’s about to do in the ring – his canvas. He starts with a canvas that is completely blank. He doesn’t believe in so-called game plans.
“Like Bruce Lee said, ‘Be water.’ Water simply adjusts and molds to whatever is around it. So, I just go in there and see what type of picture [the opponent is] trying to paint, and I adjust accordingly.”
Brewer truly believes the vision an athlete has while training and performing is the same as the vision a painter or musician gets. Still, many people see it as barbaric and reject it for fear of having a bad influence on society.
“It is art in the purest form … The styles that this guys presents compared to the style that that guy presents, and essentially, it’s this guy’s painting against that guy’s painting,” he said.
“When I fight, it’s an art to me. It’s how I move off of how the other guy moves. To me, it’s like painting a picture, really. You use the brushes that you have and the colours that you have, and maybe things don’t mix accordingly in a certain area, and then you adjust … We don’t have paintbrushes, our paintbrushes are our hands. We don’t have colours, our colours are our moves. That’s pure body movement. That’s beautiful. Over time, people will accept it.”
When people think of dance, they think of the beautiful fluid movements of the body. They think of art. What they don’t see is the hours of painstaking rigour it takes, both physically and mentally, to perfect those movements, and the athletic precision it demands.
Lesandra Dodson is contemporary choreographer by trade and teaches in the Fine Arts department at St. Thomas University. She’s also the co-artistic director of the coop, a wing of Solo Chicken productions. She said a kind of adaptability and imagination is key to both professional athletes and professional dancers or artists.
“I know when I work with certain artists, the ones I enjoy working with the most are the ones that are the most open and able to make changes quickly as well … I think that is something that is key to a really high-functioning athlete as well, that they can be creative in their training and they can be adaptable,” Dodson said.
“So, they can kind of step outside the box or the parameters of what they’re used to … You have to always be able to think on your feet.”
Dodson said the artistic instinct and creative process are two mysterious concepts that athletic artists have ingrained in their DNA. It’s a feeling that blindly guides them through their craft.
“The best laid plans can often be put upside down, and I think that once you get into the studio, other things happen and a good artist will pay attention to those signs, pay attention to mistakes because sometimes mistakes can be brilliant,” she said.
“So, the exciting thing is not knowing how it’s going to take shape or how it’s going to sum up, summate, and how it will take you down a journey you never thought it could take you, and that’s the exciting thing about making art.”
This is often the essence of anyone who has ever created something great. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in her book The Mind of the Maker that the idea for something is timeless and always alive. It exists outside of the temporary existence of humans. Human beings encompass the energy that can shape it into something powerful everyone can feel. This is the process of creation, one that proves to be anything but simple and average.
“You have to start becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Dodson said.
“I think that’s the same as athletes and being open with it and stop putting barriers up … I think if you open your heart and your emotions, almost like a higher-power type thing is going to lead you in that certain direction that you just have to follow which is quite exciting.”
Both sports and arts seem to be universally capable of evoking human emotion in a profound, unspeakable way. A single play or a single note can bring a flood of tears to one’s eyes.
Brewer sees these reactions as being universally caused but individually felt. Everyone feels something when they watch a boxing match, but for each person, even the judges, those feelings are completely different.
“You look at the clouds. When we look at the clouds, I see something different and you see something different. Some guys see two guys going in there and trying to knock each other’s heads off, other guys watch the beautiful ballet of the foot movement and foot work,” he said.
“Going side to side, front to back, taking angles, and a lot of guys have an appreciation for the head movement and the art of knowing how to roll with the punches, or not rolling the punches but completely dodging them by millimetres.
Other people have an appreciation for the conditioning or the speed or the power … it’s an endless amount of ideas. You can’t look at a splatter of paint on the wall and not come up with a million different things that people see. It’s appreciation for everything, endless.”
The emotion built up in athleticism is where much of its beauty comes from. At the 2010 Olympic Games, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette glided her way to a bronze medal just days after her mother died of a sudden heart attack. She channeled every ounce of grief and heartache into her performance, just as a musician might after a similar experience. The country cried with her.
For Dodson, the endurance of humans makes art beautiful.
“I feel like in dance and some of those physical forms that … we do understand more than we can possibly put that into words … because sometimes there are no words. I feel something, I feel something in a big way,” she said.
“Sometimes sports can feel quite emotional as well. A lot of the emotion is from the backstory, how they’ve trained, or they’ve overcome whatever, some human problem to get to that level, to train passed [it] and just the human spirit, and how it’s so strong and enduring and those types of things inspire me.
I watch the Olympics and tears are coming down my face because I feel things as well … It’s still an expression and a celebration of the human form and what we can do in these beautiful human forms that we’ve been given.”
Art has the ability to reveal things about human beings they otherwise might not have known. The art of athleticism takes those revelations a step further, morphing into the art of human development.
For Brewer, this translates internationally, mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
“Combat sports push the body to the limits. How far can you run? How fast can you run? How hard can you run? How many push-ups can you do? Can you do the same amount the next day? And the next day and the next day? … The amount that you learn about your body and about what you can and cannot do is incredible, and that’s all behind closed doors,” he said.
Many accuse Brewer and other athletes of teaching youth to be wild and unbridled. He suggests it can teach people essential values and provide a positive view of their place in the world, giving them a perspective that is completely opposite of the one he had before he dedicated his life to his art.
“If you get a canvas and a paintbrush and a whole bunch of colours, you’ve got to be creative … It teaches you work ethic. It teaches you respect. I respect people and myself so much more now that I have gotten into boxing … Self-discipline, hard work, patience, consistency, integrity, respect, the list goes on and on,” Brewer said.
“I can try to be like that artist or that artist or that artist, but as much as I try, I’m still my own person. So, it teaches you to learn to love yourself, learn to be who you are, learn to love who you are. So, I think of all times, in today’s society, it needs sports.”
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