Monday, August 13, 2012

Revisions and Performance

 Two questions from JB. First,

"Since your Einstein book was published, what would you go back and change/update?"
I would add a chapter concerned with the relation between politics in the 20s-30s, the history of anthropology, and eugenics.  There was a split between the genetics community and the eugenics community and the relation between the biologists, the anthropologists, and the policy makers seems a very interesting story that is connected to the one I told.  It seems an important part of the history to see how science influenced the politics of race and the politics of race influenced science in that context.  There is a short discussion of eugenics, embryology, and serology before and under the Nazis, but there is more to be said there.

 "Why do colleges allow performers of the fine arts variety to hold majors specifically devoted to performance, such as "Vocal Performance," but not have similar options for athletes? Is there something purely non-academic in sports? or is there something more there?"
There seems to be three similarities here between sport and art: (1) both sorts of performance are bodily and not mental.  Dancers, actors, and musicians use their bodies as the basis of their work, just as athletes do.  (2) While writing papers and solving problems are actions that we associate with disciplines in the academy, it is the product of the action and not the act itself that gets judged, whereas in sport and the arts, we judge the doing, not what has been done.(3) Sport and the arts are performed for audiences, they are acts in themselves, but they are also acts for the sake of viewers who are not necessarily themselves artists or athletes.  Based on these congruent elements, one might think that athletics therefore belongs in the curriculum and not beside it as co-curricular.

The distinction in part comes from our elevation of the mind above the body according to the classical dualism we inherited from the Greeks and the arts are thought to be both physical and mental whereas sport is merely physical.  The performance of music, dance, or drama requires developed intellectual capacities in addition to the physical whereas sport requires only the physical.  Of course, this is not true.  Strategy and rule-following in sport can be incredibly complex and can create beauty on different levels just as much as art -- I would contend that the extra-man offense that Dartmouth ran against us when I was a lacrosse player in college was a thing of beauty, and I do not mean that metaphorically. 

But the decisive difference, I believe, is that art points beyond itself where sport does not.  The purpose of sport is contained within the sport itself.  It posits an artificial goal that achieves nothing but itself (when you score a goal or a run or a touchdown, that is all you have done) and artificial rules to make the accomplishing of the goal more difficult for no reason other than to create a challenging game (why should you have to dribble the ball in basketball, no reason except that that is how the game is played).  Art, on the other hand, aims -- or at least can aim -- at more than itself.  The audience for an artistic performance can be engaged on issues of the day, timeless questions of beauty and justice, or have their central concepts challenged.  Sport occurs between the lines in an artificial world of its creation that is purely self-referring, but art creates an artificial world that can say something about the world beyond itself.  And for that reason, we privilege it in the academy above sport.