Many people will tell you that BMX is a sport, and if we look at the original Olympics, we can see that race BMX would be. Freestyle BMX would not be in their definition. In the original Olympics, a sport could only be judged objectively. First, across the line is the winner. Freestyle BMX has no such finish line and is judged subjectively. If we then decide BMX is not a sport, is it art, as many participants have suggested?
What is art?
That is a great question. It turns out there isn’t really an answer that doesn’t have philosophers throwing metaphorical punches at each other. Even the Oxford Dictionary is going to give you some scrolling. We could even argue that we will never have a definitive answer on what art is.
Wittgenstein had a famous piece to say about this when he pointed out that art is such a broad category, and there are so many facets to it that having a unitary definition was impossible. That if we did create a definition, then we would be holding back creativity. (Wittgenstein 1953)
To make up for this, I’m going to look through various theories on what art is and see if we can apply BMX to them. Now would be the ideal time to get a cup of coffee or tea and then sit down and realise that there is nothing that humans can’t over-complicate.
The constraining factors
As Wittgenstein pointed out, defining art would involve constraints and boundaries.
We’ll look quickly at an example by Kant, and then we will move on to more contemporary definitions. Kant’s work in ethics can take a while (a lifetime) to try and fully understand, but he has a relatively easy-to-understand definition of what art is.
Kant calls the art of genius, is “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication” (Kant 2000)
Ok, I know I just said Kant was easy to understand here, but let us unpack what he said, and you’ll probably find yourself agreeing with him. Kant considers the artist to be a genius and that art is produced thanks to their artistic creativity. He focuses both on the process and the outcome. The reason for this is that Kant included art in part of his aesthetic judgement, in which he covers judgments of the beautiful, judgments of the sublime, and teleological judgments of natural organisms and of nature itself.
As you can imagine, that will take a while to describe. So we’ll shortcut it and examine how Kant believed aesthetic judgement was subjective. Our judgement is then made by our sense of pleasure or displeasure at the artwork.
… … if [someone] pronounces that something is beautiful, then he expects the very same satisfaction of others: he judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says that the thing is beautiful, and does not count on the agreement of others with his judgment of satisfaction because he has frequently found them to the agreeable with his own, but rather demands it from them. He rebukes them if they judge otherwise, and denies that they have taste, for he nevertheless requires that they ought to have it; and to this extent one cannot say, “Everyone has his special taste”. This would be as much as to say that there is no taste at all, i.e. no aesthetic judgment that could make a rightful claim to the assent of everyone. (Kant 1790, 5: 212–213 [2000: 98]
The photograph above shows Brian Foster scrubbing and is shot by Rob Dolecki. What Foster is doing is impressive, but the photography by Dolecki transcends this image into art. The photo is taken by a creative genius using their powers of creativity, and I feel that would be enough for Kant.
Significant Form Theory
In his book Art, Clive Bell declared that all a piece of work had to do was create an aesthetic emotion in the spectator, listener or reader. The emotion must be separate from the emotions of day-to-day living.
A genuine work of art will have a quality that Bell called “significant form.” The significant form is a relation between the parts of a work, not its subject matter. The significant theory is generally applied to visual arts.
“The important thing about a picture, however, is not how it is painted, but whether it provokes aesthetic emotion.” (Bell, 1914)
The above quote by Bell was written in 1914, so I’m going to take a jump and consider photography and video as part of the definition. Bell argued that art should only seek to express and arouse emotions. It should not have or seek to have a cognitive value.
Here we have a video by George Manos and Matthieu Bonnécuelle. For me, it looks like a work of art. One of the essential parts of significant theory is that critics can intuitively recognise a work of art. It has to have a certain worth to a culture to be a work of art, and I would say this video does.
The Idealist Theory
R. G Collingwood helped to formulate the idealist theory of art in his book The Principles of Art. What is interesting here is that this is basically a side hustle to what Collingwood considered his real job as a philosopher of history.
I have already said that a thing which ‘exists in a person’s head’ and nowhere else is alternatively called an imaginary thing. The actual making of the tune is therefore alternatively called the making of an imaginary tune. This is a case of creation … Hence the making a tune is an instance of imaginative creation. The same applies to the making of a poem, or a picture, or any other work of art. (134)
Collingwood is telling us that the work of art is non-physical. The artist has an idea or an emotion; that is the artwork. The artist then gives the artwork an imaginative physical expression. We can now see a version of the artwork, but the art remains inside the artist’s head.
What is essential to note is that the work of art has to serve no purpose. If it serves a purpose, it is a craft. The way to look at this is if I’m riding along a street and feeble a ledge just because I saw that idea in my head, it is art.
Suppose I plan to shoot a photo of a feeble on that ledge for an advert. It is then a craft. It has a purpose: to sell whatever the advert is for. It can also be argued that this photo is designed to create a feeling in the viewer and is entertainment art.
Entertainment art is also a craft; for some, it is seen as inferior to genuine art. Genuine art has no purpose; it is an end. BMX can be and to itself or used for a purpose. BMX can be both a craft and an art, then.
Is BMX then art? I’m not going to give you an answer. The theories above, like most theories, can all be torn apart or become ideologies. It is up to you to decide which path you believe to be the correct one.
- Bell, Clive, 1914. Art, London
- Collingwood, R. G., 1938, The Principles of Art, London: Oxford University Press.
- Kant, Immanuel, 2000, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1953, Philosophical Investigations, G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.