Parkour: art or sport?
Aktualisiert: 23. Juni 2022
This is a debate which pops up every now and then here and there. Usually it is not really a debate but rather a statement, affirming that Parkour is one or the other, or both. But any discussion about sport or art without defining these terms is pretty much meaningless. Unless of course, the meaning of these words would be blatantly obvious and common understanding… which they are probably not.
So, defining, that´s what I would like to do here. In order to do that, I´d like to look at various apects of sports and arts, to get a more round sense of what these words mean.
I would like to start with looking at the structure of sports and arts, beginning with sports, because it is rather easy to describe.
Structure of sports:
1. Sports have fixed rules and fixed goals (a game basically), 2. by which you can compare the participants and therefore 3. make a ranking and determine the one(s) who performed the best.
Whereas literally all sports are structured like that, with arts it is not that easy. There seems to be a multitude of things that fall under the name of art. And these are often so dramatically different, that we first have to acknowledge, that arts are not such a homogenuous field as sports. Looking at the structure of what we would classically consider as art (like music, painting, architecture, etc), we see that neither one of the points of the sports structure are distinctly present. So for now, I´d like to give a negative definition of the structure of arts:
Structure of arts:
1. do not have any fixed rules or fixed goals, other than the craft necessitates (e.g. rules of how to mix colours in painting, rules of the physics of sound in music), 2. therefore there is no clear comparison and also no participants, and therefore also 4. no ranking of performance. (Of course there might be opinions about who or what is the greatest, but no referee to confirm it)
So, already by comparing the structure of arts and sports, we see, that we must be dealing with something quite different. Arts lack the fixed framework that sports have - and this exact lack of framework leads to another major difference between sports and arts, which is their different dynamics.
The moment a sport has become officially a thing, with rules, goals and a measurement system, all further devolpements can only happen within its own boundaries. The level of skill within that frame is developing a lot, yet there are no fundamental breaks, no radical direction changes, no gestalt-switches, as they are found in arts. In arts that is not only possible, but also common. For example: In the 19th century, painting was mainly the effort to reproduce an illusion of the visible world as accurately as possible. At some point abstract painting appeared, which did not take the visible world as a reference anymore (in different degrees). That is a pretty dramatic change at a very fundamental level of painting. That is just one example of a fundamental change that can happen in arts. On the other side again, sports stay essentially the same, they only approximate the limits of physics within their framework. That makes all future developement of a sport pretty predictable. You can see this in all official sports, like gymnastics, football, tennis, etc. You might think they changed dramatically, but that dramatic change is not at a fundamental level... so it is not dramatic. They were principally the same 50 years ago as today, just not as maxed-out.
Arts in contrast are ever evolving and diversifying into a diversity of different styles, genres or whatever you want to call it and even within these general streams there are major individual differences in form and content. Such an unfoldment to happen of course requires the freedom from fixed structures, though it is not caused by that, I believe. The freedom allows individuals to explore any direction they like and pursue whatever they feel attracted to. Yet the individuals must still do it, of course. If there is no creative impulse coming from within an individual, freedom of a framework will not make them venture out into new territory. So it is rather that people that do have a creative impulse rather gravitate towards free diciplines, than to regulated disciplines. That is, why I do not fear that competition-Parkour will be the one and only form of Parkour in the future. Simply because sports cannot satisfy the creative urge of people. And so there will always be something going on outside of sports.
So to sum it up: Arts do evolve and diversify all the time. Sports do not evolve, but approximate the limits within their frameworks.
--> Question: There are also more sports nowadays than 100 years ago, so are sports not also multiplying into different forms?
Well, no. Probably all sports started unofficial at some point. It´s just that every time something breaks lose from an established sport, or develops independently of the existing ones, soon efforts are made to draw a circle around that new activity to make it something official. As soon as that has happened successfully, the evolution stops. Aerial skiing is a wonderful exemplification of this process. It was a totally new form of skiing with so much potential for exploring the universe of „jumping with skiis“. But very soon it became an officially organized sport. Ever since then not much happened in that sport...just a few flips and twists more were added. The physical limit was approached within its very narrow territory. Whereas outside of the sport of aerial skiing, the evolution of „jumping with skiis“ went on unhindered, and experienced the immense diversification typical to unorganized movements. So the multiplication of sports is not a dynamic of sports themselves, but it is due to the breaking away from sports, from regulation, but then again crystalizing itself into a fixed form/sport again, from which there needs to be again a breaking away for further evolution. Pardon, allow me this romantic metaphor to illustrate: It´s like a river, that is blocked with a dam, but will eventually find its way around it. It seems that the explorative, creative urge that goes through mankind will make its way.
It becomes obvious that the "damming" and the "flowing around", are two effects, stemming from two different causes. Arts and sports function differently. And that might be because they just serve two very different purposes! So let´s look at that!
To see what function/purpose sports and arts fulfil, let´s just look at what they are mainly concerned about. What is arts doing? What is sports doing?
Purpose of arts
When we look at arts, you can recognize that it is often about some realiziation of an idea in the mind of the artist. But not just necessarily ideas, it can also be feelings, visions, concepts - basically all that is invisible about a person, his/her inner world, the subjective experience, or, as I would call it simply: the inside. The inside, the subjective side of the artist is the primary factor in determining the form of the outside, the objective. This is very obvious in music for example. We understand music usually as a form of expression of a musician. The song sounds different, depending on what was present inside the artist, while creating that song. And so it is with probably most artistic activities. The painter has no rules of what to paint. Rather from the beginning to the end the process is guided by his/her inside. The object of painting, the colours, the forms are all a choice of preferance. A choice made by what he/she feels attracted to, what sparks him/her. So in general tendency the direction of art goes: inside --> out.
So you could define arts like this: Art is the objectification of something subjective (or the process of doing so). Or, to use another word: Expression So, is Parkour an art? As long as the subjective experience is the primary factor ruling the process of "putting the notes on the paper", the activity is artistic. That counts for Parkour, too.
But of course, that is by far not always the case! The shape of Parkour is not always and only a result of inner, subjective impulses, but there are many factors shaping it from the outside so to say. I´ll come to that in a bit.
So, what is expressed in Parkour then? What seems to be troubling in thinking about Parkour as an expression is the fact, that Parkour movement has no literal meaning. It is comparable to abstract arts. And the connection of the concept of "expression" and "abstractness" can be troubling for some, cause we like to think of expressions as having a literal meaning. I will cover this subject soon in an extra article which will be linked here.
Purpose of sports
In sports, the inside of the athlete plays a much less important role. Of course sports has a mental side, but not in the expression sense. The form of sportive action is irresponsive to the athletes inside. It is (more or less, depending on the rules of the specific sport) predefined by the rules of the game, and so it is independent from the inside of the athlete. To say it flat: Wether the sprinter is sad or happy, he/she must always sprint 100m. He/she cannot even decide to run a slightly bent curve, or sideways or backwards :D So here we have a major difference to arts. But so what is sports about??
Now certainly sports can serve different purposes. For example some people practise sports solely for socializing or health reasons. But for this article I would like to simplify it and focus on the one feature, which I think is its predominant feature/s: competition and measurement. Why do I think that? Simply because there seems to be no sport without it. It is the thing which gives sports the form they have. So I guess competition and measurement are the backbone of sports. And actually, they belong together. Competition is the reason to ever introduce a measurement system into a movement. There would be no need otherwise. Competing requires a measurement system - especially if you want to have a credible result! And I feel like in sports it is all about results and their credibility – an objective assessment of performance. Usually your performance is evaluated relative to the performance of others. But even when you do sports without opponents, just for fun so to say, the performance assessment - the measuring counting and setting of goals - seems to be an essential ingredient of the sports mentality. Well if people do it, it usually satisfies something in them, wether they know it or not. Otherwise there would be no reason for it... Let me make a guess here: To me it seems as if goals are set, no matter how arbitrary they are, just so that you then can work your way towards something. It sort of gives you the feeling of progress and productivity, the feeling of going forward, to move towards something important, something good, success. AND on top having the proof for it! (because the numbers confirm!) And so I have the suspicion, that the goals that we are measuring our way up to, might not actually be the real goals. But having the impression of „going towards good“ is. I mean who doesn´t want to have the feeling being on the right path. It is as if humans artificially built themselves a coordination system for orientation, to cope with the directionless space of infinite options that they are faced with in life... their own coordination system with rules and goals just to know where up and down is. Or good and bad. So far my guess. And I see my guess confirmed when I think about how "growing numbers" make us feel (or „lessening numbers“ in some cases). Instagram might be the most prominent example. Growing stats makes you feel like you have accomplished something in the right direction. But the same mechanism is everywhere. Sometimes we might wonder how very rich people still work so hard to get even richer. It is just the charming spell of numbers that we all fall for here and there :D It is incredible to see that for some, stamp collecting is doing that job (incredible! :D) or Pokemon cards (Ok, that is more relatable again). Also I am amazed sometimes by these mountain people, that you´d expect to be nature lovers mainly, but when you are hiking with them, it rather seems like they are on a relentless hunt for altitudes in metres. :D So yeah, I feel like sports is fulfilling that purpose. That is why sports so desperately needs clear measurements and ignores the obvious immeasurability of some activities :D It is sort of blind on two eyes in order to get objectivity (and everyone ignores it, so that the game goes on). And so sports derives its sense of "good" only by that which is technically measurable. No surprise then, that sports mostly revolve around countable things: higher, further, faster, more, less etc.
A further key component of sports is the ranking, which is sort of the outcome of competition and measurement. A ranking serves a different but similar purpose as I think. It sort of deals with determining your own position, by using other peoples performance as a measure to define what success is. But I want to adress that gigantic topic in another article.
Direct and indirect expression
But is sport not a human expression too?
If you start pondering the concept of expression, the question arises, if not all activity of mankind is an expression in some way? Is not the whole phenomena of sports exactly that: an expression of some of mankinds inside? Undoubtedly mankind has competitive feelings (or the feelings explained above), which in turn give sports the form they have. That is clearly the same mechanism as behind any expression. Something subjective forms the objective. So in this sense sports would basically be a piece of art. Right? Absolutely true I would say. But yet, there is a difference between arts and sports, which I would call indirect and direct expression.
A direct expression is always the consequence of a "will to express" or a "creative impulse", (I know, creativity and expression are not the same, yet, they are connected in the sense, that the urge, or will to express usually leads to people creating things) This is not a mere play of words. Let me explain: The artist wants to express (consciously or not). The artist has an urge to create, an inner pressure to bring the invisible to the outside and make it visible and s*he is usually only satisfied, if s*he feels like the form of the art is an adequate representation of his/her experience. He is not happy with just any result. A musician that feels melancholy might be moved by that feeling to play the guitar AND he wants the sounds of the guitar to be a tangible (in this case hearable) form of the intangible experience of melancholy. So there is 1. the urge to express and 2. the use of an instrument to accomplish it. In contrast, an indirect expression never has a will to express behind it. The competitive sprinter is not having the desire to express his/her competitive feelings through sprinting, but his/her training for a competition is still telling us, that he does have competitive feelings. Sprinting is therefore not the sprinters instrument of expression. In this sense, most actions are an indirect expression. An artist (who by the way also can have competitive feelings) would express competitive feelings not by taking part in a competition, but rather he would use his/her instrument to portray that feeling itself. A great example for this is Hip Hop music, where competitiveness is a major theme. There is competitive feelings + the urge of expressing that, which leads to a sound picture which illustrates those feelings. You could say, artistic activity in general is the indirect expression of a will to express, and the actual art itself is the direct expression of the artists experience.
So I come to my final definition of arts:
A will to express, that leads to a direct expression through the use of an instrument.
By the way, also an artistically minded persons must first learn their craft! They must spend years in "indirect expression", learning their instrument, imitating others. Just like the sounds you play at the beginning of learning an instrument are more or less random or "just" the imitation of others´ music, just so movement is an instrument that needs to be learned first, which means drilling and repeating. And over time, the sounds of the instrument become more and more a direct extension of your mind. So even not all movement of an artistic person is automatically direct expression. Uff, that sounds so obvious to me. haha. Does it to you?
So to finish this off:
So back to the first question: Is Parkour sport or art?
It should be clear by now, that it is of course the individuals way of doing parkour, which makes it more or less artistic, more or less sporty. And it is not always easy to see wether movement is a channel of direct expression or not, simply because movement is most often shaped by a mix of inner and outer influences. People are not 100% artist, or 100% athlete. Especially, Parkour, which is still a very free discipline (compared to track and fields), seems to attract a lot of people that have at least an artistic streak. The freedom in Parkour would be an unnecessary burden for a purely sporty-minded person. He´d be glad for a clean set of goals! So my guess is that the majority of Parkour people are Capuccino, not black coffee. Though, of course, there are examples of people moving on the extremes of the spectrum. More on the sporty side though. But that is a very subjective estimation. Then, we must not forget, that a human is not either athlete or artist, but there are many other influences that shape a humans movement. For example there can be an ideological influence on your movement, like "not doing flips" was for quite some while. 10-15 years ago it was almost a moral law for some people! :D Or another "influence" (which is not really a influence, but rather a non-influence) is when you practise Parkour in a way that you belive Parkour is being practised, and there is no other reason for it except that you are believing it to be so. A Parkour habit so to say. Then there is a lot of people just doing Parkour, because their friends are doing it (which is fine btw). They do not have great artistic or sportive ambitions, and so their movement does not show forth clear characteristics of either sportive or artistic character. For them movement is more like the food, when you are eating out with friends. A side issue.