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Opinion
Hypothesis for Football Beauty

Hypothesis for Football Beauty

Published June 20, 2010

Why it is that humans appreciate art is not exactly well understood. It would be foolish to say that there is one single explanation. People appreciate art in different ways, one individual can even experience the same piece of art in varied ways. But one facet of art appreciation is pattern recognition. The human mind is very good at recognizing patterns, we look at clouds and see images. In some ways our brains are too good, seeing conspiracies in coincidence and ill intent where none exists. The best art will often overwhelm our minds, leading to artgasms, and in some cases Stendahl syndrome, when people lose their mind from an aesthetic overload. I have a good friend who collapsed on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral, near-catatonic from beauty. I have never personally been so overwhelmed, but I have been enraptured, my brain shut down by art, on two occasions, in the Sistine Chapel, and at an Yves Klein retrospective in Nice. A game of football has never entranced me to any similar degree, though some have come close.
Football is a simple system. Twenty two humans and a ball share a large, green rectangle. But out of that simplicity complex patterns emerge, like fractals. When watching a game, especially in person, but widescreen televisions are a vast improvement over the old standard, the spectator becomes highly aware of all the myriad possibilities that exist in an given moment. Radiating away from the ball is a web of probability. The spectator will assess likelihoods of where the ball will go and where players will run. Usually that’s not hard, but sometimes teams play at such tempo that the calculations that the spectator engages in become harder, and especially if players do the unexpected, upending assumptions, requiring the spectator to start everything again from scratch. In that state it is easy to become enraptured. The complex patterns, endless possibilities and constant surprises can flood the brain with sensation, a feeling we would call beauty.
Sport is not art. Football’s purpose as a spectator sport is to entertain. Beauty is superfluous, but out of a simple system and high-level players beauty can emerge. Like art, football is a human activity. The physical grace and creativity of great players astounds us because they push the limits of what we think possible. Our brains, evolved to predict what we are about to see, are thrilled to see the unthinkable unfold, and sometimes we find it beautiful.

Photo by caribb.


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