February 5, 2013

Is sailing an art?

HAVING WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT in the past, I was naturally curious when I spotted a list of books that mentioned Einstein and the Art of Sailing. The first thing I remembered was that Einstein wasn’t very good at sailing. He certainly showed no talent for artistic boat handling.

And then I was forced to wonder: Is sailing actually an art?

According to Wikipedia, which knows everything, “Art is something that stimulates an individual’s thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas through the senses.”

Unfortunately, that definition is far too loose to be useful.  After all, the appearance of a pretty girl  may stimulate a young man’s thoughts and emotions, but one would hesitate to call the result “art.” 

We often hear mention of the art of gardening, knitting, floral arrangement and so on. Until the 17th century, an art was any human skill or mastery, but in later years the grand arts were separated for special treatment, and it was held that no life was complete unless its possessor had a true passion for one of them: music, painting, ballet, literature, opera, sculpture, drama, architecture, and the likes.

Many of us have harbored a passion for sailing, often at the cost of neglecting the grand arts altogether, but I wonder how many have ever associated the act of sailing with art? And yet, when to you come examine it more closely, there could be a case for such a designation.

There is undoubtedly flowing art in the lines of a yacht lifted from the naval architect’s drawing board. Photographs by Beken of Cowes of the great racing yachts under a full press of sail lack nothing in that category either.

I sometimes think that art is something that makes you halt in your tracks, and this often happens to me when I see a handsome hull in a pretty anchorage.  And what can it be that makes so many of us stop and turn around for a last look after we have safely berthed a boat and walked away?

And then there is sailing itself. The curve of a sail in a breeze is art.  The steeve of a bowsprit and the sheer of a bulwark is art. The angle by which the mizzen mast of a ketch drifts aft from the vertical, compared with the mainmast, is art, and the human eye is offended if the two masts are wrongly parallel.

No one with a soul can deny there is art in the foaming wake of a sailboat at sea.  Even the shivering rectangle of the ensign that so stirs our national pride surely qualifies as art.

And finally, we come to the real proof. We know that true artists have to suffer for their art.

And we do. I surely don’t need to tell you how.

Today’s Thought
 The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited.
— William Saroyan

A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned. — George Bernard Shaw
A tanning booth is a place where no stern is left untoned. — John Vigor

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Jack said...

"a sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind"
One of my favourite quotes from Webb Chiles.......and he should know.

SailFarLiveFree said...

I agree wholeheartedly, sailing is indeed art. As Web Chiles says, "A sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind."

The Unlikely Boatbuilder said...

H'mmm... I'd have to say no. The best sailors -- I'm thinking Slocum, F.B. Cooke, Hiscock, Chichester, Goss, all seem to just help their boats sail themselves. The sailor that puts himself at the center of sailing is asking for trouble.

If there is any art involved in sailing, I'd put it down to boat designers and builders.

Gary said...

Dennis Connor. Artist? hehe

Don P said...

I try to limit myself to only two comments a year and didn't want to use one of them this early in 2013but this is a topic near to my heart.

Saying all the art is with the designer is like saying all the art in music is with the composer and the performer is only a functionary.

I believe that every activity or pursuit is capable of being elevated to art. Most days we sling hash but occasionally we create epicurean delights. The "artist" usually creates him or herself through years of study and practice. The artist is one who is recognizes a good tool and uses it with skill.

If a sailor can choose a good boat for the purpose and can then make it perform in a way that demonstrates the excellence of the design, is that not art?

John Vigor said...

Don P, thanks for your very perceptive insight. Please don't restrict yourself to two comments a year.

John V.

eurydice said...

art is craft plus magic, i think

The Unlikely Boatbuilder said...

Don P: So we are talking about some sort of performance art. Some performance of sailing that is so perfect that we can call it art.

Probably the most practiced sailors would include those who qualify to sail in the Olympics. Certainly they are amazing sportsmen and women, but artists? By that logic, shot putters can also be artists.

But don't we already have a perfectly good word for these people? In English, we call them athletes. As in 'great athletes'. Or even Olympians.

Not that we should get pedantic over a bit of language stretching from a known humorist. Carry on, John!