The Art in Martial Arts, Part Two

Garry commented this in my post on The Art in Martial Arts:

While I agree that its impressive when you meet or train with a naturally talented athlete and almost impossible to compete with them on a level playing field, personally, I’m no longer as sure about the “art” element in martial arts. I think that the influence of scientific method on the study and practice of martial arts has become the standard starting point for students on their journey of discovery and I’m not sure whether this will prove to be positive or negative in their evolution. Many principles of movement are common across styles even if their emphasis and application varies. The moral and ethical principles prevalent in a society will always inform the way people learn and practice and create. Today, knowledge is everywhere on the Internet and people don’t have to undertake epic journeys to find competent martial practitioners. As to how many of these powerful warriors are ” artists ” I am not sure. Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s comments best elucidate my point, ” All art is completely useless “. By their very nature, martial arts are practical methods for self defense and therefore, are not art in the Wildean sense. I think martial methods or practices is a better generic term. But then again, what do I know, relatively speaking I’m fairly useless myself.

I think it depends on your definition of art. I touched upon it in the first part of my post already; for me it’s about skill and talent coming together. It’s what differentiates the commoners like us from the artists I listed. It’s one of the ways to define “art” and has been valid throughout the ages. A quote form that page:

Traditionally skill of execution was viewed as a quality inseparable from art and thus necessary for its success; for Leonardo da Vinci, art, neither more nor less than his other endeavors, was a manifestation of skill.

That’s what I’m talking about: Skill of execution is just as important as the end result. My whole point was that most of us don’t get to that stage, where we can perform our martial art at such a level that it becomes art. Much in the same way as Baryshnikov or Nureyev could take pretty much any ballet performance to a higher level.

Bringing it back to the topic: I’m just as impressed by Kaman’s sense of timing in the ring as Risuke Otake’s mastery of the blade. What they do isn’t as important as how they do it.  To get to that level of skill, you need not only talent but also enormous amounts of training.

Compare this young girl:

With this slightly older one:

The difference is the decades of practice. It’s not that the little girl is bad or anything, on the contrary. But Yuja Wang takes it to another level.

I specifically took Flight of the Bumblebee because it requires technical dexterity, not because it’s such a great piece.

Just for shits and giggles, here’s another interpretation…

Another example, this is my tai chi chuan teacher. He kicks my ass in class and then goes home to grab a steel needle and “scratches a bit” on a zinc plate… To give you an idea of the size of one of his pieces, check out this picture. Whether this is the kind of art you like or not is irrelevant; it takes enormous amounts of technical skill to do.

The scientific method used in martial arts training and the availability of knowledge is another issue for me, one that isn’t immediately relevant to this topic. The way I see it, you can give somebody all the information he needs to become a world class martial artist, it doesn’t mean he’ll get there. He’ll still need a certain amount of talent and decades of hard work.

Hell, in every class I tell my students exactly what they need to do to avoid certain mistakes. But that doesn’t mean they do it. Or if they manage to do one specific part correctly, they don’t mess up another. Again, those decades of training are what it takes to achieve mastery. On top of that, there isn’t just one correct way of doing things. In most cases, you have numerous options. So your personal interpretation and expression of the material is another aspect of turning it into art.

Though I agree that for many people, it’s just self defense or sports. But in my mind, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be an art form.

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Comments

  1. Shane MacLaughlin says

    Hi Wim,

    I think to talk about something being an art form or not, we need to have some defintion of the word art. For me at least, this would include the realisation of a unique and original vision or idea. Copying something from someone else, and even doing it much better than they have done, is not in my opinion art. This is what seperates art from craft. Incidentally, I have no problem with the concept of performance art, but the art lies in the concept and possibly initial execution, not in the repitition. Similarly, I have no problem with the term ‘martial arts’, but would suggest that the artists are the orginators of that art and those who significantly progress it, not the day to day practitioners.

    My feeling is that skill has nothing whatsoever to do with art, skill relates to craft and while the realisation of many types of art requires excellent craftsmanship or skills, the reverse does not hold. Being highly skilled and naturally talented does not make you an artist. If it did, we would have tennis artists, rugby artists, teaching artists and even accounting artists. Sure, we can see occasional elements of artistry in all these things, much the same way as we can see a good fighter pull off a truly sweet technique in a competition, but it doesn’t make them artists unless they perform in a consistently unique manner.

    Just my 2c as a long term piss artist ;)

    • Hi Shane,

      I see your point but then I don’t think we’d have a lot of art. Unique and original pieces of art are few and far between. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking something to the next level or using it as a starting point. You could argue that this would also be an original piece, though inspired by an existing one. So in a way, it’s all very subjective.
      I’d say the same goes for the skill requirement. In the link I gave in the post, I already touched upon it: skill is an integral part for some definitions of art. It certainly is for me. But I didn’t mean to imply that’s all it takes. Hence the training and talent requirement.

      Personally, I see the art in many things, including tennis, rugby and teaching. But I have a very broad definition of what can be art. :-)

  2. Shane MacLaughlin says

    Hi Wim,

    I think to talk about something being an art form or not, we need to have some defintion of the word art. For me at least, this would include the realisation of a unique and original vision or idea. Copying something from someone else, and even doing it much better than they have done, is not in my opinion art. This is what seperates art from craft. Incidentally, I have no problem with the concept of performance art, but the art lies in the concept and possibly initial execution, not in the repitition. Similarly, I have no problem with the term ‘martial arts’, but would suggest that the artists are the orginators of that art and those who significantly progress it, not the day to day practitioners.

    My feeling is that skill has nothing whatsoever to do with art, skill relates to craft and while the realisation of many types of art requires excellent craftsmanship or skills, the reverse does not hold. Being highly skilled and naturally talented does not make you an artist. If it did, we would have tennis artists, rugby artists, teaching artists and even accounting artists. Sure, we can see occasional elements of artistry in all these things, much the same way as we can see a good fighter pull off a truly sweet technique in a competition, but it doesn’t make them artists unless they perform in a consistently unique manner.

    Just my 2c as a long term piss artist ;)

    • Hi Shane,

      I see your point but then I don’t think we’d have a lot of art. Unique and original pieces of art are few and far between. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking something to the next level or using it as a starting point. You could argue that this would also be an original piece, though inspired by an existing one. So in a way, it’s all very subjective.
      I’d say the same goes for the skill requirement. In the link I gave in the post, I already touched upon it: skill is an integral part for some definitions of art. It certainly is for me. But I didn’t mean to imply that’s all it takes. Hence the training and talent requirement.

      Personally, I see the art in many things, including tennis, rugby and teaching. But I have a very broad definition of what can be art. :-)

  3. In [Martial] Arts, what part of “N years of training” is simply that you’re older and have a better understanding of the world?

    • Ferran, you’re going to have to restructure your English because I’m getting a definite “Whuh?” feeling. :-)

      • shugyosha says

        Don’t worry, it’s not my English: it’s me ;)

        What part of becoming better with years of training, either in martial arts or the arts in general, is due to de fact that after those years in training you’re, in fact, older and wiser in the ways of the world?

        A 7 yo kid will have problems understanding love poetry. A 14 yo black belt will have problems with a growing body and understanding death. A 17 yo likely believes himself immortal. And so on.

        • Sure, general life experience will help. But IMHO, it is nothing compared to the same experience combined with hard training.
          Your experience in dealing with an obnoxious co-worker doesn’t make your form any better. Though it might give you motivation to train harder… :-)

          • shugyosha says

            My experience dealing with an obnoxious co-worker gives me self control, maybe some awareness of the dangers of what I know, so next time I train that form I’ll have an extra level of focus I didn’t have before.

            How many people have left martial arts when they realized what they _could_ have done in an office situation? The ones that realize but _stay_ are at a higher level than their training partners (assuming equal experience prior to the incident).

    • Can one’s martial art improve as a natural result of their broader life experience, independently of their continued (or aborted) training?

      Yes, I think so.

  4. shugyosha says

    In [Martial] Arts, what part of “N years of training” is simply that you’re older and have a better understanding of the world?

    • Ferran, you’re going to have to restructure your English because I’m getting a definite “Whuh?” feeling. :-)

      • shugyosha says

        Don’t worry, it’s not my English: it’s me ;)

        What part of becoming better with years of training, either in martial arts or the arts in general, is due to de fact that after those years in training you’re, in fact, older and wiser in the ways of the world?

        A 7 yo kid will have problems understanding love poetry. A 14 yo black belt will have problems with a growing body and understanding death. A 17 yo likely believes himself immortal. And so on.

        • Sure, general life experience will help. But IMHO, it is nothing compared to the same experience combined with hard training.
          Your experience in dealing with an obnoxious co-worker doesn’t make your form any better. Though it might give you motivation to train harder… :-)

          • shugyosha says

            My experience dealing with an obnoxious co-worker gives me self control, maybe some awareness of the dangers of what I know, so next time I train that form I’ll have an extra level of focus I didn’t have before.

            How many people have left martial arts when they realized what they _could_ have done in an office situation? The ones that realize but _stay_ are at a higher level than their training partners (assuming equal experience prior to the incident).

    • Can one’s martial art improve as a natural result of their broader life experience, independently of their continued (or aborted) training?

      Yes, I think so.

  5. Danny Young says

    Martial and Art are not the same. Martial implies Military, Discipline, killing, etc, Art is a way, it can include both, Military and discipline, but to me the separating point is beauty. There is nothing beautiful about death and destruction. A flower growing, a child laughing is Art, Martial in truest sense is not. I am not an intellectual, but I know the difference.
    Playing the Piano is one thing, killing someone isn’t.

    All the Best…………. Danny

    • I agree, up to a point Danny. Martial arts are indeed about killing. But that’s not the only aspect to them, IMO and IME. I think it boils down to how you define both MAs and “art”. I’ll get back to you via mail tonight.

  6. Danny Young says

    Martial and Art are not the same. Martial implies Military, Discipline, killing, etc, Art is a way, it can include both, Military and discipline, but to me the separating point is beauty. There is nothing beautiful about death and destruction. A flower growing, a child laughing is Art, Martial in truest sense is not. I am not an intellectual, but I know the difference.
    Playing the Piano is one thing, killing someone isn’t.

    All the Best…………. Danny

    • I agree, up to a point Danny. Martial arts are indeed about killing. But that’s not the only aspect to them, IMO and IME. I think it boils down to how you define both MAs and “art”. I’ll get back to you via mail tonight.

  7. Garry Hodgins says

    Hi Wim,

    As I’m on vacation in Disneyworld ( which could throw up a minor thesis on one’s definition of Art, never mind culture…) I will endeavour to keep this short. Again, I differ with your sense of what we should define as art, which I would call ” craftsmanship “. For me, true art is something which expresses the truth about human experience in a poignant way and transcends the changing fashions and concerns of different ages because it speaks to something deep within our humanity which is inviolable. This is why I am concerned about our global capitalist world and the influence of the internet and central governments in standardising what we learn and its value for us. Governments, across the globe, have altered the values which we place on one artists work above another for generations. I believe there are still artists in the martial arts but I worry that the influence of military style research and training methods may indoctrinate the artistry out of the art. Unlike, some friends of mine, I value form as well as function, especially as I get older, and believe one helps you to preserve the other in you long term training. The art in martial arts isnt the taking of life but it is the preservation of life in the face of violence, age, corruptio and, ultimately, death. Now, back to Mickey mouse with the kids for me.

    • Hi Garry,

      I agree with your definition of art but would say that’s only a part of it and there’s a lot more. Then again, art seems to be something very personal so it’s OK if we don’t agree on this.

      Have fun over there!

  8. Garry Hodgins says

    Hi Wim,

    As I’m on vacation in Disneyworld ( which could throw up a minor thesis on one’s definition of Art, never mind culture…) I will endeavour to keep this short. Again, I differ with your sense of what we should define as art, which I would call ” craftsmanship “. For me, true art is something which expresses the truth about human experience in a poignant way and transcends the changing fashions and concerns of different ages because it speaks to something deep within our humanity which is inviolable. This is why I am concerned about our global capitalist world and the influence of the internet and central governments in standardising what we learn and its value for us. Governments, across the globe, have altered the values which we place on one artists work above another for generations. I believe there are still artists in the martial arts but I worry that the influence of military style research and training methods may indoctrinate the artistry out of the art. Unlike, some friends of mine, I value form as well as function, especially as I get older, and believe one helps you to preserve the other in you long term training. The art in martial arts isnt the taking of life but it is the preservation of life in the face of violence, age, corruptio and, ultimately, death. Now, back to Mickey mouse with the kids for me.

    • Hi Garry,

      I agree with your definition of art but would say that’s only a part of it and there’s a lot more. Then again, art seems to be something very personal so it’s OK if we don’t agree on this.

      Have fun over there!

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