The other day I saw a fantastic quote by Boxing legend George Foreman:
"Boxing is like jazz; the better it is, the less people appreciate it”
As a person who spent most of his life working as a professional musician as well as studied music quite extensively, I connected with this instantly.
When I shared this quote on social media, a large number of the people who responded were musicians. This was to be expected, seeing as they probably related to Jazz being a hugely under-appreciated genre of music, often only truly understood by other musicians.
It also made me think of the recent speech made by Meryl Streep, where she famously said that ‘Mixed Martial Arts… are not the arts’. It made a lot of people in the martial arts community – practitioners and fans alike – angry at the fact that another artist (and in fact one of the most decorated and celebrated artists in recent history) made such a claim.
Was Streep correct? If so, what’s the difference between sports and arts? At which point does one become the other? Can they overlap? What about combat sports and martial arts, can those questions apply to these two as well? What, in a bigger-picture sense, is art?
The Macquarie Dictionary gives a long, long definition of art. Here are the main sections that are relevant to this discussion:
1. “The production or expression of what is beautiful (especially visually), appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”. Another definition is “a department of skilled performance”, as well as ”skilled execution”
If we go by this definition, martial arts are most definitely art. Anyone who has ever seen a high level Kata, as well as Wushu, Aikido, Tae Kwon Do and other of the more ‘aesthetically-friendly’ martial arts will testify to the beauty of such forms. To the connoisseurs, watching boxing or BJJ or combat sports is also a thing of beauty. In fact, ‘skilled performance’ is a perfect description of this. Which, I believe, is almost identical to the skill exhibited by high-level dancers. The term 'ordinary significance' is also interesting. What makes the significance of something ordinary? What makes a note in a melody, or a brush stroke, or a movement in a kata ordinary or otherwise? I belive that the significance is in the interpretation by the artist or the viewer (or listener, etc.).
2. “A branch of learning or university study” and also “learning or science”
Martial artists are some of the most devoted students you can find. They often spend most of their time and money on developing their skills and learning their art, and often for long periods of time or even their entire lives. An interesting side note - some universities do in fact give qualifications to martial artists who have achieved certain rank and levels of experience, and some universities now offer martial arts studies as a BA. It’s no surprise that boxing is referred to as ‘the sweet science’ and BJJ as ‘human chess’. Furthermore martial arts studies encompass not only the study of hand-to-hand combat, but they also involve the study of human anatomy, physiology and nutrition, history and culture, strategy and tactics, human behavior, stress responses and sports psychology, all of which fall under the guise of hand-to-hand combat.
3. “A skill or knack; a method of doing a thing, especially if it is difficult” as well as ”studied action”
I love this one. The rigors of martial arts training are, at high levels, some of the hardest endeavor, physically and mentally, that one can engage in. But even the act of training and learning to move your body in a certain way can be a difficult thing, much like studying music, acting, painting or any other skill, and the same again for basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, etc. The difficulty often lies not only in the rigors of physical training, but the learning itself, which can be hard and frustrating. Art is, in a very real sense, the study of action. The actor rehearses a particular sentence to explore different meanings and interpretation. The musician rehearses a particular musical phrase and explores the subtle nuances of each note and rest. The painter who explores different brush strokes and shades of a colour in order to put the picture in their mind onto the canvas. The chef experiments with subtle changes of a recipe to create the perfect balance of flavor, texture, presentation, etc. The writer considers each word in order to convey their exact meaning or create a mental picture. The dancer rehearses a move over and over again to perfect it's execution and convey the meaning of the move. The martial artist does this as well. They rehearse each movement, or move sequence, thousands and thousands of times, with specific goals in mind, in order to perfect the movement, though they know, like all artists, that perfection can never be achieved. While the result may be the transference of power, the change of balance in the body, or the destruction of an object, the principles remains the same as any other art. An interesting side note to this, is that studying action and control of the human body transcends style and breaks the boundaries between arts. Many martial artists engage in other arts. Most of the martial artists I know also play music, paint, dance, or act. I personally think that dance and martial arts are very closely connected and it's no coincidence that many famous martial artists and combat sports champions - Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Vasyl Lomachenko, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Avital Zeisler - have studies dance. Traditional Muay Thai and Silat include dancing as part the art and their preparation for combat which can also been in the Haka, the traditional Maori war dance. Capoiera is a martial art style that includes elements of both dance and music. In other words, to use the above definition 'the method of doing a thing' can really mean 'one method of doing many things'. Once you understand the method, doing anything becomes possible, as Musashi identified when he famously wrote that "if you know the way broadly, you will see it in everything".
And this brings me to something else that is an important part of every art:
My own intepretation of the meaning of art is ‘mindful repetition’.
This means anything can be art, providing it is done with intent, presence of mind, and attention to detail and repeated with those things in mind.
I would then further argue that not only do martial arts fit the definition of arts, but are in fact the highest form of art one can engage in. Why is that, you ask?
A couple of reasons:
1. Most arts focus on the development of the self. Unfortunately, this is often associated with an inflated ego, a sense of entitlement and a snarky attitude. My personal experience from studying music at university was a very negative one; the behavior of the staff was extremely unprofessional with lecturers putting students down deliberately, harassing or making lude comments at female students or missing scheduled lectures, for which they were paid, in order to do private tuition for which the student had to pay extra, privately. This was reflected in the attitude of the student body. There was much backstabbing and smack talking, gloating at the failure of others as well as resentment at their success. Many friends who studied at other universities or other disciplines of art, as most of my co-workers in music and art, reported much of the same – the belief that it’s a dog eat dog world, where one’s art makes a person more valuable than another person. But don’t take my experience as statistical proof. Looking at the gossip columns in Hollywood, the paparazzi culture and reading a couple of celebrity magazines will reveal this easily. And yes, it’s unfortunate that the UFC encourages this kind of behavior to a great extent in order to promote fights and make money off of its fighters. But the UFC and MMA, while they get more airtime than any other martial art, are not a true representation of the martial arts community, nor of the way the arts are practiced. Martial arts gyms can be the same, but often they are very different. The main reason for this is that the martial arts are rooted in a philosophy and culture that revolves around a strict code of conduct, and many dojos and gyms require the practitioner to uphold a set of values and behaviors in order to continue training. These values (respect, benevolence, loyalty, courage, humility, teamwork, perseverance and responsibility, to name but a few) are emphasized on a regular basis as part of the training, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitly. They are just as important as the skills one develops. In other words, while most popular arts are practiced in a way that emphasizes the glorification of the ego and the self, the martial arts are almost unique in that they emphasize control over one’s ego.
2. The true beauty of art, as is the beauty of life, is that it is fleeting, temporary. No piece of art – whether music, literature, painting, dance or theater performance – will be produced identically twice. The uniqueness of each performance is the heart of true art. And often, just like Geroge Foreman said, the better it is the less it is appreciated. Recorded media as allowed us to capture those amazing moments and re-live them at will. It has also diluted the purity of many arts – the musician can record another take, the singer can use pitch correction, actor can do another take, but the true performers, the true artists still strive for that perfect moment of zen, of flow, which will let them become the art itself for a fleeting moment. The point of difference, and the reason I believe that martial arts are indeed the highest form of art, are the consequences of failure. The musician who has a bad gig may get kicked out of the band and will feel depressed about their performance (been there myself, it's horrible and soul-shattering). The actor that blows a theater performance will get bad review and may struggle to find work and make ends meet as a result. The martial artist will face all of this as well; however for the elite martial artist, who engages in combat as the main form of performance of their art, failure can also mean serious injury, or even death. I still play music, and I still appreciate paintings and I am an avid reader and appreciate the talent for all arts. But simply put, martial artists put their lives on the line, literally, to perfect their art.
And so we come full circle to George Foreman and Meryl Streep. Was she right? Not at all. Are martial arts truly forms of art? Most definitely. Are they appreciated? The better they are, the less they are appreciated.
Is Meryl Streep a phenomenal actress? Absolutely (in fact one of my favorites). Was there a reason to get so upset over what she said? Absolutely not.
It also makes you wonder... if she faced the same consequences as martial artists, for example if she was to be knocked out every time she got a line wrong, would she have said what she said?
Regardless, it got the discussion going and got us thinking about it and discussing it, for which we owe her thanks. Using Musashi's terms, her comments (and other criticism we inevitably encounter along the way) makes us view the way more broadly and, hopefully, see it in everything.
The main points, I guess, are to stay true to your art but to respect all others, and that the value of an art is truly in what it inspires in each of us, regardless of what form it takes.
Stay safe, stay tuned.