Thursday, January 12, 2017

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I thank Meryl Streep for her recent commentary on MMA - for even though it elicited a push-back from the martial arts community, it has also got us thinking …

So … what is art? What constitutes art? Who gets the final say as to whether something is considered ‘art’ … or whether or not someone should be worthy of the title ‘artist’? Deep questions … put your slippers on, lay back … and if you wish … read on.

My own (visceral) understanding of the ‘art’ doesn’t come from a socratic quote or a google search - it comes from my own immersion in and life-long study of the combative arts. Well … that and a not entirely ignorant understanding of history and human endeavour.

Ancient Greece contributed a lot to the idea of what constitutes art. I am more a fan of Aristotle than Plato, in that Aristotle believed that art offered a pathway to learning through the experience of being an artist. This has also been my own personal experience - so I’ll go with that.
It is interesting to note than much of the early artistic expression in Greece was based around the aesthetic of the athletic form and the beauty to be found in struggle. Just saying … 


Many cultures throughout history (Japanese, Middle Easter, etc) have given far more weight to martial artistic forms than to other types of art - perhaps because human contest/struggle/war often played a far more intimate role in the daily life of the populace. And art, has always reflected culture … it has always reflected what sat in the minds of the population. As it still does today.

So, now … onto the meaty part …

Who labels what is art and what is not? It could be argued that it is the public who confers such titles. No-one would argue that William Blake was not an artist (today) but he was unrecognised in his own day. It was only well after his death, that he became recognised as one of Europes artistic greats. Even he (Blake) said himself, that he wasn’t writing for his contemporaries but for future generations. My point is, art is very often not recognised as such until the population catches up.


If a painter sits alone on a desert island and immerses him or herself into their painting, is that person an artist? Do we need an audience to define the artist? Should the artist care? Personally, I doubt real artists care much. They consider themselves, writers, painters, grapplers, dancers, poets … not artists. I think it’s up to others to confer the title of artist upon them … or not. It probably matters not to the actual artist.


So any who might stand in judgment of who is or isn’t an artist is standing on very thin ice indeed. As this is something the serious artist might well struggle to do him/herself … they’re almost certainly too busy painting, writing, dancing, etc.
The thing about these explorers of the human condition is that they go deeper than most people will ever go, with respect their passion. And this is hugely important … in drilling down, they make discoveries that they can share with the rest of the world … with those folk who are too busy with their lives to do the deep drilling themselves. This is what the artist brings to the world.


As far as martial artists are concerned … many of them spend a great amount of time in deep, deep struggle and exploration. They also spend time confronting aspects of the human condition that most people spend their entire lives avoiding (fear, loss, triumph of spirit, emotional control under duress, etc)


In terms of MMA, football, etc … the discussion as to whether this constitutes sport or art could be a long and hotly-debated one … I will say though, that I think it has a lot to do with individual ’motive’. With deep caring and a willingness to explore and push boundaries, an athlete can transform him or herself from athlete to artist. It probably has more to do with how we go about doing what we do rather than what it is we are actually doing.

The public will judge as time, tide and cultural/political forces permit. 

What has MMA boomed in recent decades? There are many reasons but perhaps it can be boiled down to this …. there is something inside us that yearns to witness the primal struggle. 

We might admit that the MMA/boxing, wrestling contest speaks to some deep human yearning … a human thing that has spoken to us throughout our turbulent and wonderful history. And art … as we know, has always reflected life. 

People understand and can relate to struggle (most can anyways) and so it’s no surprise that beautiful athletic endeavour can speak to us and even transmute us as human beings … and that is exactly what art is supposed to do. 

Lastly, as a life-long teacher and practitioner of the martial arts, I can say without any reservation that I have seen many lives change for the better for their engagement in the combative struggle. I have seen people morph from the angry thug to a beautiful and caring human being … if there is art to be seen anywhere, there may be some present in that wonderful alchemy. 

Do I consider myself an artist? After reflection I realise I do not care whether I am labelled as such or not; I am too busy drilling deep, being mindfully engaged in the transformative process that is my chosen field. Let others judge … I care not.

- JBW



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