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A former girlfriend of mine once laughed when I used the word “martial artist.” She had never heard it before, and I suppose she thought it was a bit pretentious. I was surprised that she had never encountered it, especially considering that she was practicing a martial art at the time. I explained it to her grammatically: If there is such a thing as a martial art, then the one who practices it must be called a martial artist. This seemed like a sufficient answer at the time, and she laughed it off. But I wondered whether the phrase “martial art” is commonly understood.

Most martial artists will take it for granted that martial arts are forms of art. But to the non-practitioner, this is neither obvious nor uncontestable. If you can’t explain to a non-practitioner why a martial art deserves to be an art, then it is your unclear ideas that are to blame. The nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford once said “an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.” We tend to complicate our ideas when we talk about them with other “experts,” which is perhaps one reason why the role of art in martial arts is unclear. But clarity is paramount. If you would like to deceive yourself or anyone else, the first step is to obfuscate and confuse. Use vague language, speak in aphorisms, commit logical fallacies, appeal to emotion instead of reason, falsely equate one term with another, and you will not only ruin your sense of clarity, but you may also earn yourself a career in politics. I subscribe to the idea that the goal of a philosopher is not to ask deep and meaningful questions about existence, but rather to think clearly about whatever it is he chooses to think about. And so I choose to think clearly about the following question: What is artistic about martial arts?

The least definable word in English

Our first order of business will be to decompress this vague word, “art.” Nowhere in English does there exist a word which defies definition so stubbornly as this one. Art has no single definition because it is not a single idea. It tries to be too many things to too many people, a conceptual snowball which collects new ideas without shedding the old ones. Rather than wasting our time by defining art as a whole, let’s break it into manageable pieces.

Skill

Sometimes, when we say art, we mean skill. Art once referred to artisanship, the craft of a skilled tradesman like a carpenter or potter. By this definition, a martial art is unarguably an art, for the simple reason that fighting demands a high level of skill. For example, a great swordsman can refine his skill to the point where we can say that he is an artist. This is the least controversial sense in which martial arts are artistic, and it is the conception of art most commonly applied to martial arts. In this sense, “martial arts” roughly means “the refined skill of fighting,” plus all its associated practices.

Creation

Art used to be associated with manufacturing, back in the days when manufacturing was done by hand. For this reason, older conceptions of art tend to focus on the creation of a tangible work. Thus arts were creative in the simple sense that they were skills for the purpose of creating things. Martial arts do not create anything tangible, although I would argue that they can engage in a more abstract kind of creation. But if that were our reason for denying the artistic status of martial arts, then we would have to deny it to performance arts such as dancing and acting as well.

Expression

Sometimes when we say art, we mean a form of expression. According to this idea, art is important because the act of expression is valuable in itself. Expression is the process of turning an idea into reality, taking a mental impulse and exporting it to the outside world. Just like a dancer, a martial artist can express himself through his choice of physical motions. He can express his emotions, his character values, his tactical priorities, and so on. For example, a martial artist who studied Bagua and Hapkido could express his individuality by displaying a form of fighting which is neither Bagua nor Hapkido, but a unique combination of the two.

Yet fighting presents a problem for expression, because expression requires intent. Expression begins with a mental impulse, and what is that mental impulse if not intent? Without intent, then there is no mental impulse to be expressed, and nothing to be exported to the outside world. However, a martial artist does not typically reserve part of his mind for expression during a fight. While training, he can express whatever he likes, but during a real fight for survival, a martial artist can’t afford to be concerned with expression. At a glance, it seems like there is no room for expression in a fight. However, I can see two exceptions: First, while expression must be intentional, it need not be consciously intentional. In other words, a martial artist could subconsciously express himself during a fight. Second, it is possible, though unlikely, that a martial artist could be so much more skilled than his opponent that he has the presence of mind to express himself while fighting. Imagine a master who has been attacked by an artless thug: If the master proceeds to intentionally embarrass the thug, isn’t that a kind of expression? Therefore it is possible, though unlikely, to express yourself in life or death situations.

Elicitation

If an artist comes up with an idea and intentionally communicates it, we call that expression. However, not everyone believes that art has to be intentional. Sometimes “art” refers to a work which is supposed to elicit ideas in the mind of an observer. According to this view, the artist’s intent is not as important as the effect of the art in another person’s mind. This is very similar to expression, with one critical difference: The idea need not originate in the artist’s mind. Therefore a work of art could be accidental; it makes no difference. A child dancing freely, unaware of any spectators, might elicit ideas in an observer just as well as a professional dancer could. It’s not hard to imagine how this can apply to martial arts. Almost anything that can be expressed through martial arts can also be elicited from an observer in much the same way. But elicitation also adds new possibilities: Two martial artists could collaborate in eliciting ideas from an observer while fighting one another. A fight proceeds like a debate, with an attack presented as a thesis and a counterattack presented as an antithesis. In effect, the fight is an argument about what fighting methods are most effective. The observer, seeing this in progress, can merge the two opposing viewpoints into a synthesis of ideas, learning something expressed by neither fighter individually but rather by the two in conflict. This is the sort of creativity which is only possible through elicitation.

Transformation

For some people, art is not so much about the work of art as it is about the internal processes within the artist. According to this idea, a work of art is painted upon the canvas of the artist’s mind, which grows and transforms as it is inspired by new ideas. This process is both physical and mental in the case of martial artists. A martial artist must cultivate his mind and body into the tools of his trade. He must acquire a work ethic, condition himself physically, and develop the proper mental state to make split-second tactical decisions mid-fight. He has to manage his own fear while contending with an adversary who is doing everything he can to interfere. The ideal martial artist sculpts himself like clay, from his primitive state into a physically conditioned, mentally controlled, precise, agile instrument of combat, able to choose and execute the proper response to a threat, guided by values which lend themselves to effective training and fighting. For some people, the process of cultivating these qualities is more important for art than self-expression. Those people will find no end to the art within martial artists.

Transcendence: The refrigerator test

This all seems simple enough. Each of the above is a facet of the word “art.” If martial arts meet the criteria for each facet of art, then they must be artistic, right? As usual, it’s not that simple. Let’s take expression as an example: Not all expression is artistic. Communication is a form of expression, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that all communication is a work of art. Now we have a new and stickier problem. There must be some rare and elusive quality which distinguishes artistic expression from ordinary expression. The same can be said for the other facets of art: Skill, creation, expression, elicitation, and transformation all require a minimum quality to be artistic. Essentially, they only become artistic once they are “good enough,” once they have achieved a certain level of meaningfulness. I can’t tell you where this threshold is; it’s inherently subjective.

Purpose and the double standard

Yet this idea of thresholds exposes a double standard in art. For some activities, “artist” is a term we reserve for the best of us. For others, an artist is anyone who participates. A crayon drawing pinned to a refrigerator is a work of art, and its creator is an artist. Drawing is art, end of story. By contrast, take a skill like penmanship: Ordinary penmanship isn’t art, yet develop your skill enough and it becomes the art of calligraphy. Somewhere between good penmanship and calligraphy is an invisible threshold, a level of quality at which the skill exhibits new meaning. At that level, skill transcends its original purpose and strays into the realm of art. Purpose is the key distinction here. Penmanship differs from drawing in that penmanship is not primarily intended to produce works of art. The purpose of drawing, on the other hand, is to produce art in the first place. It’s difficult to generalize about the purpose of all martial arts, but at the center of every martial art is a fighting method(to paraphrase Karl Friday, martial arts may be more than just fighting methods, but they are never less). The purpose of every fighting method is control, not aesthetics, and a fighter in a life-or-death situation cannot afford to worry about art. This is why martial arts are less like drawing and more like penmanship, only becoming artistic at a certain threshold of quality. A martial artist may develop skill, express himself, elicit ideas in others or undergo an internal transformation, yet none of these actions become art unless they are performed well enough. As an added layer of meaning, in transcending the martial art’s purpose, the practitioner shows that works of art and fighting methods can coexist in a single action. In the process the practitioner becomes an artist, earning his rightful place on the refrigerator.

Rescuing the martial “artist”

My girlfriend may have been right to scoff. Maybe she assigned more weight to the term “artist” than I did. While grammatically convenient, it implies a minimum level of quality in our actions. I have always been hesitant to refer to myself in this way; it seems somewhat pompous and self-congratulatory. I once heard a man bemoan the label “writer” for the same reason. He liked to write but had not found any success in writing as a trade, and so he resisted the title. He continued this way until he realized that there are countless people who play instruments infrequently and recreationally, yet still have every right to call themselves musicians. He and they were practitioners of their crafts; the titles of writer, musician, or martial artist require nothing more. It may be possible for a martial artist to create, express, or elicit something artistic. He might even create art by transforming himself into something new. But even if none of this is possible, there is still one facet of art which undeniably applies to martial arts. Martial arts are refined skills, and this is the main reason why we call ourselves artists. A practitioner of martial arts needs neither to achieve nor pursue artistic transcendence to be called a martial artist. And just as a crayon-wielding child has claim to call himself an artist, so too do our scribblings earn us the same title.

It’s an old question but an important one: What is a martial art? I know it when I see it, but I’m not sure that’s good enough. When we’re trying to talk about what is and is not true of martial arts, it can be difficult to get anywhere without a formal definition. I won’t try to answer that question here, but there are a few things that are important to think about. Let’s go through a list of potential definitions and look at the problems with each one.

  • Martial arts are methods of self-defense.

This is a popular one. But suppose I learn a method of fighting that is entirely offensive. Does that mean it’s not a martial art? What about a martial art that is intended for self-defense, but ends up being used offensively? Does it cease being a martial art? Or what about martial arts meant for the battlefield? Certainly that’s not self-defense in any strict sense of the phrase.

  • Martial arts are methods of personal combat.

Similar to the above, this definition excludes battlefield martial arts. Some people might say that battlefield martial arts should be excluded, but I don’t think so. Let’s not forget that the root word of “martial” is “Mars,” the Roman god of war. To exclude battlefield martial arts would mean that the pre-Edo period samurai, for example, did not practice martial arts. That would also mean that the earlier German and Italian arts of swordsmanship are also questionable. Many of them were intended for use both on and off the battlefield, and because of that, they straddle the line between military and civilian martial arts. And yet, if you see them in practice, they are undeniably martial arts.

  • Martial arts are military techniques.

This certainly seems true for some martial arts, but most martial arts currently in practice are oriented toward personal combat by civilians. Nor did these arts originate in war. If you practice Karate, for example, it would be wrong to assume that Karate was originally intended for the battlefield. Also, does this definition mean that all military techniques are martial arts. If the US Marine Corps teaches marksmanship, does that mean that the USMC is teaching a martial art?

  • Martial arts are combat sports.

I disagree with this one because of my particular understanding of the word “sport.” A sport must be competitive. In one sense, martial arts are highly competitive in the sense that they pit two or more people against each other, often struggling for their lives. But I think that this sort of competition is distinct from the kind of peaceful competition that you see in sports. Furthermore, peaceful martial arts competitions require rules to keep everyone safe and to establish an objective way of determining a winner. But those rules are highly restrictive and create artificiality in martial arts. When martial arts are adapted for competition, they mutate from their original forms. The martial arts which are most focused on competition are the ones least based on the reality of combat, so I think they are distinct from non-competitive martial arts. I often differentiate between “martial arts” and “martial sports” for this reason. Also, the idea of practicing a martial art as a form of recreation(rather than as some artistic/artisanal discipline) is also offensive to some traditional martial artists. However, the reality is that people rarely practice martial arts as a professional skill anymore, so the recreational aspect may be more accurate than some of us would like. Nevertheless, the “combat sport” definition is flawed.

  • Martial arts are combat-oriented methods of seeking enlightenment.

This is more of an Eastern idea. Under this definition, martial arts are one method of achieving some sort of spiritual transcendence. But what about martial arts which have nothing to say about spirituality or enlightenment? What if they’re just meant for learning how to fight effectively? I would argue that these would still be martial arts, and that this definition is therefore flawed.

  • Martial arts are methods of expressing yourself through combat.

Bruce Lee might like this one, and it gets into the debate over the word “art”(more on this later). But much like the previous definition, this excludes all martial arts which are uninterested in self-expression or artistic statements. Some no-nonsense martial artists may even be offended by the suggestion that this is at all relevant in martial arts.

  • Martial arts are traditions of fighting passed down over time.

Are traditions integral to martial arts? What about martial arts that were never traditions? Does it cease to be a martial art if I develop it myself and never teach it to anyone? What if, like many European martial arts, it was recorded but not passed down as a living tradition.

  • Martial arts are methods of fighting.

To me, this definition seems like the obvious choice, because it is the most inclusive. But even this one is full of holes, and perhaps includes too much. Is it still a martial art if the method of fighting is primitive and undeveloped? If I develop a method of fighting in my backyard, am I right in calling it a martial art? Should there be a minimum amount of refinement? A friend of mine once told me that he didn’t consider Krav Maga a martial art because he thought it was too raw and unrefined. For him, this definition would be too broad. The second problem with this definition is that the words “method” and “art” are analogous here. And here we get into a discussion of art.

What is art?
Oh, here we go. To define a martial art, you must understand both the word “martial” as well as the word “art.” But the latter is notoriously one of the most difficult words in the English language to define. I usually discourage people from defining martial arts for precisely this reason. As soon as you offer any static definition of art, some avant-garde artist will jump at the opportunity to make you eat your words. I am neither an aesthetic philosopher nor art historian, but this discussion might be useful nonetheless.  Art is hard to define because it contains many concepts in one word. When we use that word, we may or may not be referring to all of those concepts. Therefore, art is a vague term which encapsulates multiple meanings which don’t always apply.

Art used to refer to artisanship, i.e. what an artisan produces. A craftsman would produce a table, a vase, painting, etc, and because this was done by hand, it required skill and dedication to produce a good product. At some point, it seems, the upper echelon of these works became known as “works of art,” signifying that they were somehow different than lower-quality items. Along these lines, it’s easy to see how a painting or a symphony could be considered art: They were the products of skilled labor. In the case of performance, such as music, dance, and acting, these products were not even physical objects.

The trouble is that in the modern era, art is now an abstract idea. Art has been largely separated from the production of physical objects by craftsmen. Our physical objects are largely made by machines and artisanship has been in sharp decline for centuries. Most people who still practice this sort of thing do it as a form of recreation, not unlike martial arts. They are no longer practical, professional skills. The common understanding of “art” has changed accordingly. But those old ideas are still around, and now there seem to be multiple ideas expressed within the concept of art.

Martial arts have undergone a crisis, not unlike the crisis of painting in the face of photography. Martial arts were once practical, professional skills for people who expected to come into harm’s way. Firearms and civil order have robbed martial arts of much of their practicality. Since then, martial arts have pivoted around the crisis in a number of ways. Some martial arts have adapted to modernity, others have redefined their ultimate goals. But in general, martial arts have remained nebulous in purpose and definition throughout the modern era.

So, what sense of the word “art” applies to martial arts?

If a martial art is an art in the sense of artisanship, then the practical skill is all that matters. In this sense, it is about the final “product,” i.e. a person who can fight. This idea probably seems intuitively attractive to many people. But a martial art in this sense has no value beyond the practical, and there are some who would object to that.

If a martial art is an art in a more abstract sense, then the ultimate goals are highly debatable. Some would say that the real purpose of martial arts is to cultivate yourself, to express your inner potential by mastering a physical discipline. In this sense, it almost doesn’t matter that the physical discipline is intended for combat. Some people would talk about a spiritual goal, or a goal of artistic self-expression.

Each individual martial art will have its own ideas about where it stands among these options, as they come from a wide range of philosophical backgrounds. But for such a disparate group of disciplines, it is nearly impossible to find a common denominator that is remotely useful as a definition. In other words, the more that you try to include them all within a single category, the less descriptive that category will be. As for me, I will try to err on the side of inclusivity.