Is It Time To Abandon the ‘Art’ in Martial Arts?

Is It Time To Abandon the ‘Art’ in Martial Arts?

Calling myself a martial ARTIST in my industry of modern martial arts gets a bad wrap. When you mention that you are a martial ARTIST to the new hyper-competitive or reality based self defence crowd, they immediately think of guys running around in white PJ’s practicing tradition or doing kata. If you are brave enough to say that you are not into competing, or that self-defence really isn’t your primary goal for training, expect to be labeled a fraud, a poser, a wannabe. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

I don’t believe that one can highlight a specific single instance that brought this about. There seems to be, or at least from my perspective several streams coalescing and at play at once. Much of this seems to be largely unconscious. This starts with the notion of warfare, and survival.

Like it or not, warfare has been part of our existence as a species on this planet for much of our existence. When we were not fighting others, we were surviving mother nature. We are a species that for better or worse, have used the evolutionary fuel of survival to, dare I say it, survive. The need to find creative ways and solutions to survive is literally encoded in our DNA. We are preprogrammed to survive and even when a threat to our survival is ‘imaginary’ we respond as our cave man ancestors did, we fight back. Sometimes with words, sometimes with posturing — and sadly still sometimes with fists, guns and war.

Taking this into account, the male counterpart of our species, that group who for the most part for hundreds of thousands of years kept the tribe safe, kept the tribe fed, now finds himself in a modern Western world full of skyscrapers and fast cars. And whilst the world has dramatically changed since the time of our cavemen ancestors, we as modern man still have the same brain for the most part as they did. No longer needing to defend the tribe or village from predators in the Western world, our survival instincts still remain very much a part of us — seeking out survival data in a modern world of new challenges and new kinds of predators. We have replaced the red Okra of the Maasai warrior or the feathers of Native American Indians, in a modern search for new symbols to show off our prowess in our ability to survive. People join sports clubs, become a sports team fan, wear a business suite, or put on fight gear — adorning ourselves with modern ‘feathers’ or ‘colours’ to show at least for that tribe, that we have what it takes.

As Geoffrey Miller points out however, sadly “one critical thing that advertising does is it tries to convince consumers that above average products can compensate for below average traits.” Wearing the modern version of the feather then is often without the ability to back it up. In other words its a lie. The feathers, the red Okra meant something. You didn’t get it by simply putting it on, you had to earn it. In the same way, we all try to earn it, by getting that six pack (and letting everyone know via our selfie on Facebook) or for an increasing section of the population, male and female, we learn one of the oldest of all survival tools, how to use our bodies as weapons. Like it or not, martial arts, or expressions of war disguised as sport, will always be a part of us, simply because survival is one of our default states, even when it is totally unnecessary.

We are unconsciously slaves to our evolution, where we evolved to compete for mates, friends, family support and status. The vanguards, the stalwarts of the materialistic world we live in know this. They sell us stuff telling us directly at times, but mostly speaking to our unconscious that we need X to be X. The woman walking down the road with her Prada handbag for instance, is broadcasting to other people who understand that tribe, her fitness signals. I get the sense though, that many people in the modern martial art world are searching for a more real version of these fitness signals. They want, as best as possible in a modern society that frowns upon violence, unless it is neatly packaged and endorsed as sport — they want to earn their feathers. Added with advertising telling all of us how inadequate we are, MMA and reality based self defence (RBSD) training is appealing because it speaks to our unconscious need to feel safe, to acquire status and of course to flaunt our feathers.

The feathers of Native American Indian warriors meant something, in other words you had to earn it, and earn it through real demonstration of your ability to survive —the backlash towards traditional martial artistry then is understandable. Many traditional martial artists don’t want to hear this, but the truth is, traditional martial arts evolved into wearing fake feathers. Seeing a 12-year old kid with a black belt, a feather that for the most part was at one time a signifier of a true warrior is a cause for concern. I have many traditional martial art school owners who contact me, they are rightfully concerned about the proliferation of modern martial art’s like MMA. Simply put, it is putting them out of business. They also don’t want to hear the uneasy truth, that the likely reason MMA and RBSD rose like a Phoenix from the ashes is their own fault. With all the Mc Dojo action going on in many traditional schools of martial arts, with the selling of belts, ranks, fake fighting abilities etc al. — they ultimately tried to convince their students that what was seen as an above average symbol, like a black belt, could compensate for below average traits. In other words they sold out. They sold out to capitalism. They sold fake feathers. In this kind of climate, the spirit of MMA, the ideal of getting back that true feather was going to happen regardless if it became a sport or not. One thing about evolution is that it seeks an inherent truth, and if it doesn’t find it, that entity becomes extinct. You can only play smoke and mirrors with mother nature for so long before she kicks you between the legs.

This part of the backlash to martial artistry I get. But is this the whole story?


Defining The ART in the Martial

It really comes down then to how you define ART, and how you as a Martial and Artist then embody those two words. The martial aspect is simple to understand in the context of this article. It allows us to embrace our very real need to enhance our fitness indicators. If a person didn’t do this through martial arts they would do it via another route (I am not so keen on having a Prada handbag though). Many people will go out and have this modern martial art experience and flaunt it. It becomes their Twitter tag line, their Facebook profile pic (yet another shirtless wannabe MMA guy), or part of their wardrobe. It’s their attempt to signal to other men, and the opposite sex and say, “Look I am or have earned my feathers”. There is a falsehood here too.

A warning label if you will. Getting that feather is not easy, so expect a lot of people then to flaunt and fake their personal merits and virtues ( or cheat by taking steroids). Often times this come’s in a guise of extremism, where they over romanticise the violence, over inflate their prowess and conquests. The constant heroic nature of the game is evident too, in the showing off of that six pack with endless FB pics, with the accompanying tale of how much hard work it took etc. Doing this gives that person ownership, something others seem not able to attain, and in doing so it raises their status. This is the martial aspect, our evolutionary imperative to flaunt our status and our fitness indicators to others — but it’s not the ART.

The question then is do we even need the ART in the martial? Or should we simply get rid of that word?

ART as Godin notes, “Is about intent and communication, not substances”. The substances are all those external things mentioned earlier, it’s showing off the six pack on endless FB posts, or wearing your TapOut gear to your kids soccer match, or bragging about who you were able to beat in a cage. Much of these are how you want to be perceived by others (even if it is at times totally fake). This is not ART.

ART is about authenticity. It is in fact the counter culture mindset. It’s about not buying into the status quo but throwing it on its head. Godin says it best, “An artists is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo.” In other words being a true martial ARTIST is about being brave enough to see the truth about why you are so attracted to an expression of yourself that is inherently violent, no matter how neatly you like to package it, or societies labeling of it as sport. Its about recognizing that a lot of your motivation to fight is evolutionary, and the reason you want to flaunt your physical prowess, and your fitness to the world is because as social primates we have evolved to compete for mates, friends, family, support and status.

An ARTIST rather than being dismissive of these notions, questions them, goes into them, and is not afraid to play in the sandpit. Artists recognize as Bernays argued “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element…and those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible power”, be that in government, through media, corporations or a modern martial art school. An ARTIST rather than ignoring this, recognizes that much of his or her actions, are not necessarily conscious, but rather unconscious, directed consciously by the status quo, that manipulates our inherent evolutionary imperatives for their own gain. Knowing this, or at the very least acknowledging this, an ARTIST can decide then to play this whole thing out in a very different way.

Deciding To Play Differently

We need to realize that there are other valid ways to earn ones feathers other than competing or fighting on the streets. A lot of this is taking the time to find out why we are unconsciously doing martial arts to begin with. What is our intention?

If I take out all of what society, media, the status quo says it should be, if I take out my perceived need to survive, earn status, or show off my fitness to others — what do I have left?

As Marc Ecko notes, we must not compromise on our intentions. Intentions as he notes, isn’t a destination it’s an expression of where you are AT in life. There was a time when my intentions were all about learning to kick ass. That’s where I was AT in my life. Survival was real, but I also wanted status. I wanted people to fear and respect me. I can only speak for myself, and I would never want to dishonor someone else’s journey, but being in the fight mindset all of the time, made me inauthentic. The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the modern martial art world said to me that in order to be taken seriously I need to eliminate any and all competition, on or off the mat. Deep down however, I knew that on the one hand I was drawn to martial arts because of something unconscious (survival, societies notion of masculinity etc), but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be only about violence. I think this is the contradiction artists often have to endure. But it also allows the opportunity for those brave enough to step up, ARTIST in hand, and say, we can have this martial art experience, but it doesn’t have to be about simply measuring one self against another in martial skill. It doesn’t have to be at the expense of someone else.

Art in this sense, which you have likely gleaned already has nothing to do with white PJ’s, ritual or kata. The Art I am talking about is to decide not to simply buy into the entire fight game, or what the mass says modern martial arts should be. Rather to use bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. This is not going to happen, when the entire intention behind what you do is to follow the crowd, or the crowd’s definition of what is constituted as real. Sadly in the modern martial arts world on the one hand there is this notion that if you are not competing, or if your students are not competing and winning then you simply not the real deal. Whilst on the other hand in the RBSD systems if you are focusing on anything other than surviving that street encounter, you are a fake.


The Martial ARTISTS Manifesto

So coming back to what I wrote earlier, If I take out of martial arts all of what society, media, the status quo says it should or ought to be, if I take out my perceived need to survive, earn status, or show off my fitness to others — what do I have left?

Dare I say it? You have ART.

As Godin further notes, “Art is the work of a human being — something a person does with generosity to touch someone else to make a change for the better.” I just can’t see myself being able to do that anymore by hurting another person, even if that person agreed to be there. Rather, the act of generosity is really about setting up the play so we both benefit, we both grow, we are both able to stretch ourselves and discover our true potential. This doesn’t happen in competition, but rather in cooperation.

I realize that this goes against not only how most of us have been brought up, but also Western cultures incessant focus on survival of the fittest. Simply it seems to me, that we have been used. The Western world’s notion of success in the end, has simply amplified and manipulated our evolutionary imperatives, to the benefit of a handful of benefactors. The role of the Artist is to challenge the status quo, and to rather find more beneficial ways of using those evolutionary imperatives for the greater good of others.

The same energy that is used for survival, to achieve status, to compete against others etc, can be the same energy used to heal us from a way of being that might have been a necessity as cavemen, but for many of us living with everything we need, is no longer applicable. Martial ARTS training then can still be real, can still offer the personal challenge for growth, allowing us to earn our feathers, but rather than being at the expense of others, becomes the vehicle for collective growth and personal transformation. The ART allows us to embody the meaning of the ‘feather’ beyond the external. Not only did the feathers represent a warriors prowess, but it also represented what the bird embodied. For example a feather from a dove symbolised love, gentleness and kindness. Thus the seeking for the feather then acts as spirit guide, the walk through different stages of life, whilst teaching, guiding and protecting us from the MARTIAL arts of everyday life.


How To Play Like A Martial ARTIST

First the training environment has to be cleansed of all the meatheads, the alpha males and ego. There is no room for this in a challenge play environment. It is these very things, that cause us to express the status quo to begin with. Secondly ground rules need to be set for how the play will unfold, no where is this more important than in the act of sparring.

People have to be encouraged to shift from playing within boundaries (i.e., rules of winning) to playing with the boundaries (i.e., finding ways to continue the sparring play). The seriousness needs to be taken out, the focus on winning, not looking bad, or the fear of making mistakes needs to be removed, and instead a sense of play should be instilled.

What emerges are people who are no longer seeking to dominate with power, but rather play with strength. Much of the reason people fail is because they are never allowed to fail. Often the consequences of failing in a meathead modern martial art environment are so high (i.e. getting your head knocked off) that a person never explores their full potential because they are simply to afraid too. Invariably then, these environments become the exclusive domain of the tough, the alpha’s, the bullies — and we can argue that it is this outmoded way of being, that continues to be prevalent and a source of despair in our modern world.

Playing the sparring game shouldn’t be about keeping score, or time, rather it should be about finding ways to generate time. It should be an experience that anyone, regardless of age or fitness should be able to engage in. In this environment everyone will meet someone who can play with exceptional skill and offer the necessary challenge for personal growth and game development to take place. But here winning and losing take on a different definition and role, rather than being seen as the end of the game, they are simply seen as moments in the continuation of play itself. The ultimate objective is not for the game to end, be that in sparring, rolling or even drilling, but rather for the play to continue. This is ART.

PS. As a side note, as much of this hyper-competitiveness, and survival of the fittest has been supplanted, and manipulated from Darwin’s work, here is something to contemplate:

Today the focus is mainly on Darwin’s Origin of Species. But in the 828 page sequel in which he tells us he will now deal with human evolution, The Descent of Man, Darwin writes only twice of “survival of the fittest,” but 95 times of love. He writes of selfishness 12 times, but 92 times of moral sensitivity.

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  • Jacques Wagner
    June 18, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    Love it! Wish that a lot of people can read this and hopefully make a difference in how they see themselves. I hate the fact that we always “have” to compete. I compete enough every day with trying to be first in line at the bank, to get to the stop Street before another person, it takes the fun out of life, hence reading this has made me realise that I should look at how I do things and be the change I want to see in others.

  • Matt Albanese
    June 18, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    The idea of shedding all the “BS” labels and false identities in this article particularly resonated with me. One manifestation of this is really the opposite of the “donning of the false feathers,” as Rodney puts it. I find myself not wanting to wear fight shorts to training or even wear martial arts related clothing a lot of the time now, and I tend to no longer look for excuses to bring up martial arts in conversation. Because my identity as a martial artist was so tied up in these things for so long: what art I practice, what my rank is, who I studied under, what competitions I’ve been in, etc… These days I just want to be myself…an individual ARTIST…not someone who feels the need to hitch their identity to stylistic labels or affiliations with this group or that group. Thanks for this, Rodney.

  • Ryan Walsh
    June 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Awesome article Rodney! Thanks for writing this! As a martial artist and Trainer I found it very inspiring! This article provides great examples and advice on how to establish an optimal training environment and I will definitely be looking to put these principles into play!

  • Pierre Aucamp
    June 19, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Thanx for another great article Rodney.
    While I love (and agree with) the point you’re making, I have to ask what your opinion is on losing in good old fashioned competition.

    It is of coarse very short sighted to judge a person on his ability to win tournaments (whatever kind they may be), because a testosterone fuelled teenager with the ability to steamroller opponents sketches only one side of what might be a very unbalanced human being (or not). But is there not value in competing and being able to deal with the outcome without either a euphoric high or depressive low?

    Life is full of perceived competition, in which we’re going to lose more often than winning. Is there value in being able to compete and lose with a smile as opposed to not competing at all?

    Once again loved the article

    • Rodney King
      June 19, 2014 at 8:19 am

      Thanks Pierre…

      Look at the end of the day if someone wants to ‘compete’ they should follow their bliss…but at least be honest about the attraction. I see way to many people lying though why they do it. Hence they then get themselves into trouble, psychologically, emotionally and or spiritually.

      On a personal note, the notion of competing to grow or achieve success, in my view is a cultural, societal, capitalist, materialistic construct (its driven off Darwin…which I will mention at the end). There is this pervasive notion that unless one is beating another person in some way, one is not achieving success. But there is another way to achieve success, through cooperation and play. I can only speak for myself, but I have found more personal value in this, and it is more authentic to me. In a martial art sense, I want to be good at what I do, I want to improve everyday on the mat, and I do. I don’t make it so through having to constantly beat other people. This doesn’t mean I don’t win in the traditional sense. If we want to measure the classical notion of beating someone in this game, I have been doing that my whole life (some of these people I quote-un-quote beat have competed in the UFC)….but I don’t broadcast it, I don’t need people to know about it, because at the end of the day, I wanted to play my best, and ‘winning’ as everyone likes to call it, was simply a byproduct…and even if I wasn’t winning, I would do it anyway…because the intrinsic rewards outweigh the extrinsic validation everyone seems to crave (dare I say a tad bit of low self esteem around these days).

      In conclusion, the pervasive notion of survival of the fittest, which is just another way of saying, and justifying competition, has been twisted to serve an elite few. What non of these Darwinian advocates ever mention is, that the very book they got this from, The Descent of Man, Darwin writes only twice of “survival of the fittest,” but 95 times of love. In the same book he writes about selfishness 12 times, but 92 times of moral sensitivity. In respect to actually using the words competition, he mentions it only 9 times, but 24 times of mutuality and mutual aid.

      You decide…:)

  • Matthew Flaherty
    June 19, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Great article. Inspiring and rewarding. It is strange that the notion of being able to “Play” is lost as you mature and take on responsibility. Over the last several years I have seen how “playing’ aids not only your performance, learning and enjoyment of martial arts, but will personally benefit you, your family and your career. Creating environments to enable play is key at CMD, and it is something I have personally used to take on the most challenging aspects of my life; and I’m proud to be in a movement that is not scared to challenge the status quo. As Matt Albanese commented “These days I just want to be myself”, and I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the post Rodney, they always generate healthy conversation and make you question yourself for the better.

  • James Woodfield jones
    June 19, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    I really enjoyed this article Rodney
    King very well written 😉
    Thank you!

  • Vince Choo
    July 28, 2017 at 1:41 am

    Excellent article!

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