“Art” is one of those hard-to-define words which means different things to different people. Most people tend to think of the fine arts (painting, sculpture, dance, theater, etc) when “art” is brought up in conversation. In my opinion, art encompasses any endeavor which requires skill and is an expression of the artist. Both the fine arts and the martial arts require refined skills and are a creative expression of the artists.
Human nature has violent and physical aspects, so it only natural that there are art forms set in the context of fighting. What separates the martial “art” from mindless brawling is the systematization of the fighting such that the movements and principles of fighting can be trained without violence necessarily being the end goal. When such a systematization is present, the martial artists can train the craft of fighting and express the principles of a martial arts style in their movements. Watching martial artists who have mastered their craft is similar to watching the skillful movements of a dancer or an athlete competing at peak performance. By blending with an opponent’s attacks and weaving offense and defense, the martial artist is demonstrating a beautiful display of body movement and force interplay.
The practice of martial arts is a physical expression of the practitioner’s self. You can perceive actors performing with feeling, athletes competing with heart, and painters creating with vision. You can also tell the difference between martial practitioners moving with rote, reflexive patterns and the skillful artists moving with intent and dynamically adapting to their opponents. With skilled martial artists, the hours of deliberate practice shine through with efficient movements, powerful attacks, solid defense, clear perception of an opponent’s attacks, and an exquisite sense of timing and distance. The martial artist elevates fighting to a skilled craft.
Coming from a primarily Chinese martial arts background, I also believe another defining characteristic of martial arts is that they are a path to self-improvement. At the most basic level, martial arts training develops focus, discipline, physical conditioning, and camaraderie. However, the self-improvement to which I am referring is the (perhaps cliched) life-altering, fundamental truth-realizing types of change. To pursue a martial art to a high level–or any serious endeavor for that matter–one has to devote a lot of time and effort. That in and of itself cuts off a lot of other life possibilities since time and energy and unfortunately limited resources. While on the path to mastery, martial artists must ask themselves if the art is something they truly wish to pursue and what sacrifices they are willing to make to achieve their goal. They must determine who they are, who they want to be, and what they want out of life before they can commit to pursuing mastery of an art.
To reach high levels of proficiency with a martial art, the practitioner’s mental acuity must be elevated. Even in high level athletics, physical training is rarely the limiting factor; rather it is the mental game that defines the elite. The martial artist’s mind must be trained to maintain focus, develop a keen kinesthetic feel, and perceive the conditions in a fight. Martial artists must develop mental fortitude to deal with the inevitable roadblocks and setbacks on the path to mastery. To reach their full potential, martial artists need to delve into their own psyches to conquer the mental blocks that hold them back and remove the mental clutter that cloud the understanding of fundamental principles. It is in this process of looking inward that the martial artists realize themselves and grow as people.
A martial art is just like any other art form in that a martial art is a skilled pursuit which expresses aspects of life and humanity. The art can form bonds of friendship, help a person grow, and express beauty through skill. It just happens that the “art” is expressed in the context of fighting instead of the more traditional fine arts media.
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