Martial arts and entertainment
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
Many people think of the term “martial arts” as an oxymoron. After all, the purpose of martial arts is to dedicate one’s body and mind to a discipline that evolves through combat, both simulated and actual. One would think that this makes martial arts inherently violent, and yet many civilizations across the globe celebrate traditions of martial arts as performance and competitive entertainment. This paradox raises a number of interesting questions about the martial arts in relation to other arts, and even their status as arts in the first place.
First, it is important to put to bed the idea that martial arts are only a sport. While it is true that they have a sport application, the focus is not solely on the athletes in competition. In arenas like televised boxing, wrestling, or MMA tournaments, more attention is certainly paid to things like win/loss ratios, sponsorships, and fan-favourite fighters. This resembles any organized sport, all of which could be charitably described as forms of make-believe combat ritual organized under a different set of rules. But this is only one aspect of martial arts. It would be an error to judge an ancient tradition by its modern commercialized incarnation.
This is not to say that sport is somehow inferior to art. On the contrary, it is quite noble for athletes to push their physical limits and build camaraderie for the sake of entertainment and self-improvement. But it must be recognized that sport is not necessarily art. There is a reason why “artist” and “athlete” are not synonyms. An artist must be actively trying to express some idea larger than merely an individual experience of training, victory, or loss. Sport can be the subject of art, but not the medium. That is purely a matter of its function.
Compare martial arts with another hybrid of sport and art: dance. While there are martial traditions which evolved out of dance (and vice versa), their origins make them very distinct. Practitioners of either style may be called both athletes and artists, even undergoing similar training. Some martial traditions, like Chinese Wushu, even have exhibition tournaments, which are decided on the basis of technique, just like dance or acrobatics. The primary difference is that no dance tournaments are decided by submission or TKO, because dance was not created for self-defence.
Art, however, is not evaluated through either of these methods. When an audience goes to see a show, they will typically call the performance good, bad, or sort of okay. This is not the same as evaluating a win or loss, even though there are many rules of presentation. This is the arena in which martial arts finally become artistic: when they are practiced for their own sake, and others are permitted to be entertained by that practice, or not, at their leisure. Sport statistics are an objective goal. Whether or not I am impressed by a painting, a song, or a martial exhibition is totally subjective to me, and the people watching with me. That is the distinction of art.