The martial arts are an art, like music. That comparison is, I must admit, an old saw. The similarities in practice, development, expression, etc. between various arts- martial arts, music, dance, cooking- have been talked about so much they can get a little tired. But I’d like to suggest one aspect of that similarity that hasn’t been looked at very much: the roles of the performer and the participant.
These days we are used to thinking of music as performance art, something you watch or listen to. For most people it is not really something you do, especially once you are an adult. In thinking about musicians we focus on the big names, the ones on stage, the ones with lots of fans, the ones who write the hits, the ones who win awards and play the songs that are “the soundtrack of our lives”. They are “real musicians”. They are somehow different from us. You might get into their music but you are not going to be doing the same thing. But that is new, really new. For most of history lots of adults played or sang some. They participated in making music with the family and the community. They didn’t go to shows or buy recordings or think about music as something to watch or just listen to, in large part because these things were often not even options. Music, with the exception of certain forms of entertainment for the elite, was theirs to do; it was defined primarily by participation. Only a very few wrote or were masters or teachers and that was fine. The goal, if there even was one, was that most folks could enjoy and be competent, and maintain the traditions of their community. Simply participate. But these days the goal for many people is to become the performer- the rock star, the master. If you can’t go that route, you “don’t have it”, and many people see that as failure and stop. Or stop once they leave college or start working and “leave behind childish things”. It seems normal now, but it is an essential redefinition of what music is, and of what the role of the performer is.
I see the same thing in the martial arts. Everyone wants to be “the master”, “the teacher”, “the champion”. The person other people look up to as the pinnacle of the art. It often seems like that is the only path that matters, really the only one that exists- if you are not trying to get to the top or become a teacher you are not really training. In some ways teacher and senior have become synonymous. To me it shows. Shooting for that target, for the role of master or performer, leads to a very different approach. It is not that communal. It is not that participatory. It doesn’t focus on group interactions or the reasons you might play (train) that do not involve you getting external accolades. It ignores core values of most folk arts: community, participation, and tradition. It also totally changes the role of the art in the community. Instead of having a functional, daily role- maintain traditions, be fun, keep you in shape, install basic personal protection skills, bring members together- it becomes a place for hierarchy, material or social success, competition and individual achievement.
Most folk arts, and I would locate traditional martial arts there for sure, would not be a major source of fame or fortune. If nothing else they would be too locally bound. Most people involved would not ever think they were going to “be the best”, to teach, to add something new to the art, or become famous through it. They were not going to become the hero and they wouldn’t have thought to blog about their involvement or thoughts on the art… That doesn’t mean they would not be striving for ability, or that there wouldn’t be competition or success, or that there would be no money involved, it means that those things were part of a larger picture. It means that people would be training, or playing music, or dancing, as a regular part of their lives and communities, along side many others. But today it seems that the ideals of success and achievement that are central to much of our culture are the main images, the stories, that people carry to their practice. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but it is a real change of focus. Of intent…