The Gentle Art is Art

The gentle art is art hero image

Hello, students!

If you haven’t picked up on it, I love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A lot. My mission in life is to get as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible to come and try the Gentle Art. I’ve heard many reasons from both friends and family as to why they wouldn’t try it, and a lot of these are excuses that are based on bad stereotypes and misinformation. This blog is dedicated to shattering those stereotypes and hopefully inspiring people to come try BJJ. I’ve had this specific post in mind since day one, but I feel like I only now have the words and audience to communicate it effectively. First, however, I need to set the stage. Bear with me.

Usually, my blog is focused solely on Jiu-Jitsu, but this post has relevance to many other forms of martial arts as well. This includes the mother of them all–Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, BJJ is a critical component of any MMA fighter’s toolbox.

An attack on MMA is also an attack BJJ, and recently my Gentle Art was publically shamed.

Why am I bringing up attacks and MMA? Well, back in January of 2017, one of the most all-time celebrated actresses, Meryl Streep, slammed MMA during her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. While on her soapbox, she made a snide comment that Mixed Martial Arts are not “the arts.” (See the video here, jump to about 2:05 for the quote).

I thought the comment was just a tad hypocritical since she stereotyped MMA in the middle of a politically charged speech denouncing a president for stereotyping and discriminating against groups of people without understanding who they really were.

I guess it is okay for her to make broad stereotypes because she is an artist and understands these things better than everybody else. It must be the view from her ivory tower that gives her such insight. She is, of course, entitled to her opinions and her prejudices, but “Martial Art” is not an ironic name no matter how highbrow you are. It is an art, and like all great arts, it tends to be widely misunderstood. Even by other artists, it would seem.

I know what you’re thinking: “Zack, how on earth is putting somebody into an Armbar or Knee on Belly art?” Well, perhaps those isolated pieces aren’t art. But a bucket of paint by itself isn’t usually considered art either. It’s a component that an artist uses to convey meaning. You have to look at BJJ more holistically than a list of techniques in order to see its artistic value. True art isn’t necessarily about colors on canvas or notes played with the perfect pitch. Sure those can be pieces of art, but they aren’t the essence of art.

I believe the essence of art is in exploring and expressing the Human Condition in all of its forms.

What is the human condition? Victory, defeat, passion, grief, ambition, sacrifice, and sorrow are just a few aspects of being human and are all part of The Condition. As an artist, you have to deeply experience one or more of these, tap into them for inspiration, and use them to try and change the world. Actors do it all the time. So do painters, dancers, musicians, and yes, even Martial Artists.

I think a defining characteristic of art its ability to connect people to larger ideas and potentially inspire a change in trajectory to their lives.

As an example, I personally know several women who train BJJ and MMA because they became fans of Ronda Rousey and were inspired and empowered by her story. Ronda has overcome many obstacles in her life in order to become the trailblazer that she is today. Her incredible collection of victories has led women all over the world to shed their own insecurities and make positive changes to their lives and lifestyles. There is no way she could positively affect so many people without really confronting her own Human Condition and using it to create something beautiful from it.

So, what made Ronda an artist? I don’t think it was the fact that she won so many fights. I think it was the way in which she did it. She beat her opponents in 8 out of 11 MMA wins in less than a minute, with the majority being BJJ based submissions. She ended fights quickly and efficiently, often with little or no bloodshed. What she did was rich in technique and masterful in execution.

Anybody can brawl in a street fight just like anybody can smear colors on paper with their hands until everything is a nasty green-brown. I don’t think most people would consider either one of those as art.

It’s when you add the technical abilities that have been learned through years of study that art begins to emerge. If you compare Ronda’s fights with YouTube videos of people brawling in Waffle House at 3 AM, the huge difference in technique makes it apparent that she is, in fact, an artist and not some amateur finger-painter.

Going a little deeper into MMA, I think it needs to be said that an MMA fight is not the release of two rabid animals, but rather a three-dimensional, physical game of chess. Those athletes are not just throwing wild punches. They are making moves and counter-moves. They are laying and avoiding traps. They are creating and implementing complex strategies while dealing with the nervousness that comes from being at the center of a massive crowd. Maybe the casual observer wouldn’t understand the artistic merit in a fight, but then again the casual observer doesn’t understand the artistic merits of Jackson Pollock either. Not being able to understand a form of art doesn’t mean that it has no artistic value.

A jackson pollock splatter painting
Jackson Pollock – No. 5, 1948

To be a top MMA fighter requires years of careful study, patience, sacrifice, humility, and self-discovery. You can’t go into the cage with zero experience or training and expect to win. Or even to put on a good show for that matter. Martial arts are an expression of commitment and mastery of the body no less than ballet is. Just because there isn’t an orchestra under The Octagon doesn’t mean there isn’t art being shown on the stage. It is the nuances and complexities that make it an art. I think that Meryl Streep’s simplistic stereotype was based on ignorance, and she has no authority to label what is and isn’t art. When oversimplified, all types of art become meaningless and without merit. For example, look at this painting below.

Image of Van Gogh's Starry Night


This is Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and it is one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. Taken out of context, this painting could be oversimplified and described as a sloppily painted town under an absurdly out of proportion sky painted by a one-eared lunatic in an asylum somewhere in France. But this painting is so much more! It is pure emotion captured in oil on canvas. It is the culmination of a lifetime of pain and sacrifice and careful study. It took years to acquire the skills necessary to stir the soul by capturing such a landscape using only simple brushstrokes. Jiu-Jitsu, as a Martial Art, is no different. To those that study BJJ or MMA, the beauty of body mechanics and manipulation become masterpieces in motion.

If you don’t believe that the Gentle Art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is art, come try it and see for yourself. That includes you, Meryl. This sport has some amazing health benefits for people of all ages, races, genders, and egos. If you give my art a chance, maybe I’ll forgive you for the two hours I lost watching Julie and Julia.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from another famous painter that I think has relevance to Jiu-Jitsu. Pablo Picasso was sitting on a park bench when a woman recognized him and pleaded that he make a sketch of her. He finally agreed and drew her portrait using a single pencil stroke on the back of a napkin. She was amazed that he was able to capture her essence in just seconds with one stroke. When she asked how much she owed him, he quoted her a hefty price of $5,000. “But how could you want so much money for this picture?” She asked. “It only took you a second to draw it!” To which he replied, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Even if you don’t understand the art, respect the sacrifices the artists have made to express themselves.

A real artist can make it look so easy that you don’t even realize it’s art.

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