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Monday, May 23, 2011

Art Isn't Easy

When I'm in a songwriting rut and my guitar lies dormant in its case on my floor for weeks at a time, the cure is to start listening to new music. I put in a new CD (yes, for me it is usually still CDs) and listen to it several times in a matter of days, picking up on new chords, new kinds of melodies, new lyrical ideas. Soon, I feel compelled to try my hand at these new tricks.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that my return to blogging has been brought on by the discovery--and subsequent devouring--of the collected works of an online martial arts writer, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond is a lifelong karateka who writes with a biting wit. His observations about karate have implications that reach far beyond his own art.

One need only read a few of his short pieces to discover a pervasive, recurring theme: his fear that modern karate students are not being taught to cultivate their own creativity, and that, consequently, karate is becoming a stagnant set of techniques rather than a living art (look here for probably the clearest example of this).

Much is made nowadays of whether or not the martial arts are truly martial, but Redmond seems to stand alone in asking an equally important question: are they truly arts?

Almost immediately, I felt a need to turn Redmond's scrutiny on my own martial arts. Of course, my creativity is limited by my inexperience, so I can only go so far with this, but still I came to some interesting conclusions almost right away.

Taekwondo, which I confess I myself use mostly as an exercise program, seemed to catch fire and burn almost instantly in the heat of Redmond's criticism, at least the WTF/Kukkiwon style of taekwondo in which I dabble.

In order to serve as a diplomatic tool for the nation of South Korea, taekwondo has been roughly forced into the molds of (A) a universally accessible worldwide sport and (B) an ancient, indigenously Korean martial art. To fulfill A, taekwondo forms and exercises have been rigidly systematized to the extent that one can reasonably expect two students from two different parts of the world to be practicing virtually identical taekwondo. To fulfill B, those same forms and exercises have been given the trappings of historic national treasures which must be preserved.

The result of all this is that the only real place for creativity in taekwondo is in the sparring ring, which frankly has never been my favorite part of the dojang.

Aikido, at least as I have come to know it, stands in stark contrast to this. When I first joined the dojo, five of the six active instructors were students of the same sensei, and yet all had very different styles of aikido. I would go to the dojo one night and learn a technique, then come back two nights later and be shown a very different way of doing the same technique by a different instructor. Instructors taught smaller students and larger students to do techniques different ways to suit their bodies rather than trying to make all their students into technical facsimilies of themselves (or of their sensei, or of whomever).

What I found in the dojo was a group of people who did try to keep the traditions of their art, but also tried to build on them. Students (even beginners like me) were encouraged to figure things out for themselves and find what worked for them, to become real artists rather than (as Redmond puts it) "human storage devices in which something valuable is preserved intact for all time".

This contrast between aikido and taekwondo never really occured to me before Redmond got me thinking. It's strange; I have devoted huge swaths of text to exploring the differences between the two arts (swath, swath), but have never thought to explore this particular difference before. It may be that this difference is more important than all the others.

What, then? Shall I quit taekwondo and pursue aikido exclusively, in the interest of being a true artist? Well, no.

I still love the simplicity and physicality of taekwondo, and it's still a much more fun workout than sitting on a stationary bike. And to be honest, there's still a shallow, childish part of me that longs for that gold-lettered black belt that I don't have to hide under a hakama. I've tried to kick the taekwondo habit before; it's just not working for me.

But integrity (the second tenet of taekwondo!) demands that I put the kicks and the kihaps to the service of real art. And in light of these new discoveries, that probably means for me eventually transplanting what I can from taekwondo to aikido. It doesn't sound easy, and I suspect I'm not yet at a level of martial expertise that I can do that on a conscious level yet, but it's something I'll have to look out for.

It was a task I hadn't given much thought to undertaking before. But now, thanks to some philosophical intrusions from Mr. Redmond (damn him!), I suddenly care.

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