Bruce Lee, "The Way of the Dragon" (1972)

Martial arts are brutal disciplines. Even the most refined, apparently benign, martial art has at its roots an intent to shape and exploit violence. Yet these martial disciplines are also immensely beautiful – even, indeed, in the midst of violence – and they share pronounced similarities to the other arts. In this essay, I will explore one: skill.

In the Chinese language – either Mandarin or Cantonese – kung fu (功夫, Pinyin: gōngfu) refers to expertise in any skill. Its literal meaning is something more like “human achievement,” and it does not necessarily imply martial achievement or skill, as it is used in the West. There is another term for that: wushu (武術, Pinyin: wǔshù), which literally means “martial skill.” Either word, either the accurate term for martial arts or the colloquial term borrowed in English, helps to emphasize that martial arts are skills.

Art is skill in an exemplary sense. Every art from ballet to painting to poetry involves highly trained abilities made to appear effortless. Ballet is an especially brutal example, with its legendary stories of torturous physical training that literally bends the human body so that its contortions can seem smooth and genteel. Every single art contains illusions of similar immensity, music perhaps most of all. Musicians perform complex pieces, but the key is that they can perform: we do not see the difficulty alone; we see the artist expressing joy, playing with the notes on the page, transcending sheer effort and entering a space of triumphant ease. The soprano with her aria sings all the notes, but we enter in to their expression and not simply their effort. We do not know the hours she spent stretching her vocal range, smoothing her diction, mending even the way she holds her ribcage straight. We do not know because we are not meant to know.

Writing is much the same. So many sentences, words and phrases, all made to curve together. It is not the effort we see, but the final ease, the finished sound. There is a famous story about James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet known for Ulysses. According to the tale, Joyce’s assistant walks into his office to find him sprawled across his table in despair. “I only wrote seven words today,” Joyce says. The assistant answers, “But for you, that’s a really good day’s work.” “Yes,” answers Joyce, “but I don’t know what order they go in.”

The Latin word ars, from which we get the word “art,” has a much broader semantic range than “art” often does. Ars not only means something combined together or made, as with pottery or painting, but also means anything accomplished with practiced effort. It can also mean knowledge. The arts are ars in all of these senses: something is made, yes, but with immense skill that requires an expert understanding – all of which, again, is made to appear almost nonchalant. Only an insecure artist is anxious to brag about his titanic efforts.

Martial arts, too, work through a similar relationship with skill. The body itself must be shaped to meet the rigorous demands made of it in order that these demands can be made with startling ease. Martial artists spend years upon years building their flexibility and their strength, training memory into their very muscles. Bruce Lee is most famous in this regard, with his incredible strength and blinding speed packed into a body very carefully sculpted against bulk. He was never interested in strength alone, but rather in its precise application. Its skillful use. This is what made his art an art, and not brute force. He could control himself so well, in fact, that he could knock a man down with a one-inch strike:

There are many types of martial arts, each with their own philosophies toward action. Perhaps I will review some of these at some future date. For now, it is important only to note that all possess a similar effort-toward-effortlessness, the one that characterizes art as art. The one that lends to any effort an artistic quality.

I myself study Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art well-known for its brutal efficiency and aggression. There is little that is beautiful about Krav Maga, unlike some of the Chinese martial arts with their flowing and circular motions. Krav Maga possesses none of these pleasing movements, and its trained combatants will strike and incapacitate their opponents in the most ruthless manner possible in order to end the threat as quickly as possible. So Krav Maga becomes something of a test case for martial art’s tenuous relationship with art. Its brutality, its straight lines and bloody efficiency, is certainly skillful…but is it the artist’s skill?

Krav Maga at first appears to obliterate any thesis claiming a relationship between martial arts and art. Its very design is meant to be easy to learn; it works from the body’s most instinctive movements as a basis for its fundamental defenses and strikes. High-level Krav Maga is of course immensely difficult to learn, but its most essential principles are intended to be easily absorbed. (A choke defense, for example, takes advantage of our instinctive impulse to reach for our necks. That makes it much simpler to execute under stress.) Krav Maga refuses to be refined; every extraneous movement is eliminated for the sake of speed, and every extra effort is smoothed out and made easy-to-learn. Even beautiful kicks are eschewed in favor of a vicious side-kick to the knee (for example), a move considered dirty in most other martial arts. In response, Krav Maga gets dirtier: eye-gouging, groin strikes, and so forth are considered permissible and indeed superior.

While pinned down on the ground during an exercise, I remember my Israeli instructor kneeling down next to me and calmly telling me: “If this happens to you and you can’t get out, scream in his ear. It will disorient him. Then hit him. Do not give up, do not stop.”

Krav Maga’s brutality refutes art.

Until its trained skills receive closer examination.

Every martial art, especially Krav Maga, knows the human body intimately. As I mentioned, Krav Maga builds its fundamental principles from human instinct. This is only the first level of its careful knowledge, a first level not at all easy to surmise. (Just because it is instinctive does not mean we are aware of it.) The rest of its knowledge bases itself in a studied awareness of human mechanics and basic physics. Just as Bruce Lee himself knew: no martial art can be a method of sheer strength. That is the quickest way to die. So Krav Maga focuses on reinforcing strength with technique, and on eschewing strength contests at every level of its application. If we return to the choke defense: I, a small woman with little real strength, can break myself out of a choke from a man twice my size with a great deal more strength. That is because the defense is not about strength at all; it is about the weak-points of my attacker’s grip, and my ability to leverage those against him.

I am continually impressed by how much my instructors continue to teach me about how the human body works. The human body itself amazes me anew as I learn its strengths and weaknesses. So, for example, I know that knees are excellent attack points because knees are precarious joints: it takes relatively little pressure for the joint to buckle. I know that joint-locks are only effective with joints that have limited movement: elbows and knees are best since they bend one way; shoulders and hips are much too flexible with their rounded motions. I know that I can force a man much bigger than I am to the ground if I lever his weight correctly; I know that if I control an attacker’s head, his body will have no choice but to follow.

And I know that, despite my lack of stature and strength, I can triple my effectiveness merely by turning my hips into my strikes. Real strength comes from the core of the body, not its limbs.

There is more, but the point should be clear: even Krav Maga is an art. Its knowledge of the human body is much like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man: it knows the angles, and accounts for every one of them. And it makes it appear effortless. Then, suddenly, its brutal efficiency emerges as a practiced skill, a bloody ars.

But then the blood itself separates it from the other arts…or perhaps does not.

I will leave that question for another time.