Saturday, January 8, 2011

Aesthetic Value of Karate

Check out The Paleo Rodeo this week!  I submitted an article again.  I get a substantial amount of traffic through the rodeo, so thanks to Diana Hsieh for organizing and maintaining it!

I also added a new photo to the blog - sort of a theme/ logo type of thing.  Didn't come out the way I wanted, but it gets the idea across.  I'll work on new pictures as time goes on.

Today's post is going to expose my pitifully weak vocabulary, for which I have no real excuse.  The saddest part of it is that I was a graduate level philosophy student (although it was a while ago), and I should really have a better handle on some of this terminology.  So bear with me, please, as I stumble through what I want to say.

I put a lot of time and energy into training for karate, and I think most people have a hard time understanding it.  It's not about self defense (for me) - I sincerely doubt I'll ever be in real fight ever again in my life (I could be wrong, but that's what I believe).  It's not to be in shape - I'd do that anyway, but I wouldn't spend the time on karate skills that I have to spend now.  It's not about competition or the desire to beat people up - sparring is fun and a great release but it's not a fundamental need for me. So what's the point?  Let me explain.

There's a feeling you get (for which there might be a real word, but I don't know it) when you see something beautiful.  Now this feeling is often mixed together with other feelings - when you see a beautiful woman you might also experience lust or envy or desire, when you look out onto the world from the top of a mountain you just climbed you might feel pride, when you look at most art you might feel whatever the artist wanted you to feel (anything from love to anger, I guess - I'm no expert on art).  But think about the feeling you might get from looking at a well designed piece of electronics, maybe, or a really nice coffee table - I doubt many people get much personal emotional impact from a coffee table to dilute the pure aesthetic experience.

I, and probably many other people, experience this aesthetic reaction while watching certain sports.  Not the feeling you get when your team wins, but the feeling you get from watching a well executed move or play - dare I say a beautiful move or play.  A great jump in figure skating, a stuck landing in gymnastics, even the stride of a great sprinter - all of these things are beautiful.  They elicit an aesthetic response as genuine as what you feel when looking at any great work of art, even though many art snobs would sniff at that idea.

Fight sports are no exception.  There are many who enjoy seeing blood or broken bones, or a crazy brawl, which can be exciting.  That's not what I'm talking about here.  There is a beauty in certain things in fights - watch Giorgio Petrosyan or Anderson Silva maneuver around the ring; watch Mike Zambidis dig a left hook into someone's liver, following up with a right leg kick; watch any technical fighter execute a particularly sweet combination; watch someone like Damian Maya lock a submission onto their opponent out of nowhere; watch George St. Pierre execute a takedown out of nowhere.  There's a beauty in movement executed with that kind of perfect timing and precision.  You don't see it in every fight - that's why some fights are called "ugly" and some wins are called "ugly wins."

In karate we can see the same kind of beautiful movement.  We see the same beautiful strikes, and a lot of beautiful, focused movement in kata.  I think that's why some people feel so strongly about kata as the basis for karate - you see more beauty in kata, more easily, than in two man drills or sparring (there are other arguments, of course, I just think this is part of the emotional basis for the position).

Now aesthetic appreciation is a matter of taste.  That is, I might find a particular coffee table (or woman, or painting, or vista) beautiful while you may look at that same object and shrug and wonder what the big deal is.  That's not because you're wrong (or I'm wrong), any more than I'm wrong because I don't like broccoli - it's a matter of taste.  You can't argue with me about broccoli any more than I could convince a broccoli lover that it tastes bad.  There is no underlying justification to matters of taste that we can argue about - no arguments we can make.  You either appreciate the aesthetic value in something or you don't.  We might even say that aesthetic value is relative (I wouldn't say the same about ethical values, but that's another story).

If you watch a great kata or a fantastic K-1 MAX match and just shrug your shoulders then maybe this isn't the art for you.  Maybe you should do Zumba or be a grappler or do tricks on a skateboard.  I just don't think someone can stick with karate for the long term without loving it, and loving it means (I think) appreciating its beauty - not just wanting to be able to defend yourself, not just wanting to be in shape.

I could be wrong, of course - maybe there are people out there who train for a lifetime without finding karate beautiful, or who learn to love it after years of training.  But all karateka should remember that they are chasing a thing of beauty, ultimately.  And those of you who wonder why the heck we put on white pj's three times a week and build ugly calluses on our knuckles, remember that we see karate the way you might see great ballet or powerful music or the Mona Lisa - as something beautiful, something worth pursuing, a value in itself.  And you can't really argue with any of that.

1 comment:

  1. Really it is a beautiful art form. It idid not strike me as such until, I saw a Master do the same simple Katas that we were learning. It looked completely different and actually felt viscerally different to watch.