The practice is you, are you the practice?

by Kevin

There was a topic posed on a martial arts blog not too long ago about the idea of “adapting an art to yourself.” In it, the author explores the idea of modifying a martial art to suit individual body types, and concludes that it isn’t the ART that is modified, but the self being molded to the art.

The self thus informs the practice, in essence making the practice (not the art) one’s own. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the Japanese metalworking practice I’m currently engaged in (my iaido practice is on hold at the moment), but as there are plenty of parallels between both practices, I think it’s still relevant.

It’s long been said in the fine arts that the visionaries are the ones that “break” the rules and make the art their own. But I question the wisdom of students trying to break rules before they are fully understood. You still need to master the capabilities of brush and paint (or hammer and chisel, in my case), you need to understand composition and perspective, you need to be engaged in the subject matter enough to be able to get your point across clearly. Once these fundamentals are grasped, they can be manipulated according to different situations – we’ve all heard this argument in budo and artistic practice many times, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this on the blog before.

I think that there are “active” and “passive” aspects to this idea. An “active” role in making an art your own suggests that you either A/ have extensive knowledge of the art in question, realize it doesn’t work for you thus requiring modification, or B/ reject the art as it stands and make changes to suit yourself. To me, this suggests a very negative and ego-driven approach to ownership of the practice that misinterprets “figuring things out”. Or, molding the practice to an immovable self.

A “passive” role in making an art your own is (in my experience) learning it as fully and mindfully as you can, and over time your personality creeps on the practice, turning it into something that is both faithful to how it was learned, and unique because it’s YOUR practice – molding yourself to the practice.

I think that from a visual arts perspective, this is what is meant by an artist having a particular “style” – not actively trying to “do” something unique, but rather their unique philosophy/worldview creeping into the work, that is clearly realized by a firm understanding of fundamentals and technique.

It’s surprising how having a death grip in tenouchi with a sword is equally relevant with a tiny hammer and chisel, and how our reaction to centuries of developed technique means as much to the practice as the practice itself.

I welcome your thoughts, a blog post written before noon on a long weekend may have questionable clarity. And now, progress photos of some pieces for the show in November. ‘Coz that’s really what you want to see, right? 😉