Martial Art or Craft?


Despite the general term for the fighting sciences being martial arts, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with this, particularly in relation to myself.  I was a working visual artist when young, producing cartoons, portraits, murals and even calligraphy, but despite being reasonably accomplished technically, I came to believe I didn’t really have any truly unique style or original insight to offer.  Similarly, I do not believe the majority of men and women who achieve a very high degree of technical proficiency in the martial sciences can be accurately labelled as artists.

What is Art?

There are many definitions of the term, and the older usages – in the English language anyway – link the word art with a certain degree of skill, or applied knowledge.  (I’ve always found the Indonesian generic term for the arts, Pentjak Silat, particularly attractive therefore, as it simply means ‘applied movement’.)  However, our modern understanding of the word implies something transcendent, and it is the lack of that quality in the performance of many of the most experienced and accomplished fighting stylists that makes me feel that craft is the more appropriate term in relation to all but the greatest exponents in our field.  It may well be that a particularly beautifully constructed system of fighting can be accurately labelled an art, but it does not follow that whoever studies that system, even should they acquire some degree of mastery of it, are necessarily artists.

Degrees of Craft

In attempting to explain further, I’d like to refer to the old craft model applied to so many professions throughout the history of a variety of civilisations all over the world, but particularly so in the West.  I’m aware this may seem paradoxical, given that most people now associate martial arts exclusively with the East – which of course, is nonsense – but I hope the reader will bear with me for now. 

In the old model, one began with fulfilling menial tasks in the workshop of the Master Craftsman (or Craftswoman) one had been apprenticed to, while observing the various stages of the application of skill in making whatever artifact.  Progressively, the student would be entrusted with more tasks of a greater complexity, or requiring greater skill.  After some – often considerable – time, the apprentice would be required to perform a series of tests – usually in the form of making something, or some things – representative of a skilled person in the field. 

Once those tests had been successfully negotiated, the apprentice was acknowledged as a journeyman craftsman.  At this point, the skilled woman or man in question was expected to be able to produce articles that were fit for their purpose independently.  However – regardless of whether the craft was blacksmithing, ceramics, woodworking, or indeed fine art painting – the norm would have been to remain within your master’s workshop to further develop your craft for some years to come.  This had certain advantages:

  • the newly qualified artisan continued to benefit by association with the reputation of the Master/Mistress with whom they had trained
  • that teacher could continue to develop the skills of the newly qualified person in the fine points of the craft or particular specialities
  • working as part of a team of skilled persons within the workshop of an acknowledged master brought the opportunity to work on many – and probably more varied – commissioned examples of the craft, than would have been likely were the individual forced to go out and market themselves independently

Continuing their study and development in this way, they had the opportunity to become true Master Craftsmen and women, a superior artisan, who might one day scale the giddy heights of art

As someone who has been developing their skills and plying their trade for many more years than I care to remember, I am very pleased to be able to call myself an ‘artisan‘.  I believe this represents no mean feat, and I’m certainly not comfortable with comparing myself with a number of individuals, with whom I have been priveleged to work, such as the Profs. Wally and Leon Jay, or Sifu Nino Bernardo, or Grandmaster Fred Adams.   These individuals – and others – are exceptional; they combine a huge amount of knowledge, skill and talent in a way that few of us, including myself, may ever attain, no matter how long we work towards that goal. 

Does that make our striving futile?  No, of course not, the martial arts are a journey, but I don’t believe that we should eschew the craft, a stage even the artists must pass through if they are to transcend the mundane and enter that rarified atmosphere of the supremely gifted.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
This entry was posted in Martial arts, Martial Arts Training, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.