Martial Arts as Creative Arts

Tony Annesi

Karate and its sibling arts would be categorized as performing arts by most people. However, the author offers an alternate view. He feels that martial arts can also be considered creative arts and that which we call styles can also be seen as masterworks.


When I tell people who ask about my profession that I teach both Aiki and Karate, they often ask, "Which would you use for self-defense?" They expect me to answer one or the other or perhaps both, but my answer is "Neither." From this they infer that I must practice a secret third martial art which I would pull out of my bag of tricks for special occasions, but my implication is something completely different. One does not use training wheels to race a motorcycle nor does one employ elementary school yellow paper (y'know, with those wide blue lines) to sign a check. Martial arts are not self-defense; they are, among other things, training for self-defense.

When students are studying for an examination, they must concentrate on the required curriculum. But what is to be tested is not the students' mastery of the curriculum but the students' mastery of the art through his/her use of the curriculum. This is difficult for most students — and more than a few instructors — to grasp. The curriculum is not the art. It is the method by which the art is preserved, conveyed, and measured. When visitors come to my dojo to observe a class, I suggest that they observe more than one evening’s activities since we may do something completely different from one day to the next. I do not want prospective members to form a false impression of what I teach based on a very limited exposure. Too often, visitors think that the regimen is the art itself. The regimen is not the art, rather it is the method by which the art and the teacher changes the student. The regimen, not the art, conveys the education.

The most obvious and most emphasized aspect of the martial arts is the physical. Many practitioners are so focused on developing their bodily skills that they do not recognize that the physical exercises, the physical challenges and the actual development of physical skills hold the seeds to the mental development which occurs in the martial arts. That mental development is intellectual (historical, psychological, and philosophical) as well as emotional in nature, and brings the martial arts into the academic realm. The intellectual combined with the emotional, in turn, holds the seeds to the spiritual. But the art is none of these things and, ironically, holds all of them.


Many martial artists and non-martial artists alike get art and style confused. This is understandable since there is a plethora of arts and a cornucopia of styles within each art. A style is not an art, although it can become an art. A style is a specific interpretation of an art. What most people identify as an art (methods of movement, curriculum, regimen) might be better termed sub-arts. A sub-art, as I use the term, is a collection of skills which can be learned without reference to any of the major skills of another sub-art. But once combined with a critical number of other sub-arts, it creates an understanding of principles which form the complete art.

If this is a bit heavy, perhaps an example will help. The specific method of performing a downward block in kata Heian Shodan is part the style of Shotokan Karate but it is not karate itself. Other methods of doing a downward block from other kata of other styles (or other versions of the same style) may be as valid and as representative of a skill of karate as the Shotokan gedan barai (downward sweep). The skill gedan barai can be learned without reference to any other method of performing a downward block in any other style.

Similarly the sub-art Heian Shodan (a specific grouping of individual skills) can be learned without reference to any other kata or any other style. But neither gedan barai nor Heian Shodan is itself the art of karate. To say one has learned the art of karate, one does not have to learn all the skills and all the sub-arts of every system, but one does have to have mastered a critical number of sub-arts so that the principles of karate (principles which are not style-specific) have become second-nature. An art, then, is a collection of interwoven principles.


A few arts have a very simple structure, perhaps just a listing of skills too basic even to be considered sub-arts. But most arts have a nested structure: they have details within skills within sub-arts within styles. But either of these structures is a theoretical one and can only be exemplified by physical action. Physical action needs to be brought about by a protagonist, and a protagonist brings about the action according to his or her body type and psychological make-up. The principle actor, in other words, must interpret the art to exemplify it. This is what we call style. Style is an interpretation of an art. A general style can be defined by reference to sub-arts and skills which the artist employs. Beyond this, the concept of "style" even in the plastic, audial or graphic arts can be only insufficiently defined.

We can easily discriminate between Greek and Gothic architecture, between Romantic and Rock music or between Classical and Impressionist painting. It may take some study, however, to clearly distinguish between Sisley and Seurat, or between Delacroix and Gericault. A general style like French Impressionist Painting is easier to delineate than is a specific style like Seurat’s individual interpretation of Impressionist painting. General style is so easily recognized because it is a unique blending of skills and sub-arts (and sometimes recurring themes as well), the expressions of which have a majority of these elements in common. A small piece of a work — a portico, a section of canvas, a musical refrain — is all that is needed to identify the art and general style.

One can easily recognize a Chinese combat style from a Korean style from a Japanese style. However, specific style in the martial arts, is defined no more clearly than in other arts. Even for a veteran martial artist, discrimination between individual styles is often difficult. In the art of karate, for example, one can easily separate the specific style of Shotokan from the specific style of Uechi, but it is much more difficult to isolate Goju from Uechi or Shotokan from Shito or Shito from Goju. It gets more difficult still as the styles become less culturally dominant, that is, less familiar. The less familiar the styles are, the more they seem either to imitate the more dominant styles or, in some instances, resemble nothing we recognize at all. Because more popular styles tend to influence minor styles and because many styles are off-shoots of major styles, it is hard to tell one from another. It takes far more than just a section of technique to delineate, let’s say, Chinese Kempo from American Kempo. Yet, each is a style, differences do exist between them, and whatever stylistic differences there are become exceedingly important to their adherents.

In many cases, experiencing a portion of a artistic work will not serve to delineate it from another similar work by a different artist (unless, of course, the delineator has had specific experience with both artists). Maitre D’Lineator readily recognizes the art (let's say, music) and with a little listening can tell the general style (Romantic); but even after listening to an obscure work by Prokofiev and another by Rachmaninov, he may not be able to discern the different artists. Why? Because works are even more specific in nature than individual styles, yet may have nearly as many similarities to works of other styles as they do similarities to works from the same style. I am suggesting that in the martial arts, what we call a "style"; is actually a work of art. We call them styles simply because the artist who created the work created only one of them! This is not normal for an artist in any other field of endeavor. The works which martial artists pioneer are thought of as styles because they function as styles do in other arts. They give a specific expression of an art as well as exemplify skills, sub-arts.

Theme adds another element to our style/art investigation. I admit that I am far from a philharmonic prodigy, but there are sections of Night on Bald Mountain (Moussorgsky) and The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), for example, which I still get confused — and these are not even the same type of music (tonal vs. atonal) nor done in the same century (1867 vs.1913). They do however have a similar pagan theme. Theme is the message conveyed by the specific work of art. A musical work may have various peaceful passages but have an overall violent theme. A painting may have large swaths of color which are smooth and undisturbed and still have a wild theme (consider J. M. W. Turner’s various storm at sea paintings). A sculpture may have gently flowing lines but still have an passionate theme (see Bernini’s David).

A martial work of art, like Shotokan, for example, may have elements of soft or grappling or even internal skills but still have a dominant theme of hard, direct power, and may share this theme with other styles. Each work’s means of expressing its dominant theme varies at least slightly. It is the variation in means of expressing theme which artists call a work martial artists call a style.

The common way of looking at, for example, karate as a martial art is to see it as a performing art with a specific kata as the work performed or with a sparring match as a performance of the general skills of the art. This is a valid viewpoint and one I discuss in another essay, MARTIAL ARTISTS OR MARTIAL ARTISANS? I am offering an alternative here. In order for there to be an art to perform, the art must have been created first. Karate, in this example, was a martial art before the advent of organized modern competitions (Japan, 1936), and so could not qualify as a performing art in our contemporary use of the term. I am suggesting that martial arts (and their various stylistic expressions) can be better understood when one considers karate and its sibling arts to be creative arts, more akin to the graphic, audial and plastic arts than performing arts like dance or vocalization.

Martial Arts
Graphic Arts
Audial Arts
Plastic Arts
canvas painting
symphonic music
marble sculpture
category of art
martial art
fine art
fine art
fine art
creative artist
Gichin Funakoshi
(sample of)
downblock, lunge punch
mixture of colors, brush stroke
pitch, rhythm
use of chisel, physics of weight and stability
(group of skills)
Heian Shodan, Kanku-dai
shape, texture, expression
interpretive artist
(example of an individual style)
Nakayama, Kanazawa, Ohshima
Bruno Walter, Arthur Fiedler
specific style
(a specific expression of a general style)
Rembrandt's performance of skills and sub-arts
Tchaikovsky's specific composition of skills and sub-arts
Michelangelo's rendering of skillís and sub-arts
general style
(a specific expression of an art)
Japanese Karate
Dutch 17th c.
High Renaissance
The Polish Rider
The 1812 Overture
dominant theme
direct power
somber determination
elation of
patriotic triumph
calmness and intensity of the hero
means of expressing theme
solid stances, sharp, quick, linear movements
off-centering of subject, dark colors, haughty but alert posture of rider
calm passages broken by tense interludes, pounding climax in brass with cannons
gigantic proportion; relaxed posture but unwaivering stare


Everyone has his/her own way to cook a stew — his own special spices, her own preference of ingredients, his individual method of applying heat, her favorite cooking utensil, his temperature, her timing, etc. This is style. The elements of style are usually the same, but the specifics vary. The style of the art of making stew is not as important as the stew itself. This was the philosophy of Bruce Lee which has been echoed since the seventies. I would also like to add that the style of the art is similarly not as important as the art of the style. No matter what version of stew cooking one adheres to, the method is not serviceable (a) if it doesn’t produce a good tasting stew, and (b) if it is not joyful to prepare. In other words, the resulting stew has to be worth the effort.

When we are preparing the stew called a specific style of a specific martial art, joyful to prepare implies that we must constantly be measuring our means against our ends. Your style has no art if it is just a hodgepodge of errant principles and movements but does not take you where you want to go. Martial arts differ because of intended emphases. If your stew is supposed to taste like self-defense, your recipe is serviceable only if it will produce that taste. If your stew is supposed to taste like aerobic conditioning, the formula for putting it together must take this as its highest priority.

Which style is chosen is not important. What goals one seeks is not important. What is important is that the style accesses the goal. More fundamental even than the martial goals one may try to access by a specific style, is the goal one tries to access by choosing a martial art as one’s creative method. Not everyone can be a Funakoshi, nor a Rembrandt, nor a Tchaikovsky nor a Michelangelo. Similarly not everyone can be a successful interpretive artist or performing artist, yet everyone can aspire to mastery of their art and by doing so everyone can approach mastery in life. All martial artists are "artists" in one important sense of the word: they create their own masterpieces by using their art, their style and the concomitant skills to recreate themselves. The martial artist is simultaneously the artist, the audience and the masterpiece.

Sample right column content.

Images and content copyright — All Rights Reserved | Site design by WadeInCreativity