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What makes a martial art an art?


For the sake of this discussion:
  • Fighting is defined as hand-to-hand combat between two people. 
  • Martial fighting is defined as fighting for warfare. 
  • Art is defined as skills that permit artistic expression. 
Therefore, a martial art is a system of martial fighting that permits artistic expression and is practiced as a method of self-defense or as a sport.

Not all fighting systems are martial (judo is purely a sport and has no connection to warfare), not all fighting systems are arts (boxing and wrestling are not considered arts), and not all martial fighting systems are martial arts (Navy Seal and Marines Recon fighting systems are not arts). Therefore, just because something involves fighting, it does not mean it is a martial art, and just because something involves martial fighting, it does not make it a martial art.

Just because a person fights or uses martial art techniques, it does not mean that the person using a martial art, nor does it mean that the person is a martial artist. Anyone may use a martial art technique, and anyone may call what they do a martial art, but that does not make it so.


  • Sport fighting systems are primarily intended as combative sports. They have the secondary benefit of being useful for self-defense. 
  • The primary purpose of a sports fighting technique is to score with physical contact with the opponent in some way. In some fighting systems, you may also knockout or incapacitate the opponent or the opponent may surrender. 
  • The deadly aspects of the sports fighting are controlled or eliminated so there is little chance of death or serious injury while fighting. Fighting may cause minor injuries but, after recovery, fighters are usually able to fight again and again. 
  • Sport fighting systems are result oriented; there is no concern for the art. For example, in scoring a boxing match, no points are awarded for form or how precise or beautiful the punches were; the only concern is whether the opponent was hit, where he or she was hit, and how hard he or she was hit. 
  • The goal of a sports fighting system is to win the contest while staying within the rules. You have perfected a fighting system when you win all or most of your fights, preferably with little damage to yourself. 
  • Martial fighting systems are intended for war. The purpose of war is to defeat the enemy. You do this by killing their fighters or by seriously wounding them so they cannot fight and thus causing the enemy to have to spend time and resources to rescue and care for their wounded. 
  • The primary purpose of a martial fighting technique is to kill the enemy. There is no concern for artistic expression, for example, you will not see Force Recon Marines performing patterns. 
  • Martial fighting is results-oriented. There is little concern for how you kill the enemy; the primary concern is that the enemy is dead. 
  • In martial fighting systems, there is physical contact. However, it is kept to the minimum required to kill the enemy. Too much physical contact increases your chances of dying. It is better to kill from a distance. 
  • The goal of martial fighting is killing the enemy before he or she kills you. You have perfected a martial fighting system when every enemy you have fought is dead. If you have not perfected your martial fighting skills by the time you go to war, you never will perfect them, because you will probably be dead before you get a chance to perfect them. 
  • Martial arts fighting is like acting. You are pretending to be a warrior. Martial arts are a way for a person to follow the ways of a warrior and train in martial fighting, with or without ever becoming an actual warrior or ever having to use the fighting techniques in war. In martial arts, the emphasis is on the path, the journey, and the means, not so much on the destination or result. If required, a martial artist will use the martial art for combat, but the martial artist trains for perfection in performance of technique, not for the possibility of having to use the technique in combat. 
  • Martial arts are usually for entertainment, for either yourself or for others. Usually, a martial art is only used in demonstrations of martial techniques, such as in a sparring, forms, breaking, or weapons competition. Rarely is it ever required for self-defense: however, when it is required, it can be very effective. 
  • In many martial arts, physical contact is not required. A competitor may score by performing perfect patterns or, in the case of no-contact free-sparring, by performing a perfect technique that could, but does not, touch the opponent. 
  • The goal of a martial art is the perfection of technique. However, even though a martial artist seeks perfection, he or she believes that perfection in the martial art may never be achieved. In some martial arts, such as iaido, kyudo, or capoeira, the art or way is the goal; the artistic way a technique is performed is more important than with the results of a technique. For example, in the sport of archery, the primary concern is the results, whether the arrow hit the target, while in the art of iaido, the primary concern is the means, the process of loading the arrow and raising and pulling the bow is more important the arrow hitting the target. Some fighting systems, such as krav maga or Brazilian jujitsu, are called martial arts but they are concerned with results, not means. You win by the physical defeat of the opponent and there is no concern that any artistic expression be used to achieve the defeat. 

What qualifies as a martial art?

Certainly, a fighting system does become an art simply because the founder or its practitioners call it an art, even though this is many times the case.

When a person performs a pattern, he or she seeks perfection of self through the perfection of technique. The performance becomes an art form because the emphasis is placed upon its process and its aesthetic excellence, not upon the effectiveness of its techniques. The art comes from the creation of beautiful movements that enhance the physical, mental, and spiritual growth of the practitioner, and allow the practitioner to express his or her feelings through physical action.

In his 1938 work, The Psychology of Art, Robert Ogden posits that inherent in all art is the desire to fulfill a need or to seek an end. Although all behavior appears to have an ending, not all behavior is necessarily art. According to Ogden, behavior becomes art when the means to achieve an end becomes more important than achieving the end. The perfection of the means as formal excellence is a partial pattern of behavior that begins the cultivation of an art. When these partial patterns arise from a need to seek an end and continue to help achieve that need, they function as art.

In ancient times, martial arts began as fighting methods that served a practical need: protection against those wanting to do you harm. Nowadays, modern weaponry and the rule of law have practically eliminated this need. So, why have the martial arts gained popularity when they have essentially lost their utility? The reason is that the martial arts have become divorced from their utility; their results have become separated from their means.

The means are now more important than the result. In the martial arts, the precise movement of the body is essential to the proper performance of each technique. This precise movement has become more important to the practitioner than the result of the technique; this is especially true in the performance of patterns. In pattern performance, there is no opponent to test one's skill against; the only proof of mastery and excellence is the re-creation of classical movements—and their perfection.

In no-contact free-sparring, the true test of the martial artist’s ability is to place an attack precisely in front of a target without harming the opponent. The ultimate result of an actual attack, injuring or killing the opponent, is not realized. Thus, the form, control, and focus of the attack have become more important than the result.

Since the method of performance has become more important than the result, the method may now be polished and refined into an art. In the martial arts, the beauty of a technique has become more important than its utility, and the martial arts have become a creative force, rather than a destructive one—and creation is the essence of the art.

This does not mean that art is useless. Benefits may be gained from practicing a martial art, such as self-control, increased fitness, and character building, and, if an attack must be used to achieve a result, such as in self-defense, it may protect the martial artist’s life. When this occurs, the art is lost, and the technique becomes purely martial. Even though the martial artist lives, he or she sees the result as a failure since the goal of a martial art is to create rather than to destroy.

Martial art competition imitates the life and death struggle between two warriors. The object of a sparring competition is the creation of movements that will symbolically “kill” an opponent. No one dies in a competition, but the original intention is retained through the symbolic and ritualistic nature of the art. When martial artists concentrate on the ritualistic and formal aspects of their art, they become unmindful of the result. Thus, through the practice of their arts, martial artists learn to overcome their fear of death and become true warriors.

When a martial artist performs a pattern properly, observers can visualize the imaginary opponent and they are attuned to the action of the imaginary fight. They identify with the performer’s movements and the same feelings of a life or death struggle are reproduced in the observers and are satisfied through the beauty of the pattern. Patterns become beautiful because these feelings lead to the suggestion of an end, but the suggestion is never completed. Therefore, the pattern is always subject to improvement. If there was an end, there would no more improvement because the end is complete,

Martial arts are the artistic expression of the life or death struggle that is the essence of life itself. Through the martial arts, one learns to deal with death and thus make life more meaningful, whereas, fighting only flirts with death, and martial fighting is only concerned with causing death.


A fighting system becomes a martial art when its primary purpose is the artistic expression of martial fighting techniques.

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