The art of expression  

Monday, 19 March 2007

In Iaido, we are constantly challenged with trying to achieve the 'correct' way to demonstrate technique. This search for perfection is an indisputably important aspect of practice, for it is through this constant effort that we train and hone the spirit to become better individuals. But, worthy though it is, the quest for perfection is a virtue that can be taken too far. Taken to excess, slavish adherence to 'perfection' can, I believe, damage the true spirit of Iaido.

Iaido is a martial art. An “art” – as opposed to a science – encompasses a broad range of truths. Unlike the cold logic of a science, an art is a distinctly human expression; an individual’s expression of a personal idea or belief. In his writings, Bruce Lee made many references to the need for individuals to express themselves freely. Because any art is an individual expression, any assessment of it is largely a subjective one. In music or painting, it has no meaning to say one style of art is better than any other. Could you say objectively, for example, that classical music is better than Hip-Hop? Or that the Impressionists were better than the Old Masters? You can analyse painting or music objectively in terms of its technical difficulty or its lifelike qualities, but not its artistic virtue. That could only be a subjective assessment based on your own personal beliefs, preferences or abilities. Some people want to be moved by music; some people just wanna dance!

Continuing the musical analogy, it is not necessary to be classically trained to create good music. Many of the greatest musicians of modern times have had no formal training at all, and yet they still managed to write songs that moved entire generations. It could even be argued that too much classical training or a slavish adherence to established wisdom actually stifles expression. Take away the freedom to bend the rules and you take away an individual’s ability to express themselves. Without this vital spark of expression, art is reduced to mere science. I have known world-class concert pianists, for example, who were unable to improvise a single note without seeing it written down. Expression is why composers, and not pianists, are remembered as great artists.

But in all but a very few cases, innate talent alone is not enough: There has to be some kind of formal structure to act as a framework. Truly great music arises when the desire to express oneself in a uniquely personal way is tempered with technical ability – the “classical” knowledge of harmony, rhythm and melody. Every musician has their own unique style; a combination of technical and expressive elements, fused within the crucible of their own experience. The martial artist has to be the same: We are all individuals with our own motivation for following whatever path we have chosen. For some, pure technical excellence in a classical style is their goal; for others, a burning desire to develop practical combat skills. Either way, there has to be an element of one within the other. There is, therefore, a relationship between the two.

Of course, there has to be a technical structure to any art. But within these bounderies, it is meaningless to say that an individual's particular expression of it has no value because it doesn’t fit with another's classification of what is 'correct', just as it would be meaningless to say classical music is no good because you can’t dance to it. Each has its own place and its own value. The classical bedrock of knowledge that underpins all fighting arts has been laid down through the efforts of countless individuals over countless generations, each expressing their art in their own individual way. It is only by building upon the efforts of others that art itself can evolve and move forward, and this can’t happen if your mind is closed to the teachings of others. A true artist searches for inspiration wherever it may be found. There is an old Norse saying: “None is so good he lacks all fault, none so wretched he lacks all virtue.”

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