Bi-jutsu & Karate-jutsu

Imagine this:

Picasso is sitting by a small table. Yes, the famous artist Picasso.

In front of him he has a white, blank, paper.  He is quietly focusing on his task at hand. To his right he has a palette full of colors, and some extra if he wants to mix his own. To his left he has brushes lined up, ranging from the smallest – perfect for details – to the largest – good for covering big spaces. The sheet of paper in front of him is still white, but not for long…

Five meters to the left of Picasso is another man, sitting by an identical table.

It is Leonardo da Vinci. Also a famous artist.

He is sitting with his eyes closed, focusing on what he will do in a short while. Mentally preparing you might call it. Because… in just a few minutes they are going to compete against each other.

They are not alone in the room, no, no. Behind them is the audience. Hundreds of people have come from near and far to watch this showdown. Some guy is wearing a “GO PICASSO” hat that looks hilarious, and a woman seems to have “DA VINCI 4 EVER” painted on her face. They have their own fan clubs is seems. So you would think they are screaming, but not anymore because it’s about to begin any second now. It’s quiet.

Picasso and da Vinci are sitting still.

Did I mention the judges? Oh yes, you can’t compete without judges. Five judges with flags are sitting in a circle around the two competitors. The flags are red and blue, same as the color of the robes the competitors wear, so it’s easy to distinguish between them. And easy to judge – if you think one is better, just raise “his” flag. Couldn’t be easier.

Suddenly, a blast from a whistle is heard. That means start!

The competitors, Picasso and da Vinci, are painting furiously. They know there is a time limit, so they have to work fast. Paint is flying in the air, brushes are being changed every second or so, details are checked, some more paint, change water, change brush, add a few strokes here and there, change water again….

And so it continues for five minutes.

The whistle blows again. It’s over. The competitors have to stop.

Picasso and da Vinci are looking exhausted. Sweat. Red faces. Green, yellow and blue faces too, from the paint I think.

Two assistants pick up the paintings. They walk around in a circle, showing the masterpieces to the judges.

The judges will be focusing on a lot of points and details, like correct technique, stroke length, softness and hardness of the strokes, the usage and mixing of colors, how different brushing techniques were applied together, which school or style they represent (cubism/realism/naturalism), if they did any apparent mistakes, how well the whole paper was used, which color scheme is dominant and so on.

There are more details than one might think…

So, after thinking for a couple of seconds, the judges raise their flags. A winner is declared! The audience screams and claps their hands, “wohoo!” One gets a gold medal, the other can go home and practice some more.

It’s over.

Oh, you want to know who won? Picasso did.

da Vinci just couldn’t make that woman on her painting smile enough for the judges to like it.

End of story.

So, what do I want to show by this story? Well, painting pictures is an art, right? And Karate is an art too (a martial art). So, can you compete in an art? Which one would win, Mona Lisa or Whistler’s Mother? A bust made by Raphael or by Michelangelo? It can’t be decided, because the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

If you want to compete in art, you have to remove the art itself, so that only raw skill remains. A competition is based on judgement, which is based on facts, rules and regulations. And that is the exact opposite of art.

Art bends, twist, flips, shakes and inverts rules.

It all begins with learning the basics. How to mix colors, techniques when doing strokes and so on. When the basics are mastered, fine paintings are made, after years of study. Carefully following the rules that were learnt a long time ago. But eventually, the “rules” are absorbed. They so deep, that the artist transcends them. He (or she) doesn’t need the rules anymore, he takes the rules to a higher level.

The rules have limits, and competitions have rules. Imagination doesn’t have limits.

The artist creates new rules. He breaks the rules while at the same time following them. He has mastered his artform. He is a master.

He is his art.

It’s impossible to compete in art. You can compete, of course, but then it’s not art anymore. It’s just… painting. To regular people it might look like art. But in the eye of an artist, it is not art. It is simply skilled painting. The same applies to making sculptures or… doing physical moves. Like dancing, figure skating, gymnastics…

Like Karate.

Competing in anything is hard, and if you are an athlete, no matter what sport, you deserve respect for diligently honing your skills, training hard day after day. It’s certainly not everyone can do.

But no matter how beautiful the sport is, it’s not an art. Then how do you know if something is an art?

Just ask yourself this:

  • Are you more concerned with mastering others, or mastering yourself?
  • Are you more concerned with the product or the process?
  • Do you think victory defined excellence, or does excellence define victory?

I think Karate-jutsu is great. Because “jutsu” translates to “practical art”.

Isn’t that perfect?


  • Allan
    Interesting post - have you never heard of art competitions, like Australia's Archibald prize for portraiture? I bet the artists who submit their paintings for judging are pretty serious about calling what they do as art. What about dance competitions? Isn't dancing considered one of the "Arts"? I would argue that there is quite a bit of art in Karate competition -the problem is, and maybe this is where you were headed - is it is not martial art, it's performance art, and there is a very big difference of course. You also make a point about competition being about raw skill - there is no such thing in typical WKF style competition, take kata competition: whose kata was better - it's a matter of opinion (informed opinion based on some arbitrary criteria - yes, but opinion nonetheless), what about kumite - take the gloves off and actually hit each other then you'll get closer to fact, otherwise scoring will be based on opinion, not all that different to art competition after all eh? You talk about imagination having no limits, but also in previous post you complain about the variations in what is correct technique - so in Karate, if we are bound by correctness of technique are we no longer practicing an art form? I actually agree with where you were headed, but we must be careful about the analogies we draw as Karateka cheers Al
  • CrazyJoe
    Well, good point. But one of the most beautiful things in Karate is that you can start as an athlete, and gradually grow into the artist.
  • @Allan Isn't power, speed, strength, balance etc. raw skills? Skills that you can train? That will decide if you win or lose? I think so. "You talk about imagination having no limits, but also in previous post you complain about the variations in what is correct technique - so in Karate, if we are bound by correctness of technique are we no longer practicing an art form?" Well, of course, from the beginning you need to learn rules and guidelines of correct techniques. At that point it's not art, I believe. Later, it can transform into an artform. Shu, Ha, Ri.
  • Elcorin
    Hello, Super post, Need to mark it on Digg Thanks Elcorin
  • Allan
    Hi again CrazyJoe wrote: "Well, good point. But one of the most beautiful things in Karate is that you can start as an athlete, and gradually grow into the artist." True, but this is not the sole domain of Karate, you don't have to read many sports biographies to realse that ... I'll get into this in a minute ... some people might start Karate in search of an art and find themselves turning into an athelete too ... Jesse wrote: "Isn’t power, speed, strength, balance etc. raw skills? Skills that you can train? That will decide if you win or lose?" Well, your raw skills, as you put it, are certainly a factor, but so is your determination and desire and a plethora of other elements (which may or may not be innate abilities), but if these things were the sole determinators of victory or defeat we wouldn't need judges to score (provide an interpretation of what they see), let's think of that inconvenient truth - the MMA contest - about as close as it comes to an "anything goes" contest where skills are put to the test, but there are contests where the contestants are evenly matched - whose the winner? the one who the judges decide is the winner - an each judge will be influenced by many things - the angle to which they sit with respect to the action, their previous exposure to the contestents they see, the crowd (home town advantage ...), the judges preference for striking or agressiveness etc. etc. The distinction between sport and art is not so black and white, what leaps to my mind immediately is surfing and mountain climbing - two activities that are easily, on the surface, neatly pidgeon-holed as sport, but there is no denying that for many, these pursuits enter into the realm of the spiritual, a place for self exploration, and ultimately self-expression - and isn't that what art ultimately is - self expression ... at the other extreme is the art form of ballet, I am certain that the amount of physical discipline, mental discipline, desire and determination (not to mention crazy dieting) that goes into the pursuit of the art of ballet probably exceeds that which many (?most) karateka put in ... Art can be part of a competitive arena, or not. Sport can be played out in a competitive way, or can be something that is solo, where the only competitor is yourself ... so the determination of what art is or isn't, and how this differs from sport is only a superficial comparison, and at it's depth many activities labelled as one or the other have more in common than not, I myself had regular conversations with a work colleague who was a dedicated and by all accounts a talented flamenco dancer, and we were definely on the same page ... hope the readers have found this little thought experiment interesting, cheers Allan
  • Lecé
    I dont know if any of the answers come from anyone who studied art, it´s not necessary, but you´ll recognize this eternal argument that´s been debated for centuries and in every art school. I studied art and for the hole 5 years of the degree you´ll find yourself arguing this and defending your position as an artist. For me 2 things undeniable for art are creation and expression. Some people say its necessary that the art piece is showed or shared with the rest of the world, ( If Picasso painted in an island without human beings, he wouldnt be doing art?)and also needs to have an intention. So an animal cant make art, as they have no intention?. You certainly express yourself through Martial arts, I think when I train is the most honest representation of myself. You didn't create the Kata, but you express through it, you express on the way you apply techniques in didnt invent drawing, but you express through it, you create whenever you do research on your technique, asking yourself for the origin of one movement, his meaning etc...the same as you do in a painting research. I do Goyu, painting, music and I don't make distinction between their art condition. Greetings
  • Tha Art of Karate Do is internal. It has nothing to do with imagination. The Art of Karate Do is in keeping it as the creator of the school taught it to you... If you want to change it, create your school, move to Okinawa, settle down there, ask for recognition to the Masters of Okinawa Karate Federation and teach... Anyone can create a new school, but that's not the internal goal which is the goal of karate Do practice...

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