Art, Systems,& Creativity

When you think of the term art, what comes to mind? Do you think of a person sitting in an obscure studio surrounded by blank canvases and watercolors entranced by their work? Or, do you think of a person in a sterile environment such as an office attempting to create the next great masterpiece following a strict protocol of rules, schematics, and formulae? 

If you are like me, the term art conjures up many images in terms of how art comes into being. Yes, we see the finished product. Speaking for myself, I am a lifelong Salvador Dali fan. I see within art an expression of the creator. I see formless thought and emotion that is outwardly expressed in a creative outlet that we know as painting, sculpture, music and literature. I witness freedom. I witness creativity. I do not see a reliance on what is known, nor do I necessarily see a recantation of what has been done in the past. For art to remain art, it has to acknowledge its past while moving forward.

It is true that to become an artist, there are certain basic tools of the trade that must be mastered prior to unleashing the creative spirit. Before he penned his literary mainstays that are still studied today, Shakespeare had to learn to read and write. Ludwig von Beethoven first had to learn to play the piano and become familiar with the nuances of music before he achieved greatness as a composer. Vincent van Gogh was encouraged to draw as a child by his mother, but his work would not blossom until later. He is said to have rejected the formalities of technique in order to capture the true essence of the objects of his artistic desire.

These iconic figures in their respective artistic disciplines have several things in common despite their differences. They all had to be led by a teacher at some point to learn the basics of their craft. Van Gogh was encouraged by his mother to put brush to paper and explore his creativity. Shakespeare was bound to the mechanics of literacy in order to become the most prolific figure in the history of English literature. Beethoven had to discern the difference between major and minor notes alongside the mechanics of playing the piano. It was after the basics were mastered that a natural gift and creative genius would change the world in their respective disciplines. 

Let us now allow ourselves to drift into the world of martial arts. The term art has once again made its presence felt, yet in the modern world a paradox in combat disciplines has emerged. We tend to see the terms “art” and “system” used interchangeably. They coexist, yet they hail from completely different philosophical origins. Art, as we have surmised, is an expression of ideas and emotions in a creative atmosphere. A sculptor may present the true meaning of man through chiseled marble. Writers and musicians may contemplate the highs and lows of life through the written and spoken word. Through imagination and the lived experience, they create.

Martial arts, if the term is given credence, is also an expression. Like their colleagues in the traditional arts, martial artists learn basic techniques from which creativity flows. The karate practitioner learns the proper mechanics of punching, kicking, and moving in order to maximize efficiency and to avoid injury. Judo practitioners and their contemporaries in the BJJ world learn  basic techniques involved in utilizing leverage in order to defeat a larger, stronger opponent. The mastery of basic technique is the root from which the flower of creativity and advancement in martial arts philosophy and applications will grow.

As alluded to, today we see the terms martial arts and combative systems used interchangeably. At first glance any discussion of the difference between the two seems trifling. A system loosely defined, denotes a group of related, interconnected parts that work together to form a cohesive whole that achieves a common purpose. Can artistic creativity be bound by rules that define how a system operates? Does the creative nature of art place it outside the bounds of systematic theory, which is bounded by the limitations of each component of the system? Can systems evolve and grow beyond their original design? These questions are up for debate, but they show how philosophically different arts and systems are on the surface. Art is boundless. Systems are bounded.

The original masters of the various martial arts learned basic techniques and allowed their views and understanding of their arts to be framed in a creative context that is both forward thinking and practical. Kata within the traditional karate context is a prime example. Although the basic techniques and patterns of movement are uniform, it is left up to the individual artist to decipher the meaning of the kata, translate it into a usable form, and apply it in a real-world context. Different artists will use the same techniques and principles dependent upon their needs and desires within the context of their own life. They must take a basic principle and allow it to morph into a creative endeavor. 

It is my belief that martial arts must transcend the basic techniques and what we know as self-defense or self-protection in a limited sense. Martial artists take the discipline, philosophy, and mental processes and allow them to invade other facets of their life in order to be more productive. It allows for a more introspective approach to life. Perhaps most important, it allows for a more speculative approach to problem solving that is not only confined to combat applications. It becomes a dynamic philosophical approach to overcoming obstacles. 

We take the approach that lessons learned in class should lay the foundation for a new way of thinking. On occasion, we have worked with law enforcement professionals. Endemic to that profession is an established pattern of beliefs and norms that in many cases has served the profession and society well. In other cases, it has stifled progress. A glimmering example of how creativity could aid the practice of law enforcement is in homicide investigations. There are ideas within the martial arts that could be beneficial to the homicide investigator, because from the basics spring creative thought.

It is estimated that as of this writing anywhere from 30 to 40% of all criminal homicides-murders- will never be solved. That is staggering. To look at this from a different mathematical perspective, that is a failure rate of anywhere from 60-70%. There are a myriad of reasons for this, including a lack of resources to the craftiness of the perpetrator. Another possible reason lies in the historical structures that govern how detectives investigate a murder.

A popular show highlights the importance of timeliness when gathering evidence in a murder investigation. The First 48 highlights the traditional statistical ideology that after the first 48 hours after a homicide, the probability of the successful completion of a murder investigation dwindles drastically. Evidence erodes, witnesses evade investigators, and the passage of time allows the perpetrator to widen the gap between escape and capture. Time is the enemy of the detective in a murder investigation. 

The problem though lies in the nexus between systematic process and creativity in a murder investigation. It is a long-held belief that a murder victim usually is exterminated by someone close to them. For example, if a married woman is murdered, her husband will find himself in the crosshairs of investigators, rightly or wrongly. In many cases, this is a commonsense approach that has led to the successful prosecution of many murders. Yet, we have to return to the uncomfortable statistical evidence: only 30-40% of murders will be successfully solved. If the aforementioned husband did murder his wife, then systematic procedures have served us well. If not, then a lack of creativity has created an inexplicable mess that will impact the lives of the victim’s family forever. 

Do detectives rely on systematic tradition so much that more creative ways of investigating violent crimes are yet to be discovered? If statistical evidence is given any credibility, this is a distinct possibility. It is difficult to ascribe any level of laudable success to a 30-40% closure rate in any endeavor. If the criminal justice system as a whole would allow creative thinking to become the norm in deference to the idea that “we’ve always done it this way,” then the profession, society, and the victim will be better served.

Martial arts philosophy is applicable to any aspect of life if its principles and outlooks are studied and understood. Much like watercolors that have yet to be applied to a canvas, creative ways of solving problems that are inherent in martial arts training can benefit anyone who seeks them out. It is imperative that professionals such as homicide investigators, who often train in martial arts, allow these ideas and philosophies to become a part of their professional visions. They, along with the rest of society, stand to benefit from a new way of thinking based on creativity. That is the true essence of art, martial or otherwise. 

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