What qualifies a martial fighting system 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 perfection of technique. The performance becomes an art form because 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, 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 in 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 becomes 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 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 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 are able to 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.