“Really weird to see someone talk about not discriminating then basically discriminate against an entire group of skilled, hard working ppl.” – Megan Olivi
On 8 January 2017 Meryl Streep deservedly received the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. The occasion caused quite a stir that is still being discussed now, as the actress used her speech to launch a political attack on the president-elect, Donald Trump. Her argument with Trump and his subsequent backlash on social media is of no direct concern to this website. What is of concern is her throwaway statement regarding MMA. Attacking Trump’s controversial position on immigration in the USA, Streep said, “So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
The statement smacks of snobbery that only serves to polarise the art world rather than bring it to the people. Growing up in a traditional circus family I am all-too-familiar with this type of behaviour. Our form of entertainment has long been considered to be a form “low” art, which is interesting the patron name attached to Streep’s particular award is none other than Cecil B. DeMills the man responsible for creating the Oscar winning circus movie, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Streep’s talent is undeniable, but she hasn’t always picked highbrow movies and was not above doing the odd bit of voiceover work for animated children’s films. Her critical acclaim as an actress often comes from her strong diversity of roles and one would have hoped such an attitude would stretch to her views on the arts.
Streep, an ex-cheerleader, might have also been a little less crass about sports in general. Sadly, she has fallen prey to a view that is at odds with the political stance she is trying strike. Such polarisation against MMA is usually voiced by ignorant politicians who still buy into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s original controversial propaganda machine, which promoted the fact that the sport had been banned in several states. Likewise, declaring that mixed martial arts are not “the arts” implies a type of elitism and as Jiu Jitsu Times’s Chris Zahar has succinctly pointed out, the sport and art should be championed by lovers of diversity:
MMA is also “crawling with foreigners.” For example, the UFC’s Women’s Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes is Brazilian. The same with former Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, former Heavyweight Champion Fabricio Werdum, Invicta Featherweight Champion Cris “Cyborg,” and a host of others too numerous to list (though I gladly will if you don’t believe me)… By the way, did I mention that Amanda Nunes (along with another UFC bantamweight, Liz Carmouche) is also openly and proudly homosexual [?] Tell me how many other sports have openly homosexual role models. Tell me how many are in Hollywood.
Furthermore, as Zahar also remarks on the strong argument MMA makes for feminism. Few other male-dominated sports have achieved the level of genuine recognition for female athletes as MMA. Bouts for female championships are respected on an even footing with the male versions of these bouts with women fighters often topping the bill at the most prestigious UFC events.
A few years back I wrote a rant called “The Martial ‘Art’” I encouraged more martial artists to embrace this aspect of their subculture in order to appreciate what sat outside of immediate efficiency. Ernest Hemmingway and Lord Byron both trained in and the art in boxing. Plato did the same and won two Olympic gold medals in pankration; the ancient world equivalent to today’s mixed martial arts.
Art can be an immersive experience. Performance art regularly encourages participation and even pain. Just as combat sports are often critiqued to be nothing more than legalised violence, so have similar remarks been made about performance art. Consider the celebrated work of Marina Abramović, perhaps the most influential performance artist alive, who is known for pioneering active involvement between artist and observers (us low artists might call them members of the audience) often to extreme lengths. Performance art, like the original impetus behind the creation of mixed martial arts, has long striven to be genuine to beg genuine in its execution. That has meant real blood and real pain. Therefore, it is unsurprising that several performance artists have embraced and incorporated martial arts, including mixed martial arts, into their works. The world of mixed martial arts and its component parts found in the full contact sports of Western Boxing, Muay Thai, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Freestyle Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo are often a rich source for performance artists. Yves Klein drew inspiration from Judo movements at the Tate and Kira O’Reilly has used Freestyle Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in recent years. The combat sport martial art two sporting combatants exerting their own particular style on one another in a world wind debate of ideas. Mark Law beautifully describes such physical arguments in judo in his 2008 award-winning book, “The Pyjama Game”.
In fact, Law’s dissection of the art of judo sparring and competing provides a strong counter-argument to the view that the “arts” part of “mixed martial arts” just means skills rather than a form of expression. The term has cropped up at various times in history with no clear origin for the word, “martial art”. Given that debate rages between linguists, historians and traditionalists over what system or style can be defined as a martial art, it seems a bit fruitless to belabour the semantic issue. Rather we should argue what the term means today. I appreciate that there are those in the mixed martial arts community who agree with Meryl Streep. They fly a banner that I usually hold up vehemently (as mentioned in my “The Martial ‘Art’” article): martial arts are about hurting people. This is true. That doesn’t not make them art too. It all starts becoming art when the focus shifts from minimal and pragmatic violence. The sport is an art due to its dynamic, which sets it apart from being an assault or a counter-assault. Self-defence, law enforcement and military tactics can be stripped down to their basic efficiency, but this is not what is being sought by the mixed martial artist. MMA is shaped to get the most of a fight. Like all other combat sports, it is the organised extension of alpha male/female contests and the ritualization of combat, which is one of the most dramatic, personal and physical forms of expression imaginable. That sounds pretty artistic to me.