I just now got back from having a (very) late lunch with Katie at our nearby Schlotzky's. As I'm now rather tardy with my submission for this month's column draft, I was a bit preoccupied, still trying to crystallize a topic. I was not as attentive a lunch companion as I would like to have been. Katie pretended not to notice. I was already drifting toward the idea of creativity in aikido, when in walks a young woman dressed in a black hoodie, with bold white letters on the front that proclaimed "Originality is Dead." I knew then and there I had my lead.
But the preamble extends a little further back. Katie and I don't watch much television, at least not of the broadcast variety. We do, however, sometimes like to review some TV series -- either long gone or recently popular -- on disk. We cycle through several of these at a time, and one of the ones we're slowly making our way through is "Northern Exposure." There's an episode where Holling is shown taking great pride and pleasure in his hobby of doing paint-by-numbers kits. Enjoys, that is, until Maurice derides the practice as being entirely devoid of artistic merit, creativity, or originality. Chris, the series' artiste résident
, intervenes in an attempt to help Holling connect with his Inner Artist. I'll spare you the spoilers.
So... aikido. Is aikido an art form? What place is there in aikido for originality, creativity, inspiration, or distinctive personal style and method? More broadly (and setting aside the debate as to whether aikido is a "real" martial art), are martial arts actually art forms? Should we think of aikido as an artless discipline? Does it matter how we classify such things?
It matters to the extent that how we think about our discipline affects how we engage with our discipline. We can try to evaluate the respective merits of different approaches, but before we go there, let me just ask you a few questions:
To what extent are you doing paint-by-numbers aikido?
To what extent are you responsible for developing your own aikido, with your own unique, personal style?
If you personally identify with one of these two camps, how do you regard those in the other camp?
If we allow that aikido is, on some level, by some interpretation, an art form, then we probably accept that there is some craft to be learned, some basic mechanics (if not, in fact, mastery) that all practitioners should expect to achieve. And however fraught the distinction between Art and Craft, we can stipulate that the degree of originality and inspiration offers some level of differentiation.
In almost all the arts, we can find examples of those who are self-taught, and those who come up through schooling, either informal or rigorously classical. And in all instances, if we look hard, we might find examples of dreadful mediocrity, and instances of breathtaking brilliance.
I don't know if it's true, but I heard once that the first thing Salvador Dali taught his apprentices was how to execute his signature. What would this say about the authenticity of a Dali painting?
What does this say about the authenticity of your aikido? Whose signature are you copying with your learned footwork? Whose gesture of hand are you inscribing when you arc and loop and underscore?
Few of us in aikido are truly self-taught. Most of us, close to all of us probably, have come up in one atelier or another. So does aikido itself have a characteristic signature, and the more authentic our practice, the closer we all get to that
? Or is it O Sensei's signature that we are meant to inherit, or that of our affiliation head, or that of our local sensei? Or, should we find that the more we deepen our practice, the more our own authentic signature emerges? Then, are we deviating from the Way of Aiki? Do we bring our fullest self to our practice, or do we empty our practice of ourselves? If one artist expresses the person-less void, while another expresses the fullness of their unique character, is one more an artist than the other?
In Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," there are two characters at odds over their preferences for literature. For Marana, literature is more worthwhile "the more it consists of elaborate devices, a complex of cogs, tricks, traps." For Ludmilla, the ideal author produces books "as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins." or in the fashion of "the wind that shapes the mountain, the wrack of the tides, the annual circles in the bole of trees."
Too, we treat the notion of artistic originality across different disciplines -- differently. The classical musician is rarely expected to also be the composer. The player's job is to reproduce the notes on the page with exacting perfection. Originality comes from interpreting but not altering the music, expressing perhaps a vision of the composer's motives, or the player's own inner cinema. Painters, on the other hand, cannot faithfully copy another's work and represent it as their own without committing a crime. Unless, of course, the painter has bought and is using a paint-by-numbers kit. Could a true artist interpret a paint-by-numbers work in the manner of a classical musician?
Aikido's own creation myths tell us that O Sensei received aikido from Takeda; that he received aikido from the kami
, that he made it all up out of a re-branded, repackaged form of jujutsu, trademark Ueshiba. Can all of these be simultaneously true?
My position is yes. Not only can they be true, they must be, of necessity.
If I'm not doing O Sensei's aikido, I'm not doing aikido. If I'm not doing my aikido, I'm not doing O Sensei's aikido. My signature aikido has unmistakable elements from Bill Sosa, Rod Kobayashi, and some Henry Kono. There are also bits of Fumio Toyoda, Peter Ting, and other great teachers. My students, adults and children both, have influenced me profoundly. Indirectly, there must also be some DNA from Sokaku Takeda and Koichi Tohei. And many, many others..
Furthermore, although I'm not superstitious, my aikido also comes from the kami
. Of course I'm not Shinto, let alone Japanese. But truly aikido originates in the spirit of the immanent world that surrounds us. If the dojo teaches us anything, it teaches us to pay attention to the world. When we pay attention, we learn aikido from the leaf on the wind, the leaf on the moving stream, the leaf on the still surface of the pond, and the leaf decomposed under the water. We learn about aikido from the self-organizing principles of sea-foam and cell growth. We learn that the origin of all things, is -- all things.
My aikido also originates from me, and where else but me? Does this need any elaboration?
The Original Aikido is ancient, and now. It comes through tradition and transmission, and it blossoms within you like the aster and the nova.
We live in a paint-by-numbers universe, for all things, even the Infinite and Eternal, are bounded. Numbers guide us and invite us by their ordinality, and their cardinality. Also, their rationality and irrationality, and their transcendence. When you do your paint-by-numbers aikido, it's as if you're sequencing genes. It's methodical, yes, but you're also touching the generative substance of life.
We are our own numbers, and the Universe paints by us. If you withhold your aikido, your very own, the one with your signature and none other, then we're all diminished. The aikido that we do without you is not the same as the aikido that we can do with you. When you do your aikido outside the lines, you are the generative substance of life.
I urge you, most urgently, to express yourself through aikido, and to express aikido through yourself. You are the carrier wave, and the signal. You are the medium, and the message.
Such is the Way of Art. It lives in the Holling Vincoeurs, and the Chris Stevenses, and even the Maurice Minnifields. And of course, art is beyond all of them, beyond all of us. There is art in your paint-by-numbers kit, the very same and not at all the same as the art in The Great Paranoiac.
It is there, and not there. The signature is Dali's, and the teachers' of Dali, and apprentices' of Dali.
The signature is inscribed, not just on the canvas, but by the canvas. The signature, the very stamp of originality and authenticity, is inscribed not just on the retina, but by the retina. The signature is freshly written by the hand of a dead man, every moment someone views the painting.
Indeed, originality is dead.
Long live originality.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA