“The Highest Art: Affirming the Art of the Martial” by Charles Humphrey

“My art is martial. The beauty which I can realize in
my practice does have the potential for violence.”

I work at and attended a stereotypical liberal arts teaching-college. It is populated by idealistic young minds who seek to better understand the world through the study of philosophers and writers both ancient and modern. While it succeeds in fostering intense, active debate between students, more often than not the students’ ardour exceeds their understanding of the material. Much more concerting is the tendency to discount the value of understanding one’s immediate situation and thinking in practical terms.

Despite its various strengths and weaknesses, it seems to attract a large proportion of visual artists, musicians and performing artists, seeking to enhance their creative potential through philosophic inquiry. Some of them are quite talented. They engage in much fruitful exchange and collaboration, both within and between their creative medium. I too like to consider myself a participant in that tradition. And yet I am excluded. My art is martial. The beauty which I can realize in my practice does have the potential for violence. Worse yet, it is too often associated with activities which call themselves “martial art,” but which have about as much in common with what I do as two drunk students grinding their pelvises to the latest pop-hit does to ballet. I find myself at times desperately trying to explain to people that what I do is art, that it is in my opinion one of the highest of human arts by virtue of the fact that it is the art of being human. That is a weakness of mine. I still desire acceptance. A musical artist has his tube of brass, his strings on wood. The painter has his brush and his canvas. I have my mind/body/spirit and space-time. Musicians have concerts. Painters have exhibitions. I have every moment. I wanted to write this to articulate the parallels and see if others see it another way.

My body is my instrument. My mind is the conductor. My heart is the paint. My abdomen holds the bow. The rest of my body is composed of countless strings resonating with sound and colour. My goal is to improve my stroke, to improve my conducting, to make the sound have richer colour. My art is unique from others because I am the medium, and so have to spend time improving the medium. Imagine a violin player who had to learn violin while he made a violin. Imagine he was barred from ever seeing a violin, at any stage of completion. All he could do was listen to his teacher play, and play his own bizarre, half-made instrument in the next room and compare notes. That is my art. The art of making and playing my instrument. I will always be alone in my art.

I practice alone most of the time. I tune and build my instrument by degrees. First it was a question of making something that didn’t just collapse, then to get a sound, then to get a sound that didn’t grate on the ears. Perhaps one day the sound will be beautiful and I will learn to differentiate the sound of the notes. And then perhaps I will be able to play my first tune.

Although I do most of my tuning and practice alone, the purpose of my art is not solitary. The goal is to play in the big symphony. To blend perfectly with the various instruments which populate my world. I get together and play practice duets with friends and my teacher. By playing with him we better learn the limitations of our instruments and musical talent. It is hard to show up to my teacher every day with my deformed instrument thinking it may look something like a violin only to go home and tear it apart to try again.

Sometimes the tempo of the symphony of life becomes critical. The rhythm rises in speed and complexity. I hope that in those times I will be able to keep pace with the music and keep my instrument intact. At first I will simply outperform and outplay the rest of the symphony. In time, perhaps I will blend with it so perfectly it will follow my tune without knowing why. Then everything will win. I remember a great guitarist once challenged a great drummer to a kind of play-off. The drummer’s skill was supreme, every time the guitarist put out a riff, the drummer matched the tempo and feel and then added complexity far beyond the capability of the guitarist, continually leading away from the guitarist’s intended direction. If the guitarist had been able to keep up, the music would have been better. If the drummer had been able to keep the guitarist in the game while still keeping the complex tempo he established, the music would have been far superior. As it was the drummer dominated and the music was pretty good.

While many in my art focus on those fast-tempo times, I think this is wrong. All tempos are equal in beauty and complexity. I hope to enrich every bar. Each time an instrument pipes up in the chamber of my perception, I seek to balance it. It is hard. So many instruments, so many rhythms, notes and colours. I carry on at great sacrifice because I long to hear the symphony perfectly, and to add my own sound and colour to it, to enhance its overall beauty so that it may be improved overall and lent greater harmony. I believe, perhaps naively, that if enough of us were to work at enhancing the symphony in this way, then it would guide others to building and playing their instruments better. That the music would reach such volume, complexity and elegance, that we would all be compelled to join in, that the mood would be overwhelming and the harmony intoxicating. This is why I do what I do. I am an artist. My art happens to be martial. In some cases this means violence, but violence is nothing but a staccato. Some people like fast music for its own sake. Some people dislike it. Music is music, painting is painting, the question that matters is what is the aim of your art? Who are you as an artist?

Please let me know what you think of this perspective on what we do. I hope someday that this perspective will be understood because I think there is value in what we do though few of us do it or know that it is even possible. I would like to see those ranks increased.


  1. Well said Chuck,
    Your articles contains immense insights into the true nature of budo.
    I’ve often thought of Aikido as considerably many steps up the scale than partial-arts that only involve one attribute (visual, auditory etc) of the human being because it involves the whole person, even parts we are not yet aware exist.
    Reminiscent of sand-art which leaves an essence behind once destroyed, Aikido leaves the essence of the universe’s harmony radiating into the world.
    And this fine tunes with each installment of sincere practice.
    It lives and propagates life and healing, yet is unseen but more real than those thing which we can touch and see because it injects the world with Bu, the real and living sprit of loving protection for all.
    Many thanks for this enlightened piece of work,

  2. Certainly there is art to martial practice. As we practice we can do art. The martial aspect, though, goes back earlier. In Hagakure an old samurai said, “Why do a martial art for thirty years? You’ll just become an artist. You can be a samurai right now. Given a choice between life and death, choose death.” Musashi refined that, noting that even peasants and women have died well. His take was that the defining trait of a samurai was swordsmanship. Swordsmanship was proven in winning fights. Now, if you just think about winning you will reinforce the natural instinct of self-preservation. Self-preservation gets in the way of good, spontaneous, technique. O Sensei went further and said, roughly, ‘be attached neither to life nor death’. Now if that sounds like one hand clapping, well…

  3. Congratulation for the article. It really touches the intuition when we read it… the quest of the unity in the multiplicity…

  4. Beautifully written.

  5. Kathleen Harper says:

    Thank you Charles for opening a window to your soul. I always knew that you were an artist…an artist of life!
    Everyone should read this as it is a lesson in the art of living. Living fully in the moment with every fiber of our being. I have always believed that every single person is an artist though some have yet to realize it.
    I am deeply touched by your article and blessed that I have a place in your life,

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