Short study of the artistic question in the martial arts and kenpo karate 


The purpose of this article is the study of the artistic question in the martial art, focusing on Kenpo Karate. This study tries to demonstrate that martial arts should be rethought as a rightful part of the forms of artistic representation. For that reason, those characteristics which are shared with other manifestations are examined: construstivistic architecture and conceptual plastics arts. Plastic arts as well as architecture share with martial arts the same goal: satisfaction of the needs of iconic representation and human self-defense. In both of them the mentioned styles have been chosen for their link and bonds to that that characterized martial arts: aesthetic synthesis, synthesis of concept and spatial, temporal and formal structure. The configuration of the work in these three kinds of arts is made through the study of the parameters of form, function and placement, as well as from the analysis of the relation among work, creator and user/spectator. All of them are spatial art, and all come to satisfy -specially martial arts and architecture- some quite specific needs.


The martial arts belong to the aesthetic sciences that use the human body as a vehicle of artistic expression (with some others as ballet, theatre or body art).
The martial art is the scientific and artistic way to answer to one of the vital needs of human beings, as it is the need for protection and self defence. Regarding this, it answers a similar objective as architecture, which was born to protect the individual of that that, in its more immediate surrounding, could be harmful.  The need for iconic representation is satisfied by plastic arts; the need for expression and communication through the scenic arts and the music. The art was born when to the satisfaction of these needs an aesthetic and conceptual character was conferred.
The most definitive facet of martial arts is its compulsion to create something aesthetically and, at the same, time functionally valid. It is the only artistic manifestation in which this obligation appears: the one its dependent of the other, and if both conditions are not given, there is no martial art. Inside the martial arts, kenpo karate is a style that has a coherence in design which shows the need of a study of its main characteristics.

In order to conceive a technique as a totality that works in tridimensional parameters (width, height and length) there has to be determined firstly its structure. If the technique shows its functionality, the artistic side will appear by itself: this will be given by the a priori use -the moment of the creation of the technique- of compositing criteria related with the above mentioned parameters.

At the time to design the architectonic use there have to be put into account three conditions related with the building itself as an entity:

  • Function;
  • Material to use;
  • Specific needs related with the character and situation of the building;
As well as other factors derived from the relation of form with space:
  • Placement of the building;
  • Adaptation to its environment.
In the same way, the technique puts into account the use it is going to have (which is determined by the attack: the function), the actual conditions (that is, it has to be operative with every kind of opponent with independence of mass and body length displaced) and the possibility of adaptation to the performer (specific needed). Regarding  the relation form-space, the techniques could be used in the place where a defensive need arises. For that, you have to take into account that,
a) It is needed to adjust to certain environmental conditions (placement in space): the space available should be considered and its optimization sought.;
b) The technique could be made by using all that comes by the surrounding area, like walls and diverse objects (adaptation to the environment).


Kenpo Karate is part of those arts in which aesthetics and function are united, even one derives from the other. Martial arts have their origin, as it has been mentioned, in the need to face some quite specific necessities. As a result, as with constructivism architecture, function defines form. The strict compliment of that makes the created technique useful; the efficient consecution of the objective is achieved through the location in space of a series of movements and impact points. This last aspect shows that we are talking about an art in which, as with constructivist architecture and plastic minimalism, the user/spectator has the capability to conform or even define the job.

Kenpo karate techniques are made of a sequence of movements that answers and matches those of an opponent. The number and location of each one doesn't have to be necessarily correlative. As it has been exposed previously, as with architecture and minimalist art, martial arts question the interaction between artist and user/observer. Moreover, without receptor subject there is no artistic manifestation. The technique's recipient is thus an integral part of its structure. If art should make reference in structural and material form to the presence of a spectator in the space that shows the work, in the martial arts this premise is fulfilled, as there is no aesthetic frontier between emisor and receptor. The aesthetic frontier coincides with the physical presence of the work, which in this case is the defense technique. Said technique and its internal structure will be determined by the questioning of a series of attacks (that which in architecture will be the constructive requisites mentioned in the beginning of this analysis) and that needed to intercept them. The way to do it is usually based in the trajectory of the attack and the consequent movement of its receptor. From there on blocks and points of impact will be decided. As it is seen, is similar to the structure of a building, in which the beams are put first and then goes the rest of the shell. Simplifying this last point, reducing it to essential, the artist can highlight the subordination of the details to their significance as a whole. This is exactly why the spectator perceives the technique as a whole, but through its development it can move around it to observe how the ways in which it is presented vary.

One of the most definitive kenpo characteristics in kenpo karate is its multifunctionality, which is given by the projection of movement farther from the main objective: that is, it can make a defense of objectives different to that that begins the attack with quite simultaneity. It is a style of great versatility, which favors function and form: function because it optimizes the defense, and form because it allows the creation in many space-temporal moments. Function thus defines again the form. The artistic geometry -in this case, founded in a structure created of blocks, strikes and movements- can rely as much in colour -blocks and strikes- as in the line -movements. This has as consequence a reinforced organization of space, which translates in an amplified radius defense/attack. It is a centrifugal dynamism which recurs to the diagonals to, from a mobile center -the performer, which is a mobile center only as a function of the objective- transform its reference system as it moves.

It is thus quite difficult to define the limits of a technique. As with architecture, in which in the unified groups the house is part of the square, the environment can be a part of the technique through the use of objects and architectural elements. In constructivism, Le Corbusier introduces schemes in which the ceilings sustained themselves further than the side of the building, leaving in the interior the verticals that had an structural mission. The pluriespaciality in kenpo is very broad, and acts in the inside as well as the outside: for being an art whose works can be independent from the structural limitations, the technique can be organized in a way such as to adapt to the defensive requirements no matter what the space-temporal position may be. It can even be said that the domain of space is the greatest value of kenpo karate.

In the same way, the minimalist art put into relation the artistic object with its architectonic frame, giving it the quality of a form that could be immediately aprehended as a whole: quality which shares with a kenpo karate technique. The technique has a formal and elemental structure and is make of dynamical nodes (blocks and strikes) which not only make reference to themselves: thus, the architectural frame is integrated in the trajectory. The most destacable thing is that what is important is neither the number of elements nor the fact of trying to fit the technique in a given environment, but the structural disposition of the whole, which is already included in every of its elements. It is for this reason that a techniques is made of many main strikes: the technique, though, has sense not only as a totality, but the parts in which a technique can be divided have a meaning in their autonomy and are self-finishing.

The key of art in kenpo karate has its roots in the creation of a form through the function. From here on will derivate the artistic side, as well as the quality of it: if more movements and points of impact are added, the technique might be blocked (and thus be invalidated) or give place to an aesthetic composition void of meaning (semantic charge nil). The layout of blocks and strikes all along the trajectory gives an harmonic composition as long as the function is strictly fulfilled. There have to be noted that all which is coherently functional is harmonic because it evidences the essential of matter, the user and their interaction: the use and relation of this with that highlights the idiosyncracy of both. It can be mentioned the research that Mr Duchamp did regarding this in the beginning of this century through the ready made. Said study showed that the concept of art and beauty is merely cultural: a classical sculpture seems more artistic than a table, for example, because this is the way we were taught to see it. The decontextualization of the table and the deactivation of all the literature impromptu in the sculpture allows the work to be objectivise and shows the possibility of rising the objects to the category of artwork.. Duchamp's experience consisted in previously selecting a conventional mass-produced article, sign it and exposed it as artwork in an art gallery. The exceptional context and the way it was presented paradoxically modified the perception of the object. None declared or defined it 
as an useful object then, but an aesthetic object. Thus, a martial art technique is harmonic -if it is functional- independently of the connotations of usefulness that can be assigned. At the same time, it serves to bond many different notions in a same work: space, time, form, function. Not many forms of art can materialize so many concepts at the same time: architecture and conceptual art have tried -by sheer necessity in the first case and by choice in the second- to include successfully this question in their many manifestations. In another way, though, every artwork can be considered space-time, even independently of the sound volume, the music generates a space, as it portrays a structure; there is a time in the picture, as it is covered by rhythms and maintains an internal movement by which its diversity is reunited in the unity of a sense. Which does not prevent that picture, statue and building be above all objects in the space, the same way a symphony and a poem are objects in time.

What now: that which confers the category of artwork to a table or a sculpture is the creator's desire (now that it has been proved that any material reality can be so). The art is born when a need is answered - or a question arises- in a functional way, economically expressive and aesthetical and conceptually innovative. When these four statements are not fulfilled, the ground for artisany and certain para-artistic manifestation is entered, such as kitsch. The creative task arises when the options to answer are diversified without a lack in efficiency. Thus, there is art in kenpo karate not only because there is an harmony of forms (if that were so it will be another kind of art, such as ballet) but because it tries to give an answer to a problem in many different ways, which gives place to a constant aesthetic innovation.

A question that can arise is this: the character heavily mechanic of a technique will not erase the artist for the shake of the artisan. Such as it has been showed, there is not enough for a form to be economical to be perfect:  seeming procedures give a compressed technique or a extended one depending on the intervention of the plastic sense or the kind of objective. A composition that can suffer modifications owing to the action of the creator (or, in a building, the deformations and accidents due to the action of the elements) will ever be the object of an empiric estimation through which the imagination and the sensibility of design will permeate.

In the conception of a technique, thus, it has to be taken into account:

  • Defensive needs;
  • Ways to fulfill those needs;
  • Optimization of available resources: space and time;
  • Harmony between form and function.

The reiteration of the constants cannot supply the creation of the variations or trajectories of function, form and concept by the martial artist, melting it in a whole with meaning (whether it has it or not will be perceived through the efficiency of the technique). Said variations/trajectories are yielded in a compendium that tries to preview the answer to all the questions and the ways it can be fulfilled. The most usual way to manifest and concentrate the movement is to inscribe, not the continuous line of its trajectory, which will give a dead representation, but a succession of paint strokes (that is, blocks and strikes) situated along the trajectory, and make sensible by its directions the dynamism of the mobile (the performer) in the different instants of the movement. The degree of verticality and horizontality, which in painting or sculpture translated the impulse or repose, will provoke here a true repose, a true movement.


If the compulsion of aesthetic and functional unity is what defines martial arts, that which characterizes kenpo karate is its unique combination of functional simpleness and aesthetic complexity. This complexity has its origin in:
  • The diversification of movements around the main axis of emitter and receptor, which allows the inclusion in the techniques of other receptors;
  • The creation of a compendium of techniques through the recompilation of all the possibilities of attack and defense, or, said another way, of interaction between one or many emitters and a receptor. This compendium is necessary because it betters a series of physical qualities (coordination, balance, strength and power, stamina, etc.) which in painting will be equivalent to the teaching of the techniques needed to make a paint: use of pigments, function of the tools, use and characteristics of materials, etc. The study of the use of the above mentioned qualities will allow the executioner to create his/her own techniques in the future: that is, the artist’s creation goes through knowing the techniques to create a work.

As conclusion, it can be said that not every activity in which an attack is replied is artistic -boxing, fighting, etc.-, because not all of them try to create an expositive summary which makes the birth of new creators posible.

Art is an answer in which the question is implicit.



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©2002 Natalia Carpintero, ©2003 of the translation Lucía Bartolomé and Raúl Hernández.