A rational look at authenticity
People often search for and advertise, “authentic (martial art here).” There are many forms of authenticity, most of which don’t have tremendous value to your life. Let’s look at some:
- With technique of a past era. So either tactics, tools, requirements, or rules have changed. Maybe the art has become sport and you’re interested in the more martial/combative aspects. Ok, so why not study something that is combative in the present day? You’ll have much better access, opportunity, and quite frankly, effectiveness if that’s important to you.
- With the rigour of a past era. Are you just looking to be good, or to engage in unsafe training that was either a requirement or the only outlet of that time? Because you can be good without the adjective of authentic (read unsafe or not optimal). Just train hard, and find a group who shares that value.
- As applied to the modern sport practiced in the country of origin. Ok. A reasonable word to describe what you’re doing. If that’s what you want, that’s what you want.
- For cultural appreciation/preservation. I’m going to call bullshit on this one, because the majority of people interested in Asian culture through martial arts know nothing about the root culture, language, or modern day life. On the contrary, they have a mildly racist, fetishized perception of it (ahem, teaching English in Japan). Martial arts is not uniquely important to any of the cultures. Learn their literature, drama, calligraphy, or best of all, work there if you’re interested in their culture.
- Romanticism/Escapism. Highly related to above and below, something just captured your imagination, and you want to know it. Many people come to this through movies or books, which have little to do with authenticity. Alternately, a sentimentality or longing for simpler times. If this is how you relax and recharge, that’s cool, but it’s more fantasy than authentic, isn’t it?
- Because you want to be a martial arts snob. Think hard about this one, because isn’t this where the lineage battle comes from? Assigning value to someone else’s greatness or perceived greatness.
- Because you’re not sure how to shop. You want to be good, but you’re not sure what that even means, which is why ‘authentic’ reverberates so effectively and why it’s bandied about so much. You just have to be an savvy consumer. Do the students move well? Does it seem cultish? Other than that, if you’re comfortable, almost anywhere can be a decent place to start and you can move on if necessary.
As I brainstormed, it occurred to me that our sense of authentic is also tied to an era. The golden age of kung fu? Founding of Shaolin? 70’s Jeet Kune Do? WWII (that’s World War 2, kids)-era karate? We may compose ubi sunts to these lost times, but recognize nostalgia over substance.
There’s an irony to the word. Authentic tries to imply superior in some way, but is it then not functionally used as an excuse to not get better?
You can choose to not expand your world view, but I think you should be clear on why. For example, I’m perfectly aware that firearms is critical in modern self-defense. But I just find it distasteful, so choose not to pursue it. But I then recognize that from a ‘combatives’ stand point, that’s like cutting off both your legs—I don’t pretend I can get there without it.