In response to this article:
As a fundamentally a traditionalist martial artist, an appreciator of the combat sports, and someone who considers himself relatively well-versed in literature and the arts, I enjoyed the above article.
I thought the particular description of MMA as ‘somewhere between the rigour of traditional martial arts and the contrived drama of pro wrestling’ is very well put, as was the comparison between Fight Club and the UFC as narrative forms thematically united in their appeal to the socially disembedded of late modernity.
I’d like to move into what I’d add to this article by defending Dana White – which is something I’m not particularly accustomed to, I’d like to add. I don’t especially like Dana White – I’m not a fan of his marketing strategies and from the evidence of any given interview, I don’t think he’s an especially pleasant figure in public. However, the comment cited in this article in reply to Meryl Streep (‘of course [MMA] is an art’) is one that I would like to stand for. The article contextualises the minor dispute between White and Streep which I, therefore, will not go into here apart from to say that Streep’s comment denigrating football and MMA as non-arts (apparently at random) was unnecessary to her point about defending the rights of non-American citizens in Hollywood, and that White’s comment denigrating Streep (inaccurately characterised as an uppity 80-year-old) was just as unnecessary to his defence of MMA. What is interesting is the apparent importance of the status of art vs non-art to the purported validity of MMA as a form worthy of the public domain. White could just as easily have said: ‘well hey, sure MMA isn’t art, but it is a very successful sport, spectacle, and entertainment industry’ – and he may have had a pretty good riposte to Streep’s suggestion that Hollywood films and MMA aren’t on the same page (whether or not the majority of Hollywood fare qualifies as ‘art’ is a whole other conversation). However, White chose instead, and not without some sincerity, to defend the idea that MMA is indeed art and rightly ought to be considered as such amongst the other aesthetic traditions. Why?
The status of art somehow retains value. Art objects of quality tend to endure despite the movement of time, shifts in culture, or changes societal context. The status of art has the appearance of the infinite, of something at the very least impossible to pin down and easily explain or reduce. As such, the status of art confers upon its object an enduring kind of worth, along with the suggestion that the object might be something truly essential to, at the very least, the human condition if not reality more generally. This is why art is associated with the idea of the inspired, with the idea of the divine or of the muse – the emergence of the over and beyond, of the transcendent. This is why Hamlet is still reinterpreted and Romeo and Juliet is known and understood the world over. This is why there is not a recorded culture without music and dance, and pictures, paintings, and sculptures can be found representing things which cross national and temporal borders from most any society mentionable. Historically, the art forms that have existed as long as recordings of human culture are available are the pictorial, verse, lyric and sound, and dance and the body arts. If MMA were to be acknowledged amongst these (it would fall into the category I call body arts, which includes dance, and indeed many traditional martial arts) it would receive a kind of cultural prestige. The name art is something conferred upon objects which enter a supposedly higher circle of society, entities which are preserved and honoured and celebrated and studied and which society keeps paying attention to. At the very least, this would guarantee White’s source of income for his lifetime and possibly cement a legacy beyond that, transforming MMA into a form which would transcend its current social status and become an ongoing cultural artefact in itself, beyond any given organisation like the UFC or its competitors and affiliates (Bellator, Invicta, British Association MMA) and thereby sustaining their existence just as boxing does for the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO, amongst others. Clearly, there is much to be gained for White and his organisation in the status of art, yet in spite of this, there remains a counter movement in White’s logic which suggests there might be other than profit to the claim that MMA is art.
Against White’s remark that Meryl Streep and her demographic would not be expected to love mixed martial arts, the claim that MMA is an art form makes an open and plaintive appeal: that Meryl Streep and her demographic should at the very least acknowledge and accept MMA as a form of art. There is a kind of longing for acceptance, a need for belonging – Meryl Streep in a certain way represents not only herself and a demographic of older women, but also the film academy, and a more generalised bastion of ‘high’ culture. White’s choice to defend MMA as art suggests an inner-circle / outer-circle opposition at play between himself and his institution and the established arts. The Guardian’s article actually makes fair and quite favourable commentary on White’s direction in the UFC in this regard, noting his introduction of safety regulations and standardisation of the fighting format, along with his successful courtship of various athletic commissions and regulatory bodies, effectively transforming the ‘human cock-fighting’ of the MMA of the past into a sport at least deemed respectable enough to be broadcast by major networks worldwide. White’s contradictory attitude to the established arts, embittered, disparaging and full of chagrin yet somehow still seeking recognition, is a fossil of all the work he has done for MMA already. Through a career which has essentially established the MMA as a mainstream sport and the UFC as its chief promotions organisation, White has had to carry and push against the weight of MMA’s public image as brutal and savage, as a violent sport for the fulfilment of violent, hypermasculine fantasies. Now that MMA is recognised and popular worldwide, it still struggles to shake off these preconceptions, as the Guardian’s article makes clear, and not undeservedly so – many of MMA’s marketing strategies have and do play out the narrative of violence, hypermasculinity, and determinacy to a willing audience. If Connor Mcgregor is currently MMA’s most lucrative piece of capital, he only embodies this sense within the modern sport. Thus White and the UFC are riven: with its feet MMA runs towards the world of the arts, feeling that the work it’s done, the distance it’s come is deserving of recognition, of inauguration into the inner circle, to be ranked at least alongside boxing, ‘the sweet science’, and go beyond the old grisly moniker ‘cage-fighting’ with all its trappings of petty needless injury, hyperaggressive egotism, and blood on chicken-wire and asphalt. Yet with its hands, MMA clings on to these trappings, it grasps them as a spoilt child its long-outgrown favourite toys, it revels in the fact that it is outside established arts, and celebrates itself as a realm of the untamed, the unregulated and un-bureaucratised; MMA likes the idea of itself as an outsider while still knocking on the door.
This is at the heart of White’s confrontation with Streep: MMA doesn’t really want to be part of the in-club White characterises in Streep as ‘uppity 80-year-old women’ – if that’s what it would mean to be considered art; that’s not at all where MMA wants to go. Yet MMA does want to be seen as art, not just art ‘for the masses’ or ‘low’ art (which, in some discussions would be tantamount to being non-art anyway), but full-blooded, thoroughbred, heritage-laden, with all the pomp and circumstance, art.
So is it?
A particular art theory I am currently partial to is the claim by Graham Harman that art is essentially theatre. What he means by this isn’t necessarily that men and women on stage are somehow more art than anything else, or that all other artistic media are derivative of the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece and Rome. The contention runs on the basis that art can neither be purely formal nor purely subjectival, which is to say that it can neither be just the art object, nor just ‘in-the-eye-of-the-beholder’. The existence of art always requires that both terms are present, a meaning-making beholder and a meaning-bearing form. The art is always performed as a constellation between the two elements – which is especially easy to see in performance art, such as theatre where a form, that is, a script, stage space, and narrative are given meaning through their performance by a group of players, which in turn is given meaning through the reception of the audience. This is less intuitive in the case of something like sculpture or painting, but the argument runs that the form of the art object (say Boticelli’s Birth of Venus) performs its meaning through its observer who becomes a player in that meaning. There isn’t especial need to go into more depth here (though symbolic interpretation and representational media are very worthy subjects), but for those interested, Harman’s full arguments are most thorough in the second part of his book Dante’s Broken Hammer.
Does MMA fulfil these criteria? In the Guardian’s comparison of MMA to professional wrestling (which in itself is well-discussed by Roland Barthes in the wonderful book Mythologies), it does appear to manifest them in a somewhat superficial way. However, this makes the artwork – the MMA performance the crowds flock to see – entirely literalisable in terms of symbolic meaning, which denies it the status of art. This is where I contest the Guardian’s article and White both. Where the article suggests that MMA’s chief lure is in portraying a instant-gratification drip-feed of highlight-reel closed binarism, an obvious winner-loser division, through an us-and-them display of ritual violence, I disagree. And where White suggests that ‘of course MMA is art’, it turns out I also disagree.
MMA does indeed use the professional wrestling style of narrative to generate a reason for the fight – a fight that’s all business isn’t especially fun to watch for those not already invested in the technicalities of martial arts, after all. Barthes writes of wrestling that each symbolic gesture and bodily sign is rounded and full, an exaggeration exhaustive and replete with natural meaning, unquestionable in ‘the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice’ (Mythologies, p.8). Even if the promoters don’t fix fights or encourage MMA battles to be seen this way, it is unmistakable that the crowds intuit the fights within these boundaries. This explains the riotous excitement around figures like Connor McGregor, who possesses the skill of grandiloquence Barthes argues is necessary for professional wrestling – all of McGregor’s outward signs and symbols are excessive, exhaustive, full of arrogance and disdain, a truly universal villain; or else a hero amongst rebels, a lord of scoundrels. Especially amongst white anglophone audiences, the UFC was somewhat stagnant in terms of propulsion before McGregor, owing to a series of non-white or non-anglophone champions, and ultimately, to the top ranks of most weight divisions being dominated by fairly straight-talking masters or fairly uninspiring journeymen. When McGregor eventually challenged for the lightweight title, the stage was set for a classic hero-villain duel of epic proportions. The Brazilian Jose Aldo junior plays every inch the hero: from poor and humble beginnings, exceptionally hard-working and athletic, soft-spoken and respectful, there could be no fighter more antithetical in character to McGregor, the rough and ragged trash-talker, disparaging of all foes, racially abusive against Brazilians in particular, arrogant in the extreme, and covered in tattoos of, amongst other things, his own name, a brand declaring his own greatness. As anyone who has seen The Dark Knight knows well, the public love nothing more than seeing a decadent hero fall. So when McGregor dispatches Aldo with a straight left hand, not twenty seconds into the bout, unseating the long-time champion with all the swagger expected of a true villain of the ring, it is no surprise that he draws more fan-following and more money than any other MMA fighter alive. Other fighters have also adopted this rhetorical strategy (Connor McGregor is not the first fighter ever to trash-talk, obviously, but in the UFC, few have done so with such grandeur, excess, and egotism), a similar narrative playing out for the Bantamweight championship in early 2017 between heavily tattooed trash-talking up-comer Cody Garbrandt and measured, consummate technician, and long-time champion, Dominick Cruz.
As a follow-up to the McGregor / Aldo episode, the McGregor / Diaz episode was even more mythologically grand. For in Diaz’s challenge to McGregor, we see the pompous and arrogant villain king called out by a hard-bitten and infamously vulgar trash-talker in Nate Diaz, just as much a villain of the Welterweight division as McGregor is of the Lightweight. The story now plays that a great evil has had to rise up to unseat a decadent reign (McGregor / Aldo), a kind of wild justice – but to unseat the great villain himself, only another villain will do, a fight of evil on evil to restore balance, a justice of mutual destruction. In this fight, there is no room for the qualities embodied in recent champions, with whom the public quickly lose interest. Virtue (Aldo), technical refinery (Cruz), diligence and guts (Daniel Cormier), traditional martial arts values (Lyoto Machida), genuine glittering mastery (Anderson Silva), all of these are thrown out of the narrative, whether they are in evidence in the actual fight or otherwise – it is all about who is the baddest of the bad, like an old western, all standards of law and order are abandoned, justice will fall with the quickest fist in the octagon.
We can see here that the texture of the narrative in MMA is much more rich and complex than the kind of snapshot winner-loser gratification that the Guardian ascribes to it. The article is correct in demonstrating that MMA does very much appeal to a universalised theme of justice in which any man can claim his own reward if only he were man-enough to step into the ring for it – it does not follow that the essential lure of MMA is the closure that comes with a clear division between victor and vanquished. Today, it is the rawness of justice without bureaucracy, without order, without regulation, without red tape or paperwork – thus when Diaz, famous for slapping his opponents to show his disregard for them, is cut and bleeding from McGregor’s punches, but stuns and visibly destabilises McGregor with punches of his own, and finishes the rout by submitting him to a choke, the drama to those watching, educated in martial arts or not, is immeasurable. The fact that two villains are the heroes of the hour does not say something about MMA so much as it says about the world in which MMA and its audience currently resides.
The astute reader will have noticed parallels between the question of MMA as art, and the political questions currently pervasive in Europe and America – the popular dissatisfaction with inefficient bureaucratic institutions, the sense that justice is simply not carried out by those in power, the sense of insincerity hung on the neck of every institution and personage of government and media, and an angry anti-establishment sentiment which needs no more introduction from me to be acknowledged. The Guardian’s article drew many parallels between the appeal of MMA and the appeal of what is currently characterised right-wing populism: a derision of political correctness, a longing for idealised ‘traditional’ social roles and values, an impatience with complexity, and an ambiguous and antagonistic relationship with what has been called ‘the establishment’. Like Dana White and MMA’s relationship to the established arts, the political, and more widely social sentiment in evidence is one of rejection and longing, a contradiction where there stands a bastion which refuses to allow entry to those who feel they have earnt it, and who, scorned and belittled by an environment which routinely disparages and disempowers them, instead turn to a valorisation of the outside, the rebel, the villain, the McGregors and the Diazes. What is forgotten is that, like MMA, this sentiment still knocks at the door – just as MMA, for all its protestations that it already is art, and has something real about it which makes it definitively not pro wrestling, still craves acknowledgement, access to a cultural world which it is denied, the politically and socially disempowered of the world (the 99%, the ‘global south’, however you want to parse it) despite their current refuge in right-wing populism still, in the end, seek entry to the inner-circle – which is why MMA as drama is so appealing: it offers a fantasy of entry into that circle, that of justice.
For everyone who feels they’ve earnt or deserved recognition or acknowledgement for their efforts, justice is the name of that acknowledgement, of that small measure of social kudos. The theatre in which McGregor and Diaz first clashed is a fantasy of the achievement of that justice by the righteous villains, villains in that they are on the outside, denied by society, yet they are admired for fighting for themselves and themselves alone, and claiming what is theirs by right through their own dignity and will.
It is interesting to note that the rematch between McGregor and Diaz was a lot less dramatic and a lot less well looked-upon. It would be easy to put that down to it not resulting in a knockout or submission and instead having to be decided based on judges scores, yet I think that is only a peripheral issue. Barthes notes again of pro wrestling: ‘[the public] condemns artifice: as in the theatre, one fails to put the part across as much by an excess of sincerity as an excess of formalism’ (p.9). The second fight was wholly less satisfying because it stank of artifice, it shows its bare mechanisms and felt insincere, in the same way that political speeches feel insincere. McGregor coasted the fourth round of the fight, losing it, in order to conserve his energy and tactically win the fifth round and the fight overall. This is a far cry from what McGregor symbolises – he does not embody tactics or strategy or thought, he does not embodied considered or measured reasoning, and he absolutely doesn’t embody going through the due process of a panel of judges. That McGregor abandoned the pursuit of pure victory in a knockout is a mockery of everything his stage character represents. Diaz’s fight had plenty of aspersions cast over it as well – many commentators, both well-informed and ill, suggested that Diaz’s will to win was hampered by the possibility of a third McGregor fight; going 1-1 would lead to a decider, a superfight to put him in MMA history and earn him enough to live well for the rest of his life. Whether or not Diaz actually thought this or acted on it is irrelevant – the theatrical event of the fight was clouded with the air of artifice by dint of it being a rematch alone, and could only go downhill from there. The disgust with seeing a closely won contest recast because some were dissatisfied with the result should be no unusual phenomenon to those following Brexit.
So to finally address White once again. When he says ‘of course MMA is art’ – I must disagree. I must add the rejoinder: some MMA is art. As the Guardian notes, plenty of undercard fights show little in the way of either form or meaning – there isn’t the drama between the characters to get any meaning across, and there isn’t the technical skill there to be compelling or express beauty anyway. A spectacle like the first McGregor / Diaz fight is, on the contrary, more compelling and moving than an enormous glut of the films Hollywood yearly churns out. There is symbolic and representational and mimetic meaning to the characters, to these two characters in particular, fighting, and there is a formal beauty (make no mistake, both are skilled and well-trained fighters) to how that narrative plays out. Between McGregor’s precisely executed pull-counter left and Diaz’s organic and incisive Jujutsu transitions, there is a meaning which is entirely sincere and which holds no hint of artifice – like all true art, something real is communicated from within beautiful formal execution, a meaning transmitted to its audience and which has reality and significance for them, even if, and especially because it cannot be put entirely into words or explained away in easy terms.
As Barthes and Harman both note, the art cannot be played entirely to the audience, nor be entirely formally contained in the artwork. It must be sincere, but not pandering, formally beautiful, but not distant, it must, in short, be real. The McGregor / Diaz fight qualifies in these terms firstly because the dialogue between the two strikes as sincere – even though it’s obviously public and conducted vicariously through interviews and twitter, there is the overbearing impression in the build up to the fight that the two have a genuine reason to be fighting, that they are thoroughly in earnest. It qualifies secondly because though it amounts to two men beating each other up, the level of skill demonstrable, even to the lay-observer, in Diaz’s Jujutsu and boxing and McGregor’s kicks and counterpunching is undeniable. It qualifies finally, because this form – that of combat under the unified rules of Mixed-Martial-Arts – communicates the conflicts, personal, symbolic, political, and more widely contextual, at stake to the audience without artifice or embellishment – as a mimetic representation of reality.
Other examples of art in MMA include watching Anderson Silva fight Chael Sonnen (both times) – again two full-throated characters (though in very different styles to McGregor and Diaz) communicating meaning, meaning which is sincere and in earnest, through an exceptionally well-executed form (watching Anderson Silva fight anyone is essentially formalist art, since his form is renowned as some of the best ever in MMA). Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier’s first fight is another example of this kind of artistic representation, though this time falling more on the narrative side than the formalist side – both characters developing a lot of earnest, genuine distaste for one another beforehand and expressing that simple reality through an incredibly scrappy and dirty fight (despite their very respectable technical skills).
The Guardian article concludes with a comment: ‘For a while all the posturing seems absurd, until you realise it is meant wholly in earnest’ – a statement reflective of the writer’s feelings on the experience of watching MMA, his sense of place within the audience, and a wider sentiment about the political landscape. I would like to say that this is the author’s major misunderstanding of not just MMA, but how to appreciate a medium or even a moment as art, that is, as representing reality generally. His comment suggests the the idea that what he sees as posturing could be taken in earnest, could be taken seriously, is something that mildly horrifies him, that is intensely discomfiting. In the context of Brexit and Trump, perhaps that is so. However, what we have seen demonstrated above is that, in a representation of reality such as an artwork, there is always something which tends towards the pretension of artificial posturing and something which demands the dignity of earnest sincerity. It’s just as easy to scoff at a painting as pretentious (my five-year old could do that!) or a concept sculpture as non-art (I don’t get it…) as it is to think classical music has no value (so boring) or that MMA is entirely deficit of worth (It’s human cock-fighting). All art risks pretension, and for every successful Van Gogh there are thousands of nothings and nobodies, yet the detection of sincerity, or true earnest meaning within what appears as inept posturing is not a cause for dismay or ironic dismissal. It is my opinion that, if all the posturing, pretension, and plain loud shouting done by the political bodies and the public in the lead up to both Brexit and Trump had been taken seriously and as earnest rather than dismissed, there might have been some very different outcomes.
Just as the established arts refuse to take MMA seriously, which leads it to hold on to and revel in its identity as an outsider, there is a strong argument to suggest that if those knocking at the door of justice are not turned away, there is a much greater chance of achieving the political interest, support, and enthusiasm needed for examine the issues of the global commons. Of course some MMA qualifies as art – and it need not be an art celebrating the outsider or anti-establishment sentiments mixed with hypermasculine violence either. Today’s MMA resembles such because, like all art, it represents reality, and our reality looks like this. Today, MMA’s heroes are ego-centric, hypermasculine, trash-talking, non-conformist assholes, because it turns out that’s the hero society sees bringing it justice. Rather than dismiss, shame, pot-shot, or claim MMA’s complicity in the state of our times, commentators, analysts, observers, and critics would do well to take what MMA as art presents in earnest.