Meryl Streep. What a wonderful thespian. Always seems to hold a touch of class, albeit with a small dose of arrogance and pomposity, but as to be expected for someone who wins practically every award she gets nominated for, and surrounds herself in the bubble of Hollywood self-adoration. At the 2017 Golden Globe awards, which I don’t pay particular attention to (although I am a film geek) but have read about subsequently, and watched the clip, she gave a moving, powerful speech in retaliation to everything Trumpian. Especially honing in on his vile mocking of a disabled journalist, and his disturbingly shady anti-immigrant/outsider rhetoric, among other things. All this is perfect. I stood with her for every second, as she bravely dug into the orange haired monkey, knowing clearly, that a sizeable number of her viewers and fans throughout the United States were very likely Trump supporters. Because, let’s be honest, Streep is no fierce activist, she hasn’t maintained, or gone out of her way, to display a strong classical liberal agenda, progressively battling injustice, for her career. Sure, she establishes scholarships for English majors, and donates money for women’s rights, but nothing that sets her apart from the majority of other folk who have a net worth of 75 million $. She hasn’t been recognized for taking lesser-paying roles in important films that strive to progress society. No, she is an enormous movie-star, who seems to get lauded and voted in every category simply because she resides in a world that operates on hierarchical popularity. It would be safe to assume conservatives and liberals alike have fawned over her for decades. This is just to say, that her fan-base, I would presume, is, until now, unaffected by her off-screen actions, containing an equal representation of the political spectrum. She is safe and neutral. So in this respect I applaud her for railing the insane president-elect, and in effect, most likely losing a sizeable amount of supporters. While I am sure she is refined and pristine like a glass of fine white wine, holding values similar to most progressives, I found one small moment of her speech rather disheartening.
She took a pot-shot at sports, and specifically, MMA (mixed martial arts). After her remark, I couldn’t quite jump back on board with her, and felt a little betrayed, despite the fact that I agreed with her, 100% regarding all the points she attacked the Donald on.
The sound thinker, and champion of reasoned discourse, Sam Harris, has made a point (forgive me for not remembering where I heard it, and hopefully not butchering his view during my paraphrase) that there seems to be a problem in present day politics where, if you understand a particular view-point from an individual, you can often guess, with a high-rate of probability, the stances the individual will take on a number of other subjects. Case in point: Meryl Streep, most likely a progressive liberal, opposes Trump and his policies, it therefore follows that it is safe to assume that she doesn’t like MMA (as MMA is, in the USA and Canada at least, seemingly marketed towards a demographic that is largely the antithesis of, shall we say the ‘sophisticated cinephile public’. I don’t know if I believe this to be infallibly accurate, but it serves my point roughly for the time being). Harris’ thesis continues quite thoroughly, giving other such examples as; if one is pro-choice, anti-gun, you can also expect numerous other beliefs with a high degree of accuracy. For instance, in my own personal experience, I am extremely anti-gun, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, but I am also highly critical of certain religions and the harm that I believe they do to human progress. Therefore, just because I hold one view, does not predicate my opinion on another. This rubs with the present day political atmosphere, of the right and extreme-left, which for many years, I felt very much a part of. Harris is proposing that we are regressing into a sort of tribalist identity politics that is helping no one. I gather his message is; issues should be debated on their own, with a reasoned approach. And whatever your stance on the legalization of weed, it should provide me with no preconceptions of your stance on gay marriage or other such unrelated issues. As the two are completely exclusive. It happens that I support both, but that is beside the point ; )
Which brings me back to Streep’s speech. Concluding a moving section of her speech, in which she pointed out the diversity of many of the A-listers in the room, “Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem” etc etc, and proceeding to finish with “If you remove the outsiders from Hollywood, all we’ll have left to watch is football and mixed martial arts, which is not an art” That last bit got me. What do Trump’s vile declarations and martial arts have in common? Absolutely nothing. This type of baseless correlation is intellectual dishonesty, and further serves to alienate. Some have even made the argument that this sort of identity politics has paved the way for Trump. Who is Meryl Streep to say that the dramatic arts, are more arty than the martial arts? (The word martial, stems from the latin mars, who of course is the god of war) Semantically speaking, they both have the a-word. Someone, somewhere along the line, recognized Kung-Fu as an art, and many have followed.
If one is to consult merriam-webster for a definition of art, one will come across the definition as such:
Definition of art
•1: skill acquired by experience, study, or observation <the art of making friends>
•3: an occupation requiring knowledge or skill <the art of organ building>
•4a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so producedb (1) : fine arts (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
•5a archaic : a skillful planb : the quality or state of being artful
•6: decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter
Nowhere here in the definition, from my observation, does acting out another persona, in front of a camera, appear. So, aside from a viewpoint arrived at by cultural-specific identity politics, acting, or speaking some lines into a lens while procuring huge monetary gains, is no more an art than a Zen Buddhist who practices archery solitarily for 20 years, perfecting the perfect shot. (I bring up the monetary aspect, because, many people regard artistic pursuits as unfruitful with regards to the cash payout. And the martial arts is an excellent example. Only a infinitesimal percentage of martial artists make a sustainable income from their practice, one might even say that it is more lucrative to be a musician than a martial artist. None the less, countless individuals pursue the martial arts as a form of self-discipline, internal meditation, personal expression and growth. Attributes that could equally be applied to wood carving, glass blowing, and classical guitar). None the less, I am of course very inclined to accept that the pursuit of drama quite clearly falls under any reasonable definition of art, despite the fact that Hollywood notoriously casts ‘artists’ based on superficial factors such as hair colour, breast shape, bicep size, and public popularity and visibility with absolutely no attention to their skill and craft. Although not involved in acting, I have taken grand inspiration from the dramatic arts. As a musician, Brando and Day-Lewis have, in their on-screen presence, informed my musical compositions to a higher degree than many musical colleagues. So, quite clearly, I have no objection to the art of drama. I am in fact a very avid admirer of the greats of the medium, and of course the medium itself. I am also a fan of Japanese archery. A beautiful art.
It is here where I break softly for a moment with Sam Harris, as he has stated that one’s life experience should not be valid in proving a reasoned argument as true. Although, I am sure he might slightly concede, that in a debate with such an abstract topic as what is art, it is difficult not to draw on one’s own personal experience.
I am a musician. My whole life, personally and professionally, revolves around music. However, before I was a musician, as a small child in heavily East-Asian populated Vancouver, I was fortunate enough to bounce through various Martial Arts. I attempted Karate (Japanese) classes at Douglas Park community centre, Tae Kwon Do (Korean) at Bayview elementary school, and Wu-Shu (Chinese) in UBC’s athletic complex, and kickboxing at Kelly’s on Hastings street. I never became particularly good, but I am an athletic body and enjoyed each experience immensely. I continued my enjoyment of these physical arts throughout my life, engaging with them through film, and actual sports events, such as boxing and Wu-Shu tournaments, as a spectator of course. Even though not fully engaged in the training aspect of martial arts at this time, I none the less quite clearly found parallels between the rigours of studying music at a high level, physical and mental, and that of the martial artist. I am clearly not the first to make this observation. One must only recall any number of Bruce Lee quotes, and then ask yourself, “who is the more effective artist? Streep or Lee?” While that kind of question is admittedly banal to some degree, it is difficult to make the case that Streep has had a more artful impact on global society than Lee. Of course not all martial artists are of Lee’s profound internal character, but regardless, Lee was a martial artist.
Approximately five years ago, on my relocation to Southeast Asia, to teach at a university, I decided to reignite my passion for martial arts by taking up Muay Thai, a discipline I’ve long admired. Curiously, I began under the tutelage of an Irishman named Richard while living in Malaysia. As anyone slightly familiar with the various styles will know, Muay Thai (prominently from Thailand but not exclusive to, as Cambodia and Myanmar have very similar styles) is one of the major, and widely accepted champions of physical combat arts. It is an extremely taxing, highly effective, and physically demanding discipline. As i began a re-emergence into the world of martial arts, specifically Muay Thai, my already formed ideas about the nature of its artistic merits became reinforced. As an adult, a professional musician and academic, I found the art of training 5 days a week at my local gym, indistinguishable from the hours spent in a practice room during my Montreal undergrad. If one is to refer again to the definition provided above, it is quite clear to see, that martial arts fulfill the majority of criteria. The points where it doesn’t, notably where the definition refers to an aesthetic object, could quite similarly be used in refutation that live music and theatre, poetry readings, and performance art along the lines of Maria Abramovic, equally are not art, as these mediums produce no physical object. But of course any rational person will dismiss the claim that live music or theatre is not art. As for Maria, well didn’t she just finish a MEGA show at MOMA a couple of years ago? So how does the personal development of physical movement differ? Dance, is quite clearly, by all accounts, an art form, I’m sure Meryl would not object, so does this mean that the difference between human movement being an art form or not, resides in how gently, or not, one human touches another? And could we not argue that the human form in motion is an aesthetic object? Countless are the times that I have marvelled at the movement of a combat artist as a sculpture in movement. A kinetic symphony. Simply watch the head dance of Anderson Silva,
…or the magic flow of Vasyl Lomachenko
I wonder if Streep has read the book Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel? What is her opinion on that? Streep seems in no position to argue the topic of what is art, but that isn’t a diss, not many of us are equipped, the discussion has been going on at least since the Greeks were talking about republics. The problem I have with Streep’s declaration is, and it is the subtext presented in Zen in the Art of Archery, the premise that, isn’t what you make, art? Regardless of medium. Shouldn’t we begin to all act like artists? The Beatles may have, while not specifically saying it, argued that making love is art. Isn’t art your personal stamp on an activity, your approach and engagement? Isn’t the noodle maker in Hong Kong, who uses the centuries old wooden plank method, isn’t he, as one of the last remaining individuals performing this beautiful ritual, an artist? Or is art reserved for a millionaire class with catering trucks, personal assistants, and 100 million $ budgets?
Isn’t what the world needs is, more art? Hasn’t it been said, somewhere, that if more of us were artists, the world would be a better place? To nurture this concept, I am quite sure that one could find studies that show that the more one is trained in combat, the less likely they are to be physically abusive. I am fortunate enough to be close friends with many professional Thai boxers, one man in particular, a dear friend, Ekapol Juke, a decorated champion, and now exalted coach, is clearly the poster boy for this concept. Quite possibly the most dangerous man I have ever met. he exudes a humility and joy, love and peace, while at the same time personifying the most lethal weapon. How can one deny that this is art, on a personal and spiritual level? His character, his consciousness an art form, formed with the tools procured through a lifetime dedicated to Muay Thai. (He has over 400 fights). A man, who has trained and cultivated a most dangerous and powerful external physical presence, at the highest level, has, in parallel developed a most peaceful and poetic response to the exterior world around him. Does this stark dichotomy, attention to detail, discipline, and craft not qualify as art? When I train with him, we dance, he pushes me like my jazz guitar teacher (coincidently, in Montreal, Roddy Elias, a very peaceful man, my musical mentor, was an avid Karate student) would in college. Pushing me to my limit, so that something new will emerge from inside of me. A new piece I didn’t know existed. A new solo. Juke also happens to be a passionate guitar player. The similarities are ubiquitous. Juke succinctly represents a feeling I get from a majority of Thais, where essentially, the sport of Muay Thai is an art, a game, filled with smiles and laughs. In the ring, it is stunningly vicious, but throughout the training, it revolves around relaxation, self expression, craft and skill acquired by experience. As hockey is to Canada, Muay Thai is to Thailand. It would seem, under Streep’s un-artful interpretation of martial arts, that a country with such a high percentage of absolute hand-to-hand warriors would be a most dangerous territory to set foot in. Quite the opposite, as anyone who has stepped foot in the land of smiles can attest to. Most westerners who visit Thailand in fact, arrive at the conclusion that it is a much more safe space than the countries from which they come. If we theorize on the fact that a significant portion of the population of Thailand possesses highly effective combat skills, you would expect more rumbles, yet, I see more bar-side brawls and assaults in Canada on a Saturday night, than I do in a month in Thailand. By a significant margin. Of course there could could be a number of factors, but it is hard to completely dismiss this curious point. Is it not a possibility that Muay Thai (martial arts) has in fact deepened and enriched an individual’s sense of violence in society? Or to put another way and paraphrase David Bowie: art is to create something, from inside of you, that if you can manifest, helps an individual make sense of, and interact, with the world around him.
To give Meryl Streep a shred of benefit-of-the-doubt, it could be argued that she was referring to the marketing and promotion of MMA, which clearly favours bad tattoos, tasteless pandering to over-the-top testosterone, extremely poor fashion decisions by many of its related companies (Affliction), and a visual and semiotic language of presentation that often panders to a sub-set of society that is admittedly not of the most savoury sort. It takes cues from the tacky WWE, except the UFC is real violence. It uses musical soundtracks that more often than not, lead one to re-live the post-grunge rot that evokes suburb gentrified pub brawling Americas (Canada doesn’t escape this). But if this is Streep’s objection, and her wording was curt, it seems to smell of a rather hypocritical stance, as the industry she belongs to, Hollywood, is quite clearly the master in peddling the marketing of death, destruction, sexism, and a bucket full of other objectionable, or at least delicate subject matter, as entertainment, or, art. Take for instance the trailer for a film about a man who championed his killing of 160 people, and the music that accompanies it. Glorious, building of emotional strings, pulling at us, helping us sympathize with a man who kept on signing up to take more headshots. As if 20 wasn’t good enough. We make a spectacle out of this? And we call it art? Nice one Streep. Your colleagues make movies about real life assassins, and put emotional heart wrenching sympathetic strings in there, but two individuals, with mutual respect testing their physicality in a combat dance is offensive to you? hmmm curious.
I’m not saying American Sniper isn’t art, but more that it sounds the alarm of an alarming unnoticed double standard on Streep’s part. So Eastwood’s movie is art, but two men or women, who develop a skill akin to dancing, and decide to test and present a unique expression of themselves, in a competition, this is no? Because it involves punches and kicks? The marketing of one is acceptable but the other not?
Finally, and most concernedly, and with a touch of the bizarre, Streep championed the diversity, the outsiders, the grand global mix of Hollywood. Without which, as she proclaimed to Trump, we would be left with nothing but MMA to watch. Is this not the same Hollywood, that for the past few years running has been plagued with charges of unequal payment for woman and racism at it’s most prestigious event (the academy awards). When was the last time I saw an Asian man or women as the headline star of a film? How about an Hispanic? Besides a couple of African-American mega stars, Will and Denzel, how often does a black man get to star in a film where his ‘blackness’ is not relevant to the subject? Where it’s just a story about a dude? Raceless. While he’s no Jon Stewart, here’s the darling Trevor Noah, with the Daily Show’s take on this subject.
Meryl, did you know that the UFC, (the leading promotion in MMA, not entirely of the best ethics, but that’s the business side, not the individual athletes) has an openly gay female foreigner as its world champion? And do you know how much of a stir that made? Approximately zero. In comparison, someone coming out in Hollywood is regarded as the big news of the year! Did you know that MMA is filled with Koreans, Arabs, Brazilians, Russians? Did you know that many of the athletes are from minority demographics, or totally foreign, often not speaking English at all. Yet totally accepted. It clearly is the case that MMA/boxing is far more diverse, and accepting of minorities, and outsiders than Hollywood. This is shocking that she didn’t catch herself on that. How many boxing gyms throughout poor neighbourhoods, globally, have shouldered the lives of underprivileged boys and girls and taught them respect and discipline, the sweet science and art of boxing. The list is too long to approach. How many gyms throughout the U.S. take in underprivileged youth to help them get a better start and steer them on a morally admirable path? In contrast, how many acting schools in Hollywood take in underprivileged kids, pro bono, to help them get a start in acting and make them stars, teaching them humility? How about empowering impoverished Muslim women in India?
Meryl can kick MMA all she wants, I’m sure it happened to boxing too back in the day. Thank god Muhammad Ali never listened to naysayers like Meryl, and kept fighting, in the ring, and for what he believed in. Because in the end, while Streep will be remembered for acting a famously awkward and adorable chef for 1,000,000$, and giving a nice speech against a man that practically the whole world hates, Ali will be remembered for losing all his money, refusing to go kill Vietnamese, being stripped of his accomplishments, and staying true to the ART of his life.
*the picture at the beginning of this article is of Ekapol Juke and his son.
EDIT: I thought I’d add a few extra words, as a pleasant number of people have engaged me in this discussion, and I thought, in hindsight, that possibly I diverted from my path, a little emotional, and veered into trying to ‘protect’ what I believe are arts, and should be treated with the same kind of dignity we reserve for a violin virtuoso. When really, my issue was with divisive politics.
My original instinct, when hearing Streep’s speech, was not a knee-jerk reflex to engage in a winner takes-all refutation of her definition of art. I really am not particularly concerned what a 70 year-old woman I’ve never met, and will never meet, whose artistic pursuits I view as rather normal, feels about what is, and what is not art. No disrespect intended, but it’s not like Meryl’s on the cutting edge of aesthetic discourse. And of course Meryl Streep doesn’t like martial arts! The betting line on the chances of Meryl cheering on Conor McGreggor’s powerful left hand, cage-side was pretty lopsided. So it wasn’t necessarily a what-is-art offence I took out of her speech, but more over, I felt, what seems to be an emerging perspective, that her tribalist stance, and her use of the arts, as a weapon to further her views, is a grand contributor to the muck we, the world, are finding ourselves in presently. I am fully aware, that art-as-a-wepon, has had its significant and highly admirable position in the course of human society’s evolution, but I think the defining point in the subject at hand, is that Meryl used art to divide, where as, the most beautiful, powerful, and effective uses of art as tool of change, have been when it’s emotional powers brings people together. It might be asked; when, ever, in human history, did someone declaring “this is not art” result in beneficial progress in society? Stalin told composers that their music was unsuitable (granted, he acknowledged I presume that it still was art, but not suitable under Soviet aesthetics, which similarly could be argued is what Meryl is saying. In effect, Martial ARTS is an art, it is just not suitable for my level of sophistication, and our tribe. Or at least something along those lines.). Rock and Roll was deemed not art by the boomer’s parents, Rap took some hits of not qualifying as art (or music) when I was listening to it in the early 90’s, and of course the Nazis deemed much material as not art, or “degenerate art”. Does everyone who listens to Penderecki’s violent Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, believe that is art? I suspect not. I believe some may call it noise. Will it do any good to avid admirers of the Polish master, like myself, to tell us that what we listen to is not art? What can that serve?
To summarize, I guess my primary issue is, why declare something “not art”? It immediately alienates, due to the monumentally complex, and very personal relationship people have with their art. If we can accept the statement that art is connected to an internal expression of one’s self, through acquired skill and learning, in the end, putting forth that internal character into the material world, is it not safe to assume that an attack on one’s art, is essentially an attack on the internal relationship a person holds with oneself? When thought about this way, this idea, seems like a most piercing event. Of course, I am not saying criticism is negative, of course everyone from a Hong Kong football player being ridiculed on the internet, to my guitar playing being called boring, to Coldplay labeled Radiohead-lite, is all a dig on a person’s art. It happens. But to declare something, within reason, not art, that appears to me as a step I am not willing to take. Nor do I believe should it be taken at all, for the futility, and regression, inherent in it, far out weighs any aesthetic forward leaps we may achieve. No matter how successful I become, no matter how many words of praise I will ever get issued in my career as an musician, it seems to always effect me when I am rejected for my audio-craft. Whether it is low attendance at a concert, or not obtaining a scoring contract for a film. But I am a professional and it comes with the territory so it is not a personal existential catastrophe by any means. For a moment however, let us imagine an individual, not a professional, say a casual practitioner of Martial Arts, whose only creative outlet, and source in an otherwise mundane life, is attending Brazilian Jujitsu classes 4 times a week. Then, to have celebrity power sprawling over the airwaves, lowering your practice to a sub-artistic pursuit, will, forgive the crudeness, but it will really piss you off. To reference Sam Harris again, I believe this issue in a way shares similarities with the much more, albeit complex and pressing, often-ugly, and volatile discussion of the place of religion, immigration and cultural appropriation in the world. It seems that today we are so quick to label people racists, and bigots, when quite naturally, any reasoned analysis of certain arguments will show that this is completely absurd and false. And seems only to serve the actual racists and unreasoned thinkers in providing them with ammunition. To be clear, I am not referring to Trump with any defence, who I believe he spouts nasty vitriol, and whether he is racist or not, is besides the point, as he most definitely empowers racism.
How this relates to the Streep speech, is in the way that it serves to alienate, piss off, and create an auto-reflex reaction from the people it throws under the bus. I am an excellent example. While I unashamedly hold practically every progressive, left-leaning, classical liberal perspective on the spectrum of ideas, I am as mentioned before, critical, and skeptical about religion’s service to the world, in the style of Dawkins, or John Lennon, or Harris. And by this one small, what I believe to be rational state-of-mind, I would have someone like Ben Affleck screaming at me in a roid-rage hissy fit as “racist and gross”. Which of course is absurd. Conversely, I have a close friend who I admire and respect dearly, who is an excellent human being and made of quality material. He is a citizen of the United States, and he believes strongly in his right to carry/possess arms. I am clearly of the opposing view point, however, never once for a moment have I questioned this man’s ethics or morals, and I would never subjugate him to a position of lesser standing in my eyes due to this one point. He is not of another tribe, though identity politics would say otherwise, no, he is a close friend, who I’ve motorcycled across Vietnam with, who just happens to hold an opinion I disagree with. Admittedly it’s a rather big opinion, but it doesn’t disqualify him from being my fellow human, my friend, and a good man, and our discussions on the hot topic provide insight and intellectual progression for both of us I presume. In contrast, Streep’s quip about Martial Arts, whether it was her intention or not, came across as serving to relegate, and associate, those who appreciate Martial Arts, as not in her club, and it would follow, supporters of Trump. You could keep on going down this slippery muddy slope. For example, if a practitioner of Muay Thai is not an artist, and not in her club, and therefore as the speech insinuated, a supporter of Trump, it’s only a few more un-reasoned, but not out-of-reach steps before you are leading people to believe that all Muay Thai trainers are racists. Which of course is a most ludicrous statement. Sorry Meryl, very irresponsible for someone with your platform.
I know it sounds a tad tripe So dear Ms. Streep, and probably Ms. Hilary too in a more subtle manner, as much as you tried, and with all your money and I suspect huge personal libraries, you seemed to have missed the chapter on regular people’s feelings, and how they will react. Because in the unification of a good, ethical, moral and harmonious landscape, shitting on someone’s art, has never really done the job.