No, MMA Is Not Art (Despite Its Name)

FARGO — Those who profit from mixed martial arts fighting are happy to blow up a throwaway line by Meryl Streep into fake indignation and phony outrage. It is good publicity. Gets people talking. And, hey, this is America in the Donald Trump era. We’re doing fake indignation and phony outrage better than anybody in history.

What those who are griping about Streep are missing, however, is that the actress — while trying to make a much larger point about a much more important subject — was correct. It doesn’t mean she was insulting MMA fighting, or that she even cares about it (she probably doesn’t). It just means she was right.

While giving a brief acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night, Streep used the platform to comment on the diversity (home states, home countries, disparate backgrounds) of actors. Her point was clearly to take a shot at Trump and his supporters who view outsiders as suspicious, but also to point out the need for actors to provide art.

“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts,” Streep said before moving on to a more in-depth lambasting of Trump, without actually naming him.

At last check, the National Football League has not weighed in Streep’s analysis that the most popular sport in America is not art. Apparently Roger Goodell doesn’t care, as long as the money keeps rolling in.

The good folks who support MMA fighting, though, they are outraged. Or at least they are feigning outrage. Never let a good crisis go to waste, and all that jazz.

Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, ripped Streep as “an uppity, 80-year-old woman.” Streep is actually an uppity, 67-year-old woman, but you get White’s point.

“If you really look at who follows the UFC and is into mixed martial arts, it’s everybody,” White told TMZ. “I don’t expect an 80-year old woman (there he goes again) to be a big fan of mixed martial arts and listen, everybody’s into whatever (they’re into). I’m not a big fan of golf. It doesn’t mean people should stop watching it. If you don’t like it, change the channel.”

Scott Coker of Bellator MMA wrote an open letter to Streep that he posted to Twitter that read, in part, “The global sport of mixed martial arts celebrates male and female athletes from all around the world who work tirelessly honing their craft and — yes — art. They come from every country and every walk of life. We at Bellator support them and honor their skill.”

What we have going on here is, mostly, not so much a defense of MMA as an artistic endeavor, but a defense of MMA … period. It’s a predictable push-back when a “Hollywood elite,” in Republican terms, chooses to use popular Middle America sports as examples of something that is not artsy. Streep spent literally 2 seconds referring to MMA and somehow conservatives and MMA backers have turned her remark into an assault on the very sport itself.

It was not. It was an accurate description of football and MMA.

They are not art. They are sports.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Sports are great. Sports at their highest levels require athleticism, skill, balance, speed, flexibility, drive, discipline, passion, competitiveness, intelligence and a hundred other attributes.

But that doesn’t make them art.

Some quick Google definitions:

Sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Art: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Mixed martial arts fighting, by the book, would clearly not be art. It’s sport — two people getting in a cage and using their combat skills to determine a winner, meant to entertain people.

Here’s where MMA supporters take exception, including local fighter Jos Eichelberger, who called my 970 WDAY show Monday morning when the topic came up. They’ll tell you that mixed martial arts, by definition, is art. It’s in the name. Martial ARTS.

That is true, to a point. The martial arts like judo, karate, jujitsu, tae kwon do and tai chi — individually — have to be viewed as artistic. These are centuries old disciplines that, in some cases, are more about humility, attitude and precision than athleticism and combat.

But when you jumble a bunch of them together and package them as MMA fights — two people in a cage trying to knock each other into oblivion for the purposes of entertainment and money, using pretty much whatever means necessary — it ceases to be art. It becomes a combat sport. A brutal, often bloody, combat sport.

And that’s OK. MMA fighters are clearly highly-conditioned, disciplined athletes. It is clearly a very popular sport with legions of followers. Somebody, or many people, are making big money off MMA fights. If this is what people choose to do with their skills and what fans choose to do with their time and money, that is their business.

But that doesn’t make it art and the MMA community shouldn’t get upset with Streep (or anybody else) for saying so.

Believe it or not, I found a local MMA supporter to agree with me. Sort of. That would be Rob Sell of Absaraka, a board member of the North Dakota Commission of Combative Sports.

“Individually, pure jujitsu is an art form. It’s crazy to see what people can do. Pure boxing is an art form,” Sell said. “I can go either way with what (Streep) said. I wasn’t outraged when I heard about it. The very first MMA event I went to, I walked out saying ‘I feel like I left the Coliseum and Rome was crumbling around me.’ But I think it has evolved into less of a blood sport now and more of a mainstream, more acceptable sport.”

The executive director of The Arts Partnership in Fargo has an open mind when it comes to MMA fighting. Dayna Del Val said for her, personally, MMA fighting is not art. But …

“If art is only for the white wine and strawberries crowd, then it probably isn’t art,” she said. “But I tend to look at art in a broader sense and some might see what the fighters do as art. Art is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, you could say it’s in the bloodied, black-and-blue eye of the beholder … but you could look at it as being the very highest level of performance art.”

I believe that is a stretch. There are certainly artistic elements to any athletic endeavor. But MMA fighting isn’t art. It’s fighting. It’s at times brutality. The fans who attend matches or are shelling out big bucks for pay-per-view are not watching for the artistic qualities of the fighters or the individual disciplines. They are watching to see two people beat the hell out of each other, or one twist the other into submission. They want to see a winner and a loser.

It’s sports. It’s entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But let’s call it what it is.