The second morpheme of “jiu-jitsu” (or jujutsu in the updated spelling) is known to signify something like “art,” or “skill, technique, means, method,” or, even “spell.” Nearly everyone prefers “art,” as the arte suave Portuguese translation of gentle art points out.
An art may refer to the expression (written, performative, or through the use of other media such as paints, clay) of a particular self. An art may refer to a particular way of reflecting life itself in the chosen medium. An art may also be a type of knowledge – a type of way of knowing and experiencing the world, the self, and everything in it through your art. Finally, and most importantly, one may say that an art is a particular set of human practices which form the particular art. The focus being here on not just the produced “work of art,” but also to the set of things we do with it, like placing it in high esteem, cataloguing it, teaching it, creating courses around it, as opposed to ignoring it or treating it with contempt (think of the difference between the same image being painted on a piece of canvas vs. the side of a building; or the same music being played in a symphony hall vs a subway station).
To think of Brazilian jiu-jitsu as an art is to specify it within the performative category under which all other martial arts fall. To be up for evaluation (ranking) within the art means that you are moving your body in particularly specific ways that distinguish it from a) normal human movement, and b) other forms of structured human movement (whether they be basketball or aikido). Each person can have their own unique “style” that individuates their practice of the art but the art itself is an art because of its difference from other arts.
The art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is first and foremost defined by its emphasis on ground movement. While any common person may be able to take a wild swing to knock someone out, that same common person will not have the slightest clue in moving their body to perform a particular escape, a pin, or a submission. Brute strength will only take that person so far. Jiu-jitsu’s brilliance is the elimination of the sheer advantage of strength and size in a combat/self-defense situation by placing the fight on the ground. This re-placement or re-setting of the fight is akin to a good swimmer taking an attacker and putting him in a swimming pool. You could be bigger and stronger by a number of degrees but you are in trouble because you haven’t learned how to swim.
The art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, then, is the reorientation of one’s body and the fight to the place where one has the most advantage – that is leverage. When two jiu-jitsukas spar, it is watching two bodies move to better positions and from that position to a better position until one finds oneself positioning your opponent’s neck around your arms or a pinning a joint and stretching it to the breakpoint. An analogy that is often used for jiu-jitsu is chess, where repositioning and foresight, and setting traps through fake moves, are the key to winning.
The sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu rewards these small moves within a match by assigning points and advantages to grapplers as they head toward a submission within a given time-frame. So a match will look like other sports at the end (i.e. X wins 5-3). Some “submission-only” tournaments, however, eschew the points and time system altogether, or rather, there is only one point you can achieve, and you achieve it when the other submits to you. All matches there end 1-0, so to speak. I say this to emphasize that even submission-only tournaments are like other sports, that is, even in a martial art as reality based as Brazilian jiu-jitsu is, that reality is reorganized in a way to eliminate a victory occurring by actually breaking someone’s arm or putting them unconscious with a choke.
One way to think of the application of the art of jiu-jitsu off the mats is to think about jiu-jitsu’s first principle “jiu,” as I wrote about already, meaning a gentle or flexible approach to things. Another way to think of the application is through the art of it itself: the brilliant way jiu-jitsu teaches you to reorient oneself to the place where you have the most advantage.
The art of jiu-jitsu is a brilliant enhanced awareness of the body and how that body moves with and against the environment and other bodies.