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Sunday 29 March 2009

A Touch of Puritanism

Oliver Cromwell's death mask at Warwick Castle.Image via Wikipedia

Puritanism as defined by most dictionaries and encyclopaedias was the sixteenth century English religious movement that sought to further reform the Protestant Church of England, so that it would be stripped of what followers saw as the old trappings of the Catholic Church. The main thrust of the movement was to get rid of the old hierarchy and all the pomp associated with it, which Puritans saw as the corruption of their faith. This serves as a good analogy with various other movements throughout history and into the modern day. I am a martial arts teacher and writer and have seen the urge to value basics and preserve principles to be a regular urge that prompts our self-defence community.
Therefore when I use the term puritan or puritanical I don’t just think of the term in a direct religious or moral sense, but as a method different groups have applied in order get back to the basics of their particular philosophy or art. I am not alone in this analogy as the 2000 collection of short stories, “All Hail the New Puritans” demonstrates. Part of its attraction is the apparent honesty in its approach and also the clarity it provides. There is an attraction and even a feeling of logical necessity to take a puritanical approach. However, there is also danger in getting caught up in the dogma of Puritanism.

The ancient Chinese discipline of Feng Shui is a prime example of a method that has some good honest principles and some sound advice, but unfortunately the dogma of this art has often allowed it to descend into superstition and make unverified claims. First of all it deals with getting rid of physical and emotional clutter. This sounds like a good rule. We dispense with what we do not need or are not going to use. This is analogous with our relationships with people. There is no point in allowing negative people who sap your time and energies to occupy your time or influence your outlook on life. Then there are rules about not having your chair backed to a door. Many a nightclub doorman or self-defence instructor will back that one up. Okay, so far so much spring cleaning, good time management skills and sound self-protection advice. Now we come to the stuff about certain colours and images being unhealthy in your household or the direction they are pointed. I don’t like the idea of “oppressive” colours in my home and I recently took all my true crime books out of my bedroom – too many of them feature photos of notorious killers grinning at you from the book spine. This is just an aesthetic preference. Despite what some claim, Feng Shui is not an “exact science” and a great deal of it smacks of superstition. However, as I have pointed out, the general principles are very sensible and worth studying. I can appreciate Feng Shui on a base and metaphorical level, but never as a science.

The religious Puritan Movement saw corruption in the Christian religion. It saw it in the excessive hierarchy and in all the ceremony that surrounded the Catholic Church, so it strove to remove all the remnants of this religion from the Church of England. The peak of its success was in its winning of the English Civil War with the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell being made dictator. A new system of government would be installed that would shape the future of democracy, but for the meantime the Puritan law would be enforced. This would see the banning of virtually all forms of entertainment, dancing and even Christmas, despite its Christian connection. Meanwhile the government would not survive. They were torn apart by internal factional disputes between different types of Puritan. It was a cult of personality and once Cromwell died it would fall apart only to be replaced by the return of the monarchy with Charles II echoing in an age of decadence that was virtually the antithesis of Protestant Puritanism. And yet the prudishness and conservatism of Puritan moral values would re-emerge, at least on the surface, during the Victorian age and the urge to scale down the grandiose and the ostentatious would begin in the Edwardian era. By this time, however, the Modernist movement was already beginning to gather steam.

The architecture of the Modernist movement was celebrated in Ayn Rand’s famous novel “The Fountainhead”, which introduced the world to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. From Modernism emerged another movement, which perhaps best describes the visual expression of all these movements and concepts: the Minimalist movement. This began to emerge after World War II and peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today we often see Minimalism being applied in interior design and decorating as a type of non-spiritual version of Feng Shui. It has also found its way into various forms of music, most recently in the simple 4/4 beats of Minimal Techno. In 1995 a new independent cinematic movement began known as Dogme 1995 (Dogma 1995). As with the Modernist movement, the thought behind Dogme directors and writers was to create a stripped down version of their art with strict guidelines designed to eschew various gimmicks and techniques in order to focus more on the film’s storyline and the actors’ performances. Inspired by Dogme 95, came the aforementioned New Puritans, a group of writers who wrote short stories according to a strict manifesto designed to promote the straightforward and linear narrative form without any so-called grammatical or storytelling gimmickry.

The Dogme 95 film-making movement was quite clear about its own dogmatic attitude from the very beginning, as can be seen in the title chosen. It created a clear-cut and Spartan manifesto that reflected reality and not expressionism. This is in line with the objectives of the Realist movement. However, the very failure for most Dogme directors to strictly conform to the so-called “Vow of Chasity” manifesto (the rules that govern making a Dogme film) exposes a vital flaw in Puritanism in general. Whereas the art of restriction can clearly develop artists of all forms and focus them on a project, too much restriction can actually stem creativity. Furthermore, some times when we strip back too much we actually fall into the trap of forgetting the original idea or objective. We get caught up in all the abstinence and in line with our inquisitive and creative human nature we re-interpret the rules. Sometimes - and this all too often seen in religion - we warp the rules and cherry pick the rules to conform to our own feelings of insecurity or desires for power.

Minimalism and Modernism are not to everyone’s liking or necessarily proof of a higher or a truer art. I was never completely drawn to the aesthetics of Minimalism just as I wasn’t attracted to the ideas behind religious Puritanism. Minimalism can present us with a fresh outlook. At its base we have a clear approach to keeping everything simple and to keep everything down to a bare minimum. We know that organization and simplicity are at the core of any efficient mechanism from a well constructed engine to a successful business. And yet humans are individuals by nature. Our so-called “herd instinct” can often be attributed to lazy or unconfident thinking, which can be overcome by our ability to choose, an ability that has intrigued philosophers and spiritual leaders probably since civilisation began. One thing is for sure, as much as we naturally seek patterns, humans are forever producing exceptions to the rule and history shows us that single individuals are responsible for initiating some of our greatest changes.

Ayn Rand argued that there was a strong connection between Minimalism (in the form of Modernism) and the individuality - in fact she saw this particular movement as the natural artistic expression of the individualist. Nevertheless Minimalism’s greatest criticism has been in its sterile look. How can one compare see the physical embodiment of the chaotic thought processes of a truly voracious creative thinker with his numerous references, abstract influences and dozens of new ideas in the form of featureless walls and sparse furnishings. Perhaps it reflects the discipline we aspire to that will focus our ideas and keep us working at what every project we need to complete, but then one has to ask why was this type of interior decoration was the one favoured by the yuppies of the 1980s? I can say that I have yet to enter the household of someone who I value as a creative thinker or as a serious artist whose interior followed completely down the dogmatic lines of Minimalism. .

Modernism often gets it in the neck over being pretentious. Never has the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” been applied so regularly in modern times than to the Modernist or Modern Art movement. Yet the intentions of the movement are virtually integrity incarnate. Again, Ayn Rand saw this in the Modernist movement. Modernists create for today rather then feeling they have to recreate the past. Rand liked the confidence of the Modernist innovators – their sheer audacity to challenge the neo-classical movements that inferred you could not better the movements of the past. Rather than evolving from any other movement, Modernists aimed to break completely with the old school and to use their innovation to create a truly contemporary product. Unlike the other Puritan movements, Modernism has little strict dogma to stick to other than to be original. This is a tough enough rule to follow and in principle it sounds very admirable, but there is a decisive downside. Modernisms lack of conformity makes the whole process very subjective, and without any set structure or obvious contrast it is the most vulnerable to charlatans and the delusional. There are plenty of comedic sketches based on the pretensions and the ignorant pomposity that all too often surrounds bad pieces of Modernist art. The Tony Hancock film, “The Rebel”, is a perfect example of this type of satire.

Even before we had the Modernist Movement there was the Realist Movement in art, which is probably more in line with the martial arts Puritanism I have come across so often. My two passions are writing and martial arts. Seeing as I am using writing to convey my argument I guess martial arts should get the lion’s share of my own personal observations. In the world of martial arts there have been regular eras when different martial arts disciplines have been challenged by their students regarding the arts effectiveness. Arguments have ranged from either the art being antiquated and therefore not relevant for today or that the art has strayed so far from its root that its original intention has become obscured.
My own approach to martial arts was to teach a process that would allow people to develop as individuals. For this reason, I can see the benefits of taking a puritanical approach, but this cannot prohibit the individual from making their choices and decisions, and learning from their own experiences. I do not pretend that CCMA is a wholly scientific approach, but by being a sceptic I can at least put in measures that I hope will prevent it from becoming steeped in dogma. My humble manifesto does not have a long list of stringent rules any more than it has a list of set techniques. It is a principle centred approach, but even before principles I emphasise the importance of common sense, which makes sure that everything starts, where it will end, with the individual.

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