In case you weren’t aware, there is a small but dedicated bastion of pro wrestling fans among the ranks of Chroma Collective. And I don’t mean the “liked Hulk Hogan and Sting in the 90s and still remember it fondly” kind of fans. No, I mean “has a subscription to the WWE Network and watches Raw every week” kind of fan.
I say this so that provide context to the following statement: last night was WWE’s Clash of Champions, the night when every championship in the company is challenged (it was delightful, thanks for asking).
One of these champions is the Japanese “King of Strong Style,” Shinsuke Nakamura. Recently, he’s paired up with another wrestler who has taken on the role of his manager/spokesman, who constantly acclaims Shinsuke as “a great artist, a delicate genius.”
And while it might not seem like a bunch of muscle-bound tough guys (and girls—the women’s division is on fire these days) slamming eachother through tables might not seem like the most artistic thing in the world, as a fan, I gotta tell ya—I get it.
Let me get the obvious objections out of the way: yes, pro wrestling is scripted. Yes, all of the moves are performed in cooperation with one another. No, there’s no way to fake falling through a table from fifteen feet or getting superplexed off of the top rope.
That said, there is an absolute art to what they are doing.
Beyond the obvious skill it takes to pull off some of those stunts in a way that looks devastating but avoids paralysis, every match tells a story—or at least every good match does. Pro wrestling is a melodrama, and like all melodrama, it is driven by character work. Watching two individuals put on a match with excellent technical skill is entertaining, but if there are no emotional stakes, it doesn’t keep the crowd’s interest for long. On the other hand, if they can manipulate the crowd’s emotions to cheer one gladiator and boo another, it leads to a much more entertaining experience.
This sort of crowd working is old hat in wrestling. There’s a whole playbook of Babyface (good guy) and Heel (bad guy) tropes that are still being used today. Some of which are a little boring. Others are tried, true, and still rewarding (like when a long-time babyface takes a chair to another face out of nowhere).
Then, you have brilliant permutations of those tropes that are shocking and titillating. I think of Bray Wyatt, a wrestler who once ran a terrifying hillbilly cult who is now the squeaky clean host of a demented kids show (think a horror movie version of Steve from Blues Clues) with a schizoid personality. As Bray Wyatt, he is cheerful, friendly, and funny. When he dons a clown mask and becomes The Fiend, he is a terrifying villain. He regularly interrupts matches by cutting the power to the stadium, then appearing in the ring with another wrestler in his clutches. But for all of the Fiend’s horror movie cliches, Bray plays the darker side of his personality as a tortured soul, constantly tormented by the conscience of his friendlier counterpart. He’ll destroy another fighter, then clutch his head in metaphysical pain.
For all of the mindless entertainment, the artistry is obvious there once you find it. And it’s made me realize that art isn’t just in “the arts.” Pro wrestling could be considered a sport for all of the athleticism required, but these are performers. This is theater.
But once you know where to look for it, art is everywhere. I think of skateboarding, my other juvenile passion behind pro wrestling and punk rock. There are skateboarders who extend the boundaries of what is possible with a skateboard with an imagination that can only be described as genius. I think of the Z-Boys who looked at an empty swimming pool and saw a halfpipe. I think of skaters like Ray Barbee and Rodney Mullen who used four wheels and a piece of wood as a canvas for great Michelangelan masterpieces.
And if you look deeper, you can find this artistry everywhere: artists designed our homes, our clothes, and our skylines. An artist sought the right combination of ingredients to make your lunch (even if that artist was you!). An artist created the car you drive, another artist designed an engine that operates as efficiently as possible, and yet another artist poured the concrete of the street you drive it down. Artists wrote the code that built the operating system you’re accessing this blog through.
Whatever task there is to be done, whether that’s construction, sermonizing, songwriting, or even pro wrestling, you can be sure that there are individuals who use that medium as their art of choice; great masters who look upon an empty lot or a blank computer screen or an empty pool or a wrestling ring as a blank canvas upon which to paint their masterpiece.
So go. Make your art, wherever you are, with whatever you do.