The Usefulness of the Cup

For those of you who don’t know it, Bruce Lee was not just THE master of kung fu. He was also a great thinker. An indication of this is of course how he critically analysed classical or traditional martial art forms such as karate and kung fu and deconstructed them to create the belief-system, Jeet Kune Do. I like to think of Jeet Kune Do as a postmodern take on the traditional fighting styles.

BRUCE LEE – Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor












I remember finding karate really boring and stifling when I practised it as a teen. I lasted about a year and then left the dojo. But in my room and at the local gym,  I would continue to follow Bruce’s heuristic method of martial arts. This is the notion of self-knowledge through self-discovery.  Essentially the idea is to be able adapt to specific situations and opponents/attackers.  There are no katas or set moves, so there are no fixed stances as in classical martial art styles. Lee believed fixed stances and forms were rigid and had no place in martial arts. They are inflexible to change, and do not represent actual fighting situations. In Jeet Kune Do, drills are used that are fluid and alive and always changing. This is why I say that Lee’s thinking about martial arts was postmodern: it presents many solutions to many questions, and is never fixed.

Interception is the leading principal of  Jeet Kune Do. This is reflected in its name which means ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist.’ If you are merely blocking an attack it means you are at a disadvantage.  You are only reacting to the attack, reactive instead of being pro-active. It is better to simultaneously block and strike, or even better, to just hit first. The physical goal of Lee’s art is perpetual development of physical speed, timing, footwork, coordination and power.


In order to understand it, Lee advised emptying yourself. He uses an analogy to explain:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…” and so on. Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!” “Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

So for Lee the usefulness of the cup is its emptiness. As an artist this is a philosophy I ascribe to: as student, teacher and practitioner.  If you want to learn, first acknowledge you know nothing. Empty your cup. Then learn by allowing yourself to be filled from the source you have come to. After that you can take what you have learnt and make it your own and pass on what you have learnt. I still do this as a Masters student .  As the poet, Keats, once proclaimed:  My Imagination Is a Monastery and I am its Monk.

As a lecturer though, I warn my students not to get so focused on the tasks that the art degree sets them that they forget to experience the sheer joy of their journey: the joy of learning, of making, and of doing this with people who are like-minded. But I mostly remind them of their love of art and how it feels to express themselves visually.  Bruce Lee again illustrates this beautifully using the analogy of a finger pointing to the moon:

Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illuminates finger and all.

Go to Lee’s official site if you are interested in finding out more:

The reason learning has been on my mind recently is because I have been, over these past 3 months, hectically involved with university matters, both as student and as lecturer. It is quite a surreal experience to be both. You become very aware of the symbiotic relationship involved in the learning process. It is rarely a one way thing.

I recently had to attend a postgrad seminar as a requirement of my Masters degree. As I presented an overview of my dissertation to the university board a part of me reflected on my students’ experiences and what they must feel when facing my fellow lecturers and me.  Faced with the arduous task of attempting to make the connections between my theory and my art-making understandable to a group of professors and doctors, I felt a huge wave of empathy roll over me for my students. I have been in the fortunate position to have been the student, then the lecturer, and now both the student and lecturer. And isn’t that just how life should be?:  to be open to learning, to be willing to pass on knowledge, to share experience. Most important is to acknowledge when you do not know something.  Not knowing is OK. What is not OK is ignorance. Ignorance is you assuming you know more than you do. Prejudices and racism originate in ignorance. Be a better person than that.

So What?

So What?!


Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

OK, so here is probably the most uncomfortable lesson, art as an academic pursuit has presented me with: the “so what?” lesson. “So what?” is uncomfortable because it immediately makes you aware of the dissonance within your world and you cannot help but find yourself outside of your comfort zone. By dissonance I mean inconsistency between the beliefs one holds (or it could also be between one’s actions and one’s beliefs). Want an example? Loving (claiming to) animals so much yet they appear on your dinner table, that’s dissonance. How does “so what” create dissonance in the artistic world? Well, it says “yes, you can paint (draw, sculpt) well, but so what?” Painting is a technical facility, it is what you do with it that makes the difference. Decorating walls with paint techniques does not make you an artist, it makes you an interior decorator, and yet you are painting and have a technical facility. I might have a really sound understanding of the body because I did biology at school but it does not make me a doctor. There is a huge amount of dedication, effort, sacrifice and training that goes into becoming a doctor, and similarly in becoming a fine artist or visual artist. “So what?” asks what are you are willing to do for your art, it asks for sacrifice. So you love animals? Well, stop eating them then. Get the idea? “So what?” asks for moving beyond the mere application of paint in an effort to represent what you see or what you wish to “pretty”. It wants you to think, to feel, to be…it wants you to question everything, to remake everything, to see everything for the first time. It wants you to get the hell out of your comfort zone!




Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

The first time a lecturer used the “so what?” statement/question it figuratively stopped me in my tracks and changed the entire way I view and consider art forever. Not just art though, but also the world. This is what a lot of artists entering academia find extremely uncomfortable which is good because…well, you know, the whole “comfort zone” thing. Unfortunately, because of this discomfort many drop out, most in their first year of studies. I have experienced this both as student and lecturer. I usually start a new year with a group of about 40 1st year students. By the end of the year I am lucky if I have 10 progressing through to second year. By their final year the group will consist of no more than 4 students. In my final year I was the only one of my group to qualify. This is not because I am some artistic genius but simply because I embraced the “so what?” statement/question and the accompanying being out of my comfort zone.




Above: self-portrait (a couple of hours before the performance).

Ask yourself that question, you will be amazed at the effect it has. Ask “so what?” and see if you can answer. Then see if the answer is one you can live with. And to live for art, as one of my most favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson, says, is to live a life of questioning.