No Gimmick Required

Is Wrestling Art?

by Raywat Deonandan
September 9, 2002

This column is a regular feature on It is reproduced here with the author's permission.

"Welcome to the dark side, my son." -Eric S.

Thanks, Dad!

Well, wow. What can I say? Due to Joshua Grutman scolding the readership, my last column got so much feedback, it took me weeks to respond to everyone! Really, I wasn’t fishing for email. I already get enough offers to join porn sites, try Viagra alternatives and to buy Nigerian diamonds as it is. But I do appreciate the support. Honestly. What does all the mail mean for this column? A readers’ mail edition..... next week.

But before I get to today’s topic, there are a few email tidbits I need to address. First from Squire Grutman himself: "Raywat Deonandan has one of the coolest names in the history of cool names." The sentiment was echoed by a reader named Mark A. Thank you both. The name is great for buying stuff over the phone, where I must spell it out 12 or 13 times. And it rhymes with nothing. (No, "gaywat" is not a word.)

However, even before Mr. Grutman’s kindness, Zachary R. wrote, "WHAT THE HELL KIND OF NAME [is] RAYWAT?!?!?!Are your parents on crack or something?" I informed Zachary of something all scholars should be aware: "Raywat" is Sanskrit for "sex god with an 18-inch shlong." Yes, "shlong" is a Sanskrit word. Are you listening, Alyson Hannigan?

Now, it’s not my policy to advertise the idiocy of some readers, since who knows what sorts of mental and hygienic challenges they face. But this one was irresistible. A fellow named Hobbs wished to comment on my Alyson Hannigan fixation. I present his letter unedited:

"so your the toher person in the is world obsesed with miss hanigain but i tell you this i live in la and im an actor so i have a better chance of meating her then you so yeah for me wahhh haaa haaaa wahhh haaaa haaaa."

I tried to respond in confidence, but my email to him kept getting bounced back. So in this public forum, Mr. Hobbs, I say to you good luck and God speed. If I can’t have her, I hope you fare well in your romantic pursuit of the delightful Ms. H. But I really doubt that she’s into 10 year olds or retards.

Despite readers giving me many good ideas for new columns --keep sending them!-- today I’m actually going to address something I read in Scott Keith’s mailbag, which has nothing to do with me. A reader had asked Mr. Keith:

"One reason why wrestling may never be respected as an art is because it doesn't really say anything. All other forms of art can be both entertaining and have a message. Watching a wrestling match can be entertaining but it usually doesn't make you feel like you've learned something. This might seem like a stupid question, but has there ever been a wrestling match where you felt like you actually gained something by watching it."

To his credit, the Netcop gave a pretty good answer. You can look it up yourself. I’m going to throw in my two cents, though, since this letter alludes to a larger question.... what is art?

This is a question that has perplexed scholars ever since the institution of a formal academy, wherein pointless questions could be posed. One of the best cited explorations of this question is a 1896 essay by novelist Leo Tolstoy. He said, "[art is] one of the means of intercourse between man and man." Tolstoy goes on to say that a work of art compels a kind of relationship between the artist and audience, whereby an impression is conveyed.

In this sense, art is a form of communication. Where it diverges from standard media, however, is in the amorphousness of the message and in the acceptability of unintended consequences. A medium, like a TV broadcast, is meant to communicate a datum from one party to another. The quality and integrity of that datum is expected to be conserved in the transmission. In art, however, there is rarely the condition that the audience must perceive the same impression that the artist intended to convey. Rather, art allows for an audience member to receive that impression in whatever form, construct, potency or relevance he chooses. Hence, a powerful novel or painting can mean different things to many people and still fulfill the creator’s goal of conveying an impression.

Today, artists often don’t conceptualize a message before transmitting it. "Performance artists", a group to which wrestlers can claim membership, convey a disembodied and unspeakable content through movement, inflection and a host of other actions not traditionally held to be communicative. In Tolstoy’s words, "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art."

Tolstoy correctly identifies emotion as the conduit of this transmission. Herein lies the strength of wrestling’s claim to artistry. A truly artistic professional wrestling match --unlike a genuine sporting activity, which is not scripted and intended, but is rather a fortunate confluence of emotions-- brings us to our feet. It nudges us along a sine wave of emotional pits and highs. If this were all wrestling has to offer, it would, by Tolstoy’s definition, qualify as art.

But wrestling has more. In addition to the heart and feeling of a well called match, the genre of pro wrestling offers story and allegory: scripted conflict that serves as the backdrop for the aforementioned emotional operation. Themes and elements that have been discussed previously in this column --redemption, charisma, character and chemistry-- enter the fray to give form and reason to the emotion that will be conveyed in the eventual match.

Tolstoy makes an important delineation: "[art] is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs." By this, he means that a performer’s pleading postures or facial anguish, in and of themselves, do not qualify as artistic. Rather, it is the full product that must compel feeling, and thence artistry. In this sense, a good wrestling feud, built with care and drawn to a proper climax, is more artistic than a thousand overwrought novels, a typical prime time evening on the WB, or any boy-band musical performance.

Tolstoy: "Thanks to man's capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him." Through wrestling’s art, we can live as heroes and villains, redeemers and redeemed, lovers and beloved, warriors and giants. That’s a pretty good deal for something we get on free TV.

I’m Ray Deonandan, and you can find me at