Art of the Work
In professional wrestling, kayfabe /ˈkeɪfeɪb/ (also called work or worked), as a noun, is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true”, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged.
The older I get, the more I see everything as a work.
When I was a kid, my grandmother and I watched professional wrestling together on Saturday nights. I was maybe 11 or 12. I loved it, but, even at that age, something about it seemed fishy. But my grandmother believed it was real.
My grandmother died and a few years later I met the guy who would become my best friend. We both loved comic books and horror films and heavy metal and professional wrestling. I started going to his house to watch wresting with him and his uncle and his grandmother every Saturday night. Just like my grandmother, his grandmother believed wrestling was real too.
These were not just stupid, old women. So why, then, did they believe when there was so much evidence right there on the screen – right there before their eyes – that wrestling was mostly, if not entirely, a work?
I think they believed because they wanted to believe. And the presentation – the work – of wrestling mimicking something real was absolutely essential to their “marking out.”
Mark a slang term that describes a fan who believes that the characters and events of some or all of professional wrestling are real. The term can also be applied to a fan who idolizes a particular wrestler, promotion, or style of wrestling to a point some might consider excessive.
My grandmother believed because she wanted to believe. And the presentation, though silly, took itself seriously enough to allow her to believe. Not unlike Planet of the Apes – with the idea of talking apes an absurdity – but as long as it’s presented well enough, we engage. And remain pleasantly, narcotically, engaged – maybe even enraptured? – for the length of the film. We know the premise is silly, but we engage. And, most likely, will willingly submit to more of the escape in the next installment of the story so long as its presentation – in its seriousness – keeps up pleasantly engaged in the fantasy.
Why did our grandmothers want to believe? And what, exactly, was so engaging? Perhaps it was the conflicts. We’re drawn to the drama in conflicts. And for some people, the simpler and clearer the conflicts, the better. Perhaps it was the relative blacks and whites of good guys (babyfaces) versus villains (heels). We love that shit. We love that shit so much, it can be seen everywhere.
Religion makes us marks. Politics makes us marks. Art makes us marks. They all take themselves seriously enough that they allow us to believe. Just like wrestling, they engage us with simple contrasts and take themselves seriously enough that, in the engagement, we willingly submit to their acts. We submit, willingly and willfully, to our suspensions of disbelief.
And the beauty of the acts of politics, religion and art are they exploit the same playbook of clear divisions as in wrestling. Divisions between divinity and evil that we willingly and willfully accept, so long as we lack the sophistication or will to fully comprehend the work. Or we’re too lazy or afraid to accept it as a work we know it is. Divisions between a visionary artist or master and an amateur or hack. Divisions between the politically righteous and unrighteous. Divisions between the All-American boy and some nasty, cheating foreigner. It’s all the artform of the work.
People want to believe in a higher purpose or a higher power. So they believe. People want to believe their government works (or has the potential to work) in their interest. So they believe. People want to believe that values and qualities in art are objective. So they believe. They want to believe in the metaphysical. So they believe.
They believe in God and Satan, just like our grandmothers believed in babyfaces and heels. They buy into the good and evil of their political divisions of left and right. They buy the words of the critics telling them what good and bad art is. We love the conflict between a noble Hulk Hogan versus a jealous Macho Man. We love Batman versus Joker. Virtuous apes versus destructive humans. Archangels versus demons. We love – perhaps even need – heroes who can’t be heroes without their villains.
But it’s all a work. And a work that’s not necessarily bad if believing in professional wrestling keeps you on the couch on Saturday night instead of out broke, shitfaced and philandering at the bar and driving home pickled and skunked. So professional wrestling might not be a bad alternative for the guy that doesn’t have it in him to write the next War and Peace or even next Sunday’s sermon. And if a belief in the legitimacy of a front wristlock or the Boston crab keeps us distracted from the beliefs that once led us to stoning or gassing folks, then so be it.
There’s how you’re supposed to feel about your children or parents or brother and sister. And there’s how you really feel, often with justification. How you’re supposed to feel is the work, the work most everyone accepts.
There’s the value of honesty. There’s work ethic. There’s the working man’s values. But middle-class or working-class values are a work. We know that cause nearly everybody fucking hates labor but the work of the ethic makes it feel more worthwhile. We pretend. We buy into the work of the virtue in an honest day’s labor, which is real sometimes or, at a minimum, far better than a dishonest day’s labor. But, because there’s little else to exalt, as a virtue compared to opposite, we exalt something like our labor as a prime virtue.
Our grandmothers wanted to believe professional wrestling was real. They were marks. And we are marks too. Marks for religion and politics and art. Marks for values that change with the seasons. We are marks because we want to believe too. We need to believe. We need to believe in structures, otherwise, there is no structure. And without structure, what is there? So we accept ideologies like our grandmothers accepted professional wrestling – believing because we want or need to believe because, without ideology, what the fuck is there?
We need our system of authority and their structures and mechanisms that work for us but also work us. There’s only so much silliness and lies we can accept before we can no longer buy into the trick. Our religions must pretend for us. Our governments must pretend for us. The gatekeepers of the arts and the artists they create must pretend for us. And we pretend along with them, so long as the holes in the plot and storylines aren’t so gaping as to take us out of our suspension of disbelief. The amalgamation of our ideologies are the movie of our lives with us as theatergoers. Our ideologies – the movie up on the screen – engaging us, enchanting us like Gone with the Wind. When done well, we slip out of a reality that would otherwise keep us keenly aware that what we’re engaged with is all a bunch of make-believe bullshit.
The work of wrestling, when done properly, allows us to accept what we know isn’t true or real. That is its power. That is its magic. It is the same power of churches and politicians and artists and metaphysicians.
You can love or hate the work. Or realize it deserves something between our love and hate, since it is the work that keeps most of us going.