The Artist and the Importance of Tradition

With the still strong notion of being new and surprising at all costs, many a contemporary artist may find it uncomfortable tackling the problem of how to handle tradition. Throw it out of the window? Embrace it? In this post we’ll consider several aspects.

Turner Prize 2018

In 2018, I had the pleasure of being asked to visit the Tate Britain on the opening day for that year’s Turner Prize to write a review. While not new to thinking and writing about art at that point, I was still in my early days as a critic, and thereby unsure what sort of approach I should take. Should I be generous because the contestants were young artists? Be brutally honest? Evaluate their applicability to current events?

What I ended up doing didn’t really matter in the long run, for what I got to see there wasn’t art in the traditional sense. Of course, you may wonder what art in the traditional sense means, but in this case it refers simply to the fact that there wasn’t a single sculpture, painting, not even some form of craft. Instead, all four entries were films. Long, slow, drawn-out films, essentially in the same style, just reflecting on different events.

Aside from the fact that this style of film is so old that it was parodied by Monty Python many years ago, it clearly shows that there is a strong disregard for tradition in contemporary art. That’s not to say that people don’t read old novels, read old poetry and enjoy old art. But it does mean that there are many artists who simply don’t seem to use the knowledge of tradition to improve their own artwork.

The World of Poetry

The problem is especially apparent in contemporary poetry. It’s not so much that good modern poets aren’t inspired by poets of the older generations – some of them certainly are – but rather that a culture is festered which encourages potentially great poets who have high ambitions to take an anything-goes approach (provided it speaks about the correct subject matter).

The result of this is the type of ‘raw and honest poetry’ which sounds like the sort of thing you might read on the back of a napkin in a dark corner of your local Wetherspoons, or else on Tinder or Instagram posts; little more than inspirational quotes which all sound the same and make you feel warm and fuzzy inside because they pose as having a deeper meaning or feeling to them than they genuinely do.

It makes it practically impossible for young poets to get decent feedback. In any given writer’s group or online forum, poets presenting their work for critique will be confronted with hoards of people offering one-line responses saying something along the lines of poetry being too sacred to touch; being afraid of offending the poet because poetry is apparently autobiographical, or because apparently a poem is only good when it comes out as a finished product in a 5-minute sitting.

Juvenile artists and the lack of technique

It all goes back to the lack of knowledge of traditional art. Nobody expects everyone to have extensive knowledge of poetry, but spending just an hour or two looking at various poems throughout history should be eye-opening and do a good job of at least improving criticism (and thus starting an upward spiral).

If the current attitude towards tradition doesn’t change it will result in more of the same. Inspirational quotes, not poetry. A complete disregard of any poetic techniques. ‘So what?’, one may ask? Well, it will result in things being passed off as poetry which don’t provide joy through sound (resemblances of vocals, and consonants, a good use of rhythm, alliterations…), any joy through meaning (because thoughts aren’t developed skilfully), any joy through anything which is the realm of technique, in short. Instead, all evaluation of poetry will be based on feeling ‘inspired’ or through pop-cultural references. Both of which are types of joy which one should let go of if one seeks genuine sentiments.

The good news is, of course, that there are still a lot of poets around who do pay attention to technique, and who don’t promote this toxic culture. But, alas, it is very prevalent in non-professional circles, and it will be a danger to the world of arts in the long run…

Tradition and the Individual Talent 1919

In 1919, TS Eliot wrote a beautiful little essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Here, Eliot proposes more or less the opposite idea to the ‘anything goes’ approach. He advocates for the artist to know absolutely everything about literary history and using that knowledge plus the poet’s understanding of current society to formulate new poetry. Needless to say, this may be too extreme; his approach towards removing the individual entirely from poetry would turn the poet into something inhuman.

Nevertheless, the one thing to be learnt from the essay is that tradition is indeed important. Perhaps not to the extant that Eliot demands, but certainly along the lines of Ezra Pound (who in ABC of Reading actually provides a concise list of writers to be inspired by), in that one can be selective and seek out particular artists to learn particular aspects of technique, conceit or emotion from.

With tradition, you have the entire history and development of art at your fingertips. Why re-invent the wheel? If something worked in the past, why not use it and develop it to create something which you know will work, rather than do something seemingly random which doesn’t work and call it ‘experimental art’?

Without tradition, you are isolated in your own little world. The only input you have is from the people surrounding you, current events and personal feelings. An artist without some understanding of tradition is essentially stumbling in the dark and may or may not occasionally find a rose petal lying around.

Political problems with tradition: hiding the past, shunning the past

Part of the reason for shunning the history of art may be that the morals of the past are equally shunned. Back then everyone was racist, sexist, xenophobic, you name it – therefore using anything from back in the day would be to embrace part of a toxic culture.

Aside from the fact that this is an arrogant approach, assuming that we are in all ways better than our ancestors, it is also extremely narrow-minded. The reason we are supposedly morally better and more enlightened than the people of the past is precisely because our ancestors came up with these ideas in the first place.

Moreover, closing one’s eyes to the past doesn’t bar one from making the same mistakes our ancestors did. Stupid ideas can crop up anywhere but knowing how it played out in history – and that in detail – means one can prepare for the worst. And it also means that we can filter and use the good ideas from the past for our own benefit in our daily lives.

Missing merits of the past and accomplishments of the ancestors

But back to the arts. It is a common misconception nowadays that art was developed through a series of revolutionary breakthroughs. In reality, many revolutionary movements in Art can be considered as developments of what came before – responses, rejections, extensions. Woolf, for instance, was heavily inspired by Walter Pater and the Aestheticists, while Emily Dickinson was a great admirer of the metaphysical poets.

It’s just a grave error to do away with everything and to assume that self-expression is all you need. Art may stem from the individual sensibility, but not using craft and knowledge to improve it in a way so that it works as art (and not as the diary of a teenager) will mean that it is and will remain a piece of juvenile art, and not an accomplished work.

Where would we be had the Elizabethans not introduced the individual to art? What would we be like had the Enlightenment not deified reason? Would we be anything like we are had the Romantics not emphasised emotion above all? All these things shaped our lives; learning about them and understanding what made their art so beautiful will always be of benefit to any aspiring artist today.

But how to use it

This is not an invitation to paint, compose or write in an archaic form, of course. One could, but it would be laughable and certainly not well received by anyone. It’s basically a system of looking at traditional material, studying it, understanding it, disregarding what doesn’t work, ignoring what is just a thing of the past (e.g. archaic language), and using what does work.

To bring one crude example: Paradise Lost is brilliant for its use of metre and narrative flow. But the sentences are full of inversions (Milton was often criticised for essentially using Latin syntax in an English poem) and archaisms – so it goes without saying what one would learn from him.

In short, it’s about using tradition to further one’s own art, not about creating art in the style of another artist. This involves studying many artists, rather than one – otherwise one runs risk of just becoming a carbon copy. It is a way of embracing the past to look forward to another summer.

Closing thoughts

Creating art without tradition is driving in a car at night without the headlights on. It’s wilfully ignorant and won’t lead to any good results. Depending on the amount of tradition one uses, creating art with it can be like driving a car with a variety of gadgets, not just the headlights.

But what do you think – do you agree? Any points I hadn’t considered? Is this all a lot of nonsense? Then correct my post by posting in the comment section below. Otherwise, why not share it on social media? Then please click on one of the tender buttons below.