[An artist] should copy the masters and re-copy them, and after he has given every evidence of being a good copyist, he might then reasonably be allowed to do a radish, perhaps, from Nature. – Edgar Degas
I went to see the “Inspiring Impressionism” exhibit yesterday at the Denver Art Museum and came away struck by how remarkably it addressed questions of influence and originality in art, issues that have long been central to my own thinking and writing. As a poet, I’ve long been aware of the debt I owe the masters whose genius has shaped my own work, and if my efforts pale in comparison, they’re at least less meager than they would have been had I not spent so much time in the company of Donne, Shakespeare, Yeats, Hopkins, Wright, Thomas, and perhaps most especially, Eliot.
Degas would no doubt be pleased with my early days, where I was a relentless copyist. Not a great one – very few of us are great at anything at that age – but a dedicated one. If you look at things I wrote in my early 20s you can see an obvious reverence for Eliot mingled with a desire to emulate the music Thomas’ language and an almost breathless obsession with young Yeats as he conjured Ireland’s mythical past. These days my work is probably regarded as unconventional – I’m certainly working hard not to be like my contemporaries, and my rejection record suggests that I’m succeeding admirably – so maybe I’m something of a “rebel.” Which is fine, except that I’m a rebel who owes his soul to tradition. Odd, that.
The Impressionists are generally viewed in terms of the passion with which their art broke from tradition. They’re described in terms of their differences from that which came before and celebrated for the ways in which they dynamited the formal conventions that dominated the artistic establishment prior to their arrival on the scene. In other words, they were rebels.
However, as the museum’s overview of the exhibit notes, for all their revolutionary impact, the Impressionists were intimately familiar with the traditions – especially in Spain and Holland – and much of their work traced directly to a love of the things they’re famous for overthrowing.
Even the most revolutionary artistic movements are grounded in older traditions. Although the Impressionistsâ€™ work seemed a daring rejection of what came before, they did find inspiration in artists from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. Some revered those Old Masters, some rejected the traditions of the past, and others took their lessons and re-invented them to reflect modern life.
Our culture exhibits a curious suite of dysfunctions where tradition is concerned. In some places we see a slavish fetishization of an idealized “how things used to be” that’s driven by a fear of and inability to cope with the rapid pace of technological and social change. In others we see a fetishization of the new that manifests in an abject lack of respect for tradition. Both maladies arise from ignorance, of course, and if you’d like to take a moment to reflect on how the sorry state of our educational processes are implicated, be my guest.
Rebellion is a wonderful thing, though, so long as it arises from knowledge instead of the lack of knowledge. Informed rebellion rights wrongs, levels structures that undermine the best interests of the culture and matures into a more enlightened stewardship than that which it displaced. Uninformed rebellion merely levels, leaving us dumber than we were before and poorer, even deeper in bondage to the corrupt, oppressive forces that invariably plague advanced societies.
Informed rebellion is a function, believe it or not, of tradition. Successful revolutionaries, whether in politics, art, or popular culture, always understand their context with respect to history. They know, better than most, exactly what it is they’re upending.
The thing we too often fail to understand about tradition is that it is inherently dynamic, not static. Tradition lives and breathes. Like any other vibrant entity or force, it never stops growing. If it does, it’s no longer tradition; it becomes dogma, caricature – a tool of, by, and for ignorance and stagnation, even regression. This stunted, faux-tradition is the enemy of freedom in all its forms and is a great friend of those who profit from the pacification of the public mind.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot explains the proper relationship between past, present, and future, emphasizing that individual genius isn’t inherently a function of how an artist differs from his or her influences.
One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
He continues by noting the difficulty of cultivating this individuality.
Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
Lest we be tempted to dismiss these ideas as those of a conventional man, let’s remember that Eliot – for all his social conservatism – was a great artistic upender. There had never been anything quite like his poetry before, and his imprint was such that it was nearly impossible not to acknowledge the degree to which he changed the literary landscape forever.
Yesterday’s trip to the Denver Art Museum served as a bold reminder that tradition and reform are not opposed forces, as we so often imagine. They are instead two faces of the same muse, locked forever in an intricate dance, at once making and unmaking, at once new and eternal, at once stable and volatile. Not either/or, but both/and.
Our ability to create a better future depends on our willingness to study the things we seek to change. And as always, knowledge is life, ignorance death….