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Art and Community: Belonging in Tradition

February 9, 2011

The arts can be understood as “communal” or “expressions of community” in many ways. In this post, I wanted to reflect briefly on the specific relationship of art to community in terms of tradition. Community involves a sense of belonging not only in the present, but also in the past; we see our own experiences unified with others over time. One of the main ways that we can talk about communal experience in the arts over time is through tradition. By producing a piece of art, the artist automatically, whether she wishes to or not, situates herself within a tradition of artistic making. Wendell Berry writes, “Poetry can be written only because it has been written. As a new poem is made, not only with the art but within it, past voices are convoked—to be changed, little or much, by the addition of another voice.”[1] When the artist produces a work of art, no matter how solitary or isolated she may wish to be, she cannot help but draw on and contribute to a tradition of art that stretches back over several thousand years. Berry suggests that art only exists as a “common ground” between artists and other people, existing both in the past and the present.[2] The belonging of the work of art itself to a tradition is not enough to sustain a communal view of artistry, however. The artist must also acknowledge the effect that her belonging to present and past artists and art forms has on her personal creativity.

Many artists have broken their identity with tradition under the supposition that they might avoid stifling their creativity or become more “original.” However, this divorce with community does more harm than good. By maintaining a connection with other people both past and present, the artist improves his work, but “by denying them he impoverishes it.”[3] T. S. Eliot connects individual creative talent with artistic tradition, and says, “We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”[4] The connection with a tradition, then, actually serves to enhance the originality or creativity of the artist rather than stifling it. By situating himself within a tradition of others’ work, the artist becomes aware not only of what has been done already, but how he might build upon others’ work to create something new or original. This rootedness within a tradition does not become a restriction, but rather a foundation on which creativity may flourish.[5] True originality, if we understand it in light of its root “origin,” stems from an understanding of creativity that is connected with the work if its ancestors. It is a return to its origins in order to understand and create its future.

This is not to say that all artists must be related to tradition in the same way. Artists may choose to remain within a tradition, build on it, find inspiration in it, or totally break from it. The relationship between all of these actions is that the artist starts from something and chooses to react in a certain way. This foundation in artistic tradition from which all artists begin their work, then, speaks in one very particular way to the communal nature of their artistry.


[1] Berry, “The Responsibility of the Poet,” in What are People For?, 89.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. G. Collingwood, Principles of Art, 324.

[4] T. S. Eliot,  “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Essays, 14.

[5] Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul, 159.

Photo Credit: http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting+%26+drawing/art73489

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    February 9, 2011 2:19 pm

    Thanks for this post, Jenn. I very much agree with your view on the relation between originality and tradition. It is interesting that you use Collingwood to support your view, and I think that his statement about tradition may be at odds with his view of art (or ‘art proper’) as expression.

    Something I am curious about is your statement that artists “automatically” work from within a tradition. I like the Wendell Berry quote, but I wonder about how much to make of this idea. For example, there is a popular idea ‘floating around’ that as long as Christians are true to themselves they will produce ‘Christian’ art. The idea appears to be that if one belongs to the Christian tradition then one’s art will also belong to the Christian tradition. But I am not sure that this necessarily follows, and it begs the question of what ‘traditions’ we are talking about. So, a painter might want to paint in the tradition of 16th Century Netherlandish Genre painting, or of Eastern orthodox iconography, or of an individual (say, Michaelangelo). I doubt that anyone feels they simply ‘belong’ to these traditions (maybe the case could be made for iconography), but the artist can certainly choose to work in a similar way.

    So, I like that you point out that one’s connection to a tradition is more than automatic, and it should even be more than ‘acknowledging’ (I think you might agree with me on this, but I’m not exactly sure). For I can see how certain aspects of Western culture have formed my thoughts and actions, but I can also consciously choose to allow some ‘traditions’ to form me more than others.

    Now, here is where we might disagree. Even if I am automatically formed by a tradition, even if I acknowledge I am formed by a tradition, and even if I choose to allow myself to be formed by a tradition, I do not think it follows that the work of art I make will also belong to that tradition. I think that I have to choose to make that work of art in such a way so that it ‘fits with’ a particular tradition. This might involve adopting particular techniques, color palletes, materials, imagery, etc. This would certainly involve learning a lot about that tradition. I think that what really matters is not whether I belong to the tradition, but whether the work of art does.

    Any thoughts?

    • Jenn permalink*
      February 9, 2011 2:57 pm

      Jim,
      Thanks for your comments and questions. I realize that Collingwood is often at odds with this notion, but he spends a fair amount of space arguing for the fact that art is “communal” in some way, which I found very interesting. I haven’t read very much of him, and I’m sure you know his work better than I do.

      As far as my use of the term tradition, I think I may have been being more vague than what you thought, though that simultaneously makes what I said easier and more problematic. I think more broadly I was thinking about the whole “tradition” of artistic making, not just a specific school in the way that art is typically understood to relate to. That may mean I wasn’t saying anything too insightful, I know, but I think there is at least something to be said for the fact that artistic making is this basic human activity that we engage in and by producing art at all, we are connected in many ways to the people that have made things before us. Just by doing it, we are related to people. And the fact that we create artifacts that other people will view, contemplate, and use makes what we do when we produce art an activity that finds its roots in community.

      But aside from this general point, I think a lot of your comments make sense and I mostly agree. Just because you are inspired by something like Netherlandish art doesn’t mean your art will necessarily fit into that category. You say a lot about choosing a point to which to connect one’s art, like choosing to be inspired or formed by certain traditions over others, etc. I like that point, and I also think that that active choosing bespeaks one of the central qualities of community more generally, which is the broader point I’m trying to make about tradition and the arts. The artist is always making choices, as you say. When they choose colors or subjects, techniques and styles—all of these things are very active on the part of the artist to produce something that they desire. Even choosing to create artwork in the first place is indicative of a certain amount of control the artist has over their own process and belonging within the artistic community. It just seems to me that choosing to create at all makes them accountable to something more than themselves. And I think this is important for the artist along with the artwork. Not that the artist (or artwork for that matter) should belong to a specific tradition in the technical sense, but that they should account for their indebtedness to those who came before them. I realize maybe I should have been more specific with my terms.

  2. February 9, 2011 8:08 pm

    Jenn, thanks for the prodding thoughts here. It’s funny to read this now, because I wrote something *sort of* similar a couple of weeks ago, here: http://churchandart.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/why-we-need-a-network-a-tradition/. I readily admit that my piece errs on the side of simplicity. It’s not much of an original piece either, and it certainly does not address the complex, often frustrating, emotionally and relationally fraught as well as practically complicated dynamics of “living deeply into a tradition.”

    But there you go: the perils of blogging. If all the piece accomplishes is to persuade one young artist to pay more attention to their own ecclesial tradition and to dig a little more concertedly into the tradition that lies behind and makes sense of their particular artistic medium (or media), well then, we’ll have done a little bit of good in the world.

    If the piece only confuses the young artist, then we’ll need to repent quickly. We may also have to abandon all efforts to address the “big ideas” in less than 1000 words (unless that 1000-word effort consists solely in constant qualifications, which then would render the piece unbearably boring and not worth writing in the first place–which unfortunately would describe not a small number of my blog entries over the years!).

    But I’m glad to read what you’ve written here. I also thought I’d mention that Wheaton College philosophy professor, Bruce Benson, is coming out with a book on art (with Baker Academic, I believe) that makes extensive use of the model of improvisation–as a creative negotiation between newness and tradition–to describe the work of artists. His ideas dovetail with some of your here.

    • Jenn permalink*
      February 12, 2011 10:25 am

      David

      Thanks for your comment. It is funny–we even use some of the same quotes! If I would have known, I could have just directed people to you! 🙂 I like how you say, “To ignore these kinds of traditions results, not inevitably but probably, in an impoverished imagination: nothing to draw on except the same recycled business of platitudinous story-lines, formulaic images, shallow ideas, stale forms.” That notion of the impoverished imagination is interesting to me, and it is one that Wendell Berry addresses in several of his essays (particularly in the book Imagination in Place.) Similarly, he relates the failure of the imagination to uprootedness; it is a failure to involve oneself in place, community, memory, and tradition.

      I think things like this often need to be spoken of plainly and directly, even if the thoughts aren’t the most “original.” I don’t know how many times the simplest quote on community has changed my entire attitude; it was nothing “new,” but it made the idea fresh in my mind and reminded me of the active role I need to play in becoming more and more rooted and connected. Much more could be said on the issue, of course, but like you said, if one person is reminded of the importance of being rooted in community, place, and tradition then we will have done a little good.

      I appreciate the book recommendation. In fact, it sounds like it will be very useful for a chapter I’m writing presently, so I do thank you for that.

  3. February 9, 2011 10:33 pm

    very apt and thanks for quoting Wendell Berry on this. he’s one of my creative influences, especially on grounds of his advocacy of homesteading and nurturing, and in his fiction, which is centered around a rural Kentucky town. his voice also frequently acknowledges how far we have to go, while offering encouragement to work where you are with what you’ve got. so far my favorites among his books of essays are /What Are People For?/ and
    /Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community/. In fiction I like /Jayber Crow/ best.

    • Jenn permalink*
      February 12, 2011 10:30 am

      Yes, Wendell Berry is someone I come back to again and again for insight and encouragement into issues like community, place, tradition, hospitality, memory, and imagination. I would highly recommend several of the essays in Imagination in Place for issues related to this post.

      Always glad to hear of one more Berry reader! Thanks for the comment!

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