How can I discuss the roles of the tradition and individual talent (artists) using this passage from Eliot's essay "Tradition and Individual Talent"? "…the past should be altered by the present...

How can I discuss the roles of the tradition and individual talent (artists) using this passage from Eliot's essay "Tradition and Individual Talent"?

"…the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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T.S. Eliot viewed Western cultural/artistic history as a continuum wherein contemporary artists are inevitably influenced and shaped by the artists that came before them. Eliot argues that in order for contemporary artists to be successful and their work meaningful, they must participate in the ongoing meta-dialog represented by the loosely defined (but readily understood) institution of European cultural expression.

Arguing for a sense of continuity in the arts, Eliot also takes a position as a proponent of a consciousness of continuity as more than an inevitability. For Eliot, developing established traditions is tantamount to the artist’s duty.

As is often the case for Eliot, his case is presented as a correction. Specifically, Eliot seeks to correct to what he sees as “our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else.” The sentiment that animates such a view of quality falls squarely in the American tradition established by the Transcendentalists in the 1800s. Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and (most pointedly) Ralph Waldo Emerson each advocated for a view of intellectual production that valued individualism over erudition. Their views were founded on a sense of a person’s potential to become a fully developed self only through the means of fostering one’s deepest and personal nature.

Thus when Eliot questions the tendency to praise originality he is distancing himself from certain American traditions in favor of a European sensibility and historical identity. To be an artist in the European tradition -- a worthwhile artist – Eliot claims that one must embrace a relationship to the artists that have created timeless works in the past. Erudition, for Eliot, is a requisite quality for an artist’s success.

Without a knowledge of traditional (or classical) art, the contemporary artist will fail because (1) that artist will be unaware of the standards by which his/her work will be measured and (2) will potentially repeat or conform to traditional forms without renewing them (making the new work something other than truly new and, so, somewhat pointless).

"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."

An understanding of context is important so that the artist can effectively distinguish his or her own work from that of the past and also participate in a meta-historical dialog (the ever-developing history of an artistic tradition).  

There is certainly a circularity to Eliot’s argument here. He claims that the artist is inevitably judged in comparison to artists of the past (e.g. tradition) and so must cultivate an informed relationship to tradition in order to be successful in this comparison. His conclusions are anchored to his premise in a way that seems almost to render his argument nothing more than a series of argumentative premises, but there is something noble about his point of view when he suggests that great art grows out of a collective cultural voice.

“He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.”

The artist has the duty to reflect both the changes in this cultural collective and the unchanged or timeless aspects of the cultural collective. In adopting such a perspective, the artist becomes identified with the larger culture and all of its vaunted traditions.

Again, this point of view can be seen as a response to other intellectual traditions. Notably, the American individualism of the 1800s was influenced heavily by non-European traditions, specifically Hinduism from India.

Nowhere in his essay is Eliot more at odds with the Transcendentalist ethos of individualism than here.

“What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

The argument takes on its largest scope at this point, connecting the profession and the identity of the artist with an ideology defining history and institutional-ism as two aspects of a firmly established virtue and aesthetic value. To be a successful contemporary European artist one must be aware of European cultural history and willing to be subsumed by that history even as one attempts to contribute something new to it. If any of these criteria are not met, for Eliot, the artist falls into one of several categories of failure (professional, moral, intellectual, etc.).

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