Tradition and Creativity: T S Eliot "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

Exposition and commentary on the key themes of T S Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in which comparisons with structuralist understandings of languages are made and bearing on educational debates discussed.

Who could possibly be against tradition? Well, most important twentieth century artists have at some point thought themselves to be against it. But they have been against different things, and they have not always in practice been against what they said they were against.

Artists have said they have been against tradition when they have been against academicism: the lifeless repetition of motions and motifs no longer rooted in art but the requirements of the classroom for order, predictability and assessability. For the academicism of an early 20th century German art school, see George Grosz, A Small Yes and a Big No. Presumably, only academics are in favour of academicism, though they wouldn't call it that.

More significantly, artists have proclaimed themselves against tradition, meaning the art of the past. But the key difference is between those who have learnt from the past, and need to move beyond it to find new ways of expressing new things and those who, having failed to learn from the past , are doomed either to repeat it or to produce work which, in retrospect, is merely the evidence of a protest movement, as with much of Dada, old and new.

There will often be ambivalence on the part of the creative artist towards the artistic past, especially the recent past. This is understandable. On the one hand, there is the desire to be truly creative, to produce something new and not merely a novelty within well - worn and well - understood forms. On the other, there is the pressing need for genius to learn from genius. The tension produces perfectly researchable anxieties of influence to take the title of a well - known book by Harold Bloom. Some artists can happily enter into and work through an encounter with the art of their predecessors, acknowledging that they are learning and what they are learning from them. Others are anxious lest influence spoil their own individual talent, and they have to deny and repress such influence. Artists will often move more or less uneasily between these two relationships to what has already been created.

In T. S. Eliot's famous 1919 essay, `Tradition and the Individual Talent', acknowledgment of the indispensability of tradition is linked to a (classical) stress on the value of achieving impersonality in art. This is contrasted with a Romantic stress on self - expression (see elsewhere on this website `Classicism and Romanticism'). The poet is someone who excels in having a feeling for words, not one who readily finds words for a feeling. Indeed, for Eliot, poets need make no distinction between emotions they have experienced , and emotions they have not, in fashioning feelings in words. And fashioning feeling in words requires not that one looks inside oneself, examining the phenomenology of subjective experience, but rather that outside oneself one is able to locate an `objective correlative' for an emotion. As Eliot puts it in the other essay of 1919, that on Hamlet, `The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative", in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked'.

This seems to be a particular way of stating a more general view, that one should distinguish between the live expression of an actually occurring emotion (as when I jump for joy) and the repeatable representation of such emotion, as when a dancer is choreographed to jump joyfully. For purposes of art, the important thing is to be able to find such representations which evoke in others feelings appropriate to them. This is rather different from being oneself filled with emotions.

Eliot has an account of how he thinks the artist ought to engage with Tradition - roughly, the Dead Poets' Society. He also has a view as to how a Tradition is constituted in a culture and for an audience. The leading idea here is that a living Tradition is one in which new art can alter the meaning, the perception of the monuments of the past. Eliot puts it like this in a key passage of the Tradition essay:

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, thewhole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order . . . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

This idea of Eliot's has its roots in German and American Idealism, Hegel and Josiah Royce. But the idea that in a living tradition past and present form a simultaneous order, is most clearly comparable to the structuralist idea that a living language exists for its speakers in a single synchronous state even though it is the product of historically reconstructible (diachronic) processes and practices. In both cases a living tradition is distinguished from a dead one. In the latter case there is no simultaneous order, no synchrony, for any living person, merely historical (archival, philological) records. French is a living language, the simultaneous order of which is being continuously re - shaped by new speakers. Each innovation which takes hold subtly re - inflects the language inherited from the past. It is no paradox to say that for a living language, order and change always co-exist. In contrast, Cornish is a dead language because there are no new speakers to re - shape it. There is no order and no change, just dictionaries and grammars. In this perspective a large part of active arts education must be concerned with keeping alive the past, and that implies deciding what to keep alive and how. For example, in England no one believes that Beowulf can be kept alive in Anglo-Saxon; it has to be translated if it is to have any chance of staying in a simultaneous order (and even then it may be beyond recall). But what of Chaucer and Shakespeare? No sooner do we name these names than familiar disputes recall themselves. The friend of Shakespeare who wants Shakespeare to stay in a living and widely accessible arts tradition will be happy to take on new rewritings and adaptations of the original. The friends of Shakespeare who think that what matters is not any old living tradition but a particular simultaneous order in which it is the language of Shakespeare which matters, will resist. They will find nothing in West Side Story or a comic strip Othello which serves to sustain the tradition as they would wish to define it. One might add that those whose concern is with Christian theology and morality will be happy to see the Bible endlessly retranslated and modernized; those who care for a Church and for the Bible as part of ritual or literature, rather than as revealed truth, will insist on the King James' Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, etc.

The controversies here align to a large extent with the division between the friends of the people (populists) and the friends of the established order (elitists). It is very hard to evade this division and opposition. In the end every teacher has to take a view on whether, say, Shakespeare is important and, if he is, what is essential in him. The only point of serious agreement between populists and elitists appears to be a shared commitment to the idea of a living arts tradition. No one is interested in preserving Shakespeare merely as history, as a sort of archeological curiosity: "This what they did then. Just fancy that!"

There have been those who have said they would dispense with any and all traditions in the interests of self - expression, paralleling in the world of arts education the position of artists who have rejected tradition. Critics like Peter Abbs have argued that the attempt to evade tradition is misguided because ultimately incoherent: without tradition (an inherited language and culture) there is very little, if any, self, and consequently little or nothing to be expressed.

But in an essay which has been sympathetic to the claims of Tradition, it should be said in conclusion that this is not quite the whole story. Consider only that when children begin to draw and paint, they do so in ways which do not derive from the traditions around them. They do so in ways which are invariant across cultures and which draw on the resources of the developing human mind. What is true, however, is that such creative self - expression grinds to a halt unless it can make contact with the traditions which have developed around it. At that point of contact, however, it risks being overwhelmed by the traditions it encounters and coming to a different kind of halt. That is why there is a central place in education for the teacher's tact in managing the encounter between the individual child, as new Talent, and Tradition, as sediment of the talent of the past.

Website version first published 2005. Revised and expanded from the original essay which appeared under the title "Tradition" in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts: A Guide to Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education. London: Falmer Press 1991