Thoughts on ‘Tradition’.

This is a piece written as a contribution to a series fo reflections on ‘tradition’ published in the Art Bulletin.  Interestingly it has never provoked any comment, either positive or negative.

At Cambridge University in the 1960s, my fellow students and I were implacably hostile to ‘tradition’.   We reveled in Quentin Skinner’s denunciations from the podium of the British conservative philosopher and doyen of the National Review, Michael Oakeshott, whose critique of rationality and plaudits for change tempered by practice and tradition seemed at once hopelessly limited and, in an easily-heard echo of Edmund Burke, deeply opposed to any sort of rationally-justified radical innovation.   Oakeshott and Burke were deemed to offer a descriptive and prescriptive account of change as a process of reverential accretion that we wanted (in somewhat contradictory fashion) both to deny and ignore.   It is obvious, then, that we saw ‘tradition’ as an unwelcome constraint, mortmain, the suffocating dead hand of our ancestors. This was pretty blind, as well as a sign of the times, because it threatened to inhibit us from addressing properly questions about the processes of artistic, political and social change. Our case against the invocation of tradition – that it served as a means of avoiding those very same questions – still seems to me a telling one, though our own position seems, in retrospect, little better.   All of which is to say that the tenor of these remarks is that claims based on ‘tradition’, ‘traditions’, and ‘the traditional’ are worthy objects of scholarly criticism, but that ‘tradition’ has very limited value as a term of critical analysis.   This may seem provocative; it is intended to be so. But just think about the ways in which the term is used. As often as not the concept is platitudinous, flabby and capacious – for example in the use of terms as ‘the Western Tradition’ in Art, the Christian, Islamic, Chinese, European etc. etc, tradition[1]. It provides a useful, often heuristic hold-all that when put under any serious analytic pressure splits at the seams.   When the term is used more specifically, as when seeking to create a genealogy or canon – for example in F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948) – it is frequently tendentious.   When used as a precise descriptor, it often turns out to be little more than an elegant variation for ‘conventional or customary practices/values’, as in Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of “tradition-bound” scientific research,[2] or as something more aptly described as a genre or style.   It also serves as a shorthand reminder of the self-evident point that much artistic and intellectual facture refers – in a multitude of ways – back to its precursors.   But, of course ‘tradition’ carries more freight than convention, and it’s the perlocutionary force (to use J.L Austin’s term) of the term’s employment that raises red flags for me.   To say of a belief or a practice that it is a tradition, is to give it not just a certain character – to claim that its origins lie in an (ill-defined) past, but to invest it with a certain symbolic importance and to assert that its strengths lie in its continuity with the past, and that that continuity constitutes a part of its validation.   Eric Hobsbawm makes this point in functionalist terms in his introduction to the collected volume he and Terence Ranger edited, The Invention of Tradition (1983). Tradition-making, he argued, was a means of legitimating certain practices and beliefs, of creating continuities, in order to cope with processes of rapid social change; its objects were the making of ‘Gemeinschaft’, the fabrication of certain sorts of community, the legitimation of (sometimes novel) institutions, and the inculcation of values, all of which laid claim to be traditional, and therefore legitimate and worthy of conservation and transmission.   Such claims, he emphasized, were more frequently made in ‘modern’, as opposed to ‘customary’ societies, but were not peculiar to them.   Tradition may not have been an invention of ‘modernity’, but it has had a huge investment in the concept to which it is symbiotically tied. Think of ‘heritage’, the commodity version of tradition, and ‘nostalgia’, a modern disease, that takes the form of hankering for a world we have apparently lost, but in fact we never had. The great strength of The Invention of Tradition was that it demystified the trans-historical claim for tradition(s) to have existed ‘time out of mind’ or since ‘time immemorial’, and that it also dispelled the spatial miasma that surrounds the location of tradition, by administering a strong dose of history, reminding us that both the category ‘tradition’ as well as many so-called ‘traditions’ were rooted in specific and identifiable circumstances and chronologies, and that the continuities they claimed were, in Hobsbawm’s word, frequently “factitious”.(2)

Hobsbawm and Ranger were interested in the creation of tradition(s), but much of the scholarship about artistic and literary practice, even when (perhaps especially when) enamoured of the concept of tradition, has been concerned with what the literary critic, Walter Jackson Bate, called “the burden of the past”.   Here the play is not so much between traditional and modern as between traditional and original.   In TS Eliot’s 1919 essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and Harold Bloom’s enormously influential, psychoanalytically-informed study, The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry (1974), and in many an art historical monograph devoted to a single artist, we are presented with different accounts of how innovation and creativity, even genius, works. This has the virtue of grappling with the knotty question of the processes by which change and invention occur, though usually rather crudely formulated as a task of distinguishing plodding sheep from swift-footed goats, those who are overawed by their predecessors and follow meekly in their footsteps and those who succeed in surpassing or overtaking their predecessors, creating something new: thus Eliot talks of “immature” and “mature” poets, and Bloom of “poets” and “strong poets”. These heroic accounts of creativity –whether, as in Eliot’s case, as an act of creative self-effacement or “depersonalization”, or, as with Bloom, through a series of confrontational mis-readings of poetic forefathers – depend heavily on an idea of tradition, as seen from the artist’s point of view.   This sort of analysis is, of course, not new, and can be found in the extremely rich classical and renaissance discussions of imitatio and aemulatio as mechanisms for cultural inheritance and transmission, though these tend to be more rigorous because less concerned with ‘a tradition’ than with the relations between particular individuals or between particular works.

Transmission is a process whose recuperation enables us to answer the questions of how, why, and through whom it has occurred, and to examine what has changed in the process. The range of possible answers to these questions is extraordinarily wide-ranging.   Temporally linear models of cultural transmission embodied in the term ‘tradition’ seem both a rather parsimonious account of cultural and intellectual exchange, and ones that lock us into binaries shaped by concepts of innovation and originality.   In short, ‘tradition’ is mere reification, albeit, as Hobsbawm and his colleagues demonstrated, one of a most powerful kind.

[1] “Tradition” appears far more often in the title of art historical works about non-European arts – Native American, African, Asian, Australian aboriginal, etc – than about western art.

[2] But see Hobsbawm’s distinction between ‘routines’, ‘conventions’ and tradition. The Invention of Tradition, 3.

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