ArtSunday: Impressionism exhibit offers a lesson in tradition and rebellion

[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 Impressionists’ 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….

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18 thoughts on “ArtSunday: Impressionism exhibit offers a lesson in tradition and rebellion”

  1. 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.

    Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

    Thanks, Dr. S. Had never read those words by Eliot before. The most radical artists — Willem de Kooning and John Coltrane come to mind — are almost always well-schooled.

  2. Dr. Slammy,

    I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    As the art market softens, drawings from the likes of Degas are becoming affordable again. The impressionist auction last month at Sotheby’s last month showed how soft the market has become…..despite the spin Sotheby’s put on it.

    Jeff

  3. I hope to get in this game someday, Jeff. I told my wife yesterday that what I really want is Renoir’s “Confidences.” The original.

    I imagine it would cost a little more, though.

  4. Dr. Slammy,
    You only live once, so go hock everything and buy a lesser Renoir painting. I know of 6 of them for sale right now in NYC and you could get one for less than the price of a summer cabin. The cabin would give you 2 weeks of pleasure a year and the painting would gi ve you pleasure every day for the rest of your life. Renoir did around 6000 pictures in 60 years, so there’s ample supplies out there. I blow all my excess cash on art, as irrational as it seems, just because I like it.

    Here’s a link to a work that my lovely wife is making me bid on for my son. He wants this real bad. Frankly, I find Miro to be a waste of money, but I want to keep Denise happy so I will comply. One thing I learned early…”Ain’t momma happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

    http://masteroftheuniverse.wordpress.com/2008/02/26/budding-collector/

    If you are ever serious about collecting drawings, I can point you in the right direction.

    Jeff

  5. 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.

    I would add that we could list our sorry state of music both in the secular and sacred spheres. I fight the “tradition vs. contemporary” war every day. I would suggest that any one who does battle between these camps read the above. Well done S.

  6. Jeez – Miro. One of my former employees had several Miro prints on the wall, and my take is that there’s nothing going on there that I couldn’t have done in the 4th grade.

    I suppose that makes me uninformed….

  7. Yeah, I know. This isn’t a print, but it is still a piece of crap…..I could have done better myself in 4th grade.

    Miro did at least 50,000 pieces…almost as much as all the fake Dali shit(and I mean shit) out there. That’s why it’s so cheap. Most of those signed lithographs aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on anyways. We own a few etchings which I’ve posted on my blog, but they’re exceptions.

    I don’t find you to be uninformed at all. From your choices of art in this post, I speculate that you have a rather discerning eye for decent art.

    Speaking of art, there’s nothing more civilized in the world than sitting in one’s living room full of decent art, Vivaldi playing in the background , drinking a fine claret. That’s high living.

    Dr. Slammy…..you gotta get some original art.

    Jeff

    Jeff

    I think my son is turning into a rebel.

  8. I’d refer everyone to these words of Dr. Samuel Johnson – the original Dr. Slammy –

    “Example is always more efficacious than precept. A soldier is formed in war, and a painter must copy pictures. In this, contemplative life has the advantage: great actions are seldom seen, but the labors of art are always at hand for those who desire to know what art has been able to perform…. Men advanced far in knowledge do not love to repeat the elements of their art.” Dr. Samuel Johnson, RASSELAS

    Eliot had to have gotten it somewhere, right…? 😉

    And lest we forget the consequences of hating art – any art:

    “Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend.” Johnson, THE RAMBLER

    So, Brian, we all await your revelations on Dali, Miro, et. al., with the deepest interest…. 🙂

  9. Jim:

    #1 – do you think Eliot read Johnson? 🙂

    #2 – Nobody was talking about hating art. We were talking about Miro….

    Ahem. On Miro, this would suppose that I don’t understand him. But what if I understand all too well?

    Hmmm….

  10. I won’t claim I understand art any more than I claim to understand fine wine or good scotch. I know what I like, and I (generally) know why I like it. Similarly, I know what I don’t like, and why. And I positively love the surrealists (although not so much of Miro…). Dali, Magritte, Tanguy, even Picasso to some extent (as a surrealist, not in general).

    I suspect that convincing people to give surrealists a second chance will be easier than some of the abstract artists I enjoy even more….

  11. Jeff:

    I can supply you with an endless supply of paintings from my nearly 4 year old…for free.

    I would love to love the Miro…but I think he was taking the mick with that painting.

    Elaine

  12. Can’t speak for Miro, but I do have a story about the undertaker who became wealthy by buying a piece of art.

    He bought a small Picasso. Three weeks or so later, Picasso died. They took the painting out of its frame to examine it. There was an unfinished self-portrait on the back by … Picasso. Now, they had two paintings, one completely unknown prior to the discovery.

    Undertaking pays well, but not that well.

  13. Elaine,

    I think the Miro positively sucks. However, my lovely wife insists that I bid on it at auction…..I tend to indulge my wife’s wishes. At least it won’t be hanging anywhere in our house, as I wouldn’t allow it. A four year old can do much better art than what Miro did in that piece.

    JS: Picasso had a studio in then 50’s-60’s that employed a ton of apprentices and cranked out a boatload of crap. His most valuable period was done prewar, the later stuff fetches a far lower price. However, you can still find drawings done by his own hand from the 30’s for a pretty reasonable price.

    If I were starting an art collection today, I’d probably start with wood-cuts from Albrecht Durer. They’re absolutely beautiful and one can find good specimens for less than $5,000.

    Jeff

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