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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.