T.S. Elliot’s “The Sacred Wood”: Tradition and the Individual Talent

A fascinating essay by Mr. Elliot on the role of tradition in Art. He attempts to make sense of the paradoxical nature of the Artwork: that it is both timeless and temporal.

In Art-making, the PAST is a force to be reckoned with. One cannot abandon the labors of artists of yore as workings of the not-so-well-informed. The past remains relevant to the present, for the world today is a continuation and elaboration of relationships from the past. Elliot claims that tradition is essential to the experiences of any individual. Novelties are only a crunchy crust, but one needs more depth, more crumb, to experience the full substance of the loaf.

…perhaps the bread metaphor needs a little work.

Elliot observes that although artists are praised for the novel aspects of their works and that traditional is often used as a derogatory description of a piece,

“…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.”

Verrrry interesting. And–on a personal note–my experiences of comparing old and new have proven this to be true: one can compare forms and actually SEE how, despite their vast differences, artwork produced by a mature contemporary artist shares many similarities with masterworks that are centuries old.

How can this be? Elliot believes that the key to Art-making is objectivity: “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.” Elliot uses a science metaphor (hoorah!), a catalyst interaction, to elaborate on the relationship between the individual artist and the outside world. Allow me simplify:

The artist’s mind, then, is emptied of content and then combines experiences and emotions, providing “the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.”

To sum up: Art through history was created by objective observers, then one could indeed expect repetition in works throughout history. More than that, Elliot believes that the more the artist sheds his personality, the more he is successful in reaching a state of objectivity (and thus, he is unbiased to those details that past artists have also observed).

I’m guessing that this “shedding of personality” means that the self-conscious mind is no longer running the show. The artist is functioning solely on innate reactions and the subconscious.

Jeeze, there’s so much here…I’ll have to come back to it one day.


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