T.S. Eliot on Tradition


Reading a book about T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I found the following, written by the poet about tradition. I couldn’t help but think that it applied equally well to photography. (more)

About tradition:

“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 be positively dismissed. 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 […] and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”

About the artist - Eliot was writing about the poet, but we can take the words and simply apply them to the artist in general:

“In a peculiar sense he will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of the dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art.”

I think photography has become a bit too focused on the past - even if it’s the immediate past. Just take all that talk about, let’s say, how colour photography became an accepted part of art photography (you could also pick the New Topographics or whatever else). And then re-read these quotes…

(the quotes were taken from am essay entitled Tradition and the Individual Talent, on p. 114ff.)