The importance of “tradition” in art. An outdated model.
In reference to art, I believe “tradition” often acts as a stand in for “mythology” or “religion”. Art is often used to gauge the values of the era in which it was created. “Tradition” is reminiscent of history, the archive of societal achievements and lived events. To illustrate, I point to recent U.S. history and “Make America Great, Again!” which called for a return to “traditional values” and a “simpler time”. I call it a “backward time” that recalls chauvinism and no birth-control. There are simply some things that can’t (and shouldn’t be) fully restored… Due to the evolution of culture, the economy and what many people are calling “woke-ness”(8), (or a rejection of the idea that someone can be more correct) society is re-norming what is ideal. Idealization and sentiment are evocative of “tradition”, often outlining the way things should be, based on the fact that everyone does/did it – like ham on Easter Sunday with a side of value judgement set aside for non-traditional traditions – which smells like “That’s not how it’s traditionally done.”
Tradition can be used to divide us, to separate us and to create the “other”.
Why is “tradition” important in art? Given the context above, perhaps it’s not. I recently read an interview Jarrett Earnest conducted with Holland Cotter, an art critic for The New York Times; in the preface, Cotter is quoted (5), “I do think that art is, fundamentally, about ethics. We keep getting told it represents humanity at its best. But it also represents us at our worst. Many works of great beauty were designed as ideological assault weapons. Many are the equivalent of empty-calorie junk food, meant to neutralize us with pleasure. This is as true in the past as it is in the present” Perhaps the most constructive thing to do would be to change the word “tradition” to “ethics”. This transition would provide a way to steer away from religion, mythology and history – words that safely apply to artistic imagery and methods. Ethics or “ethos”, as it applies to the characteristic spirit of a culture’s artistic output and how it is manifested in it’s variety of beliefs, is a much more appropriate word to illustrate what is important in art.
As for where art is traditionally viewed, that is changing too. Museums and Galleries are adapting! (3) The Joy of Museums’ website has a goal share virtual tours of the world’s best Museums, Art Galleries, and Historic Sites across the world listed on it’s website, The Frick Collection (6) has produced a miniseries called Cocktails With a Curator (1) where a curator from the gallery gives the history and a critique of a number of artworks in their collection and pairs it with a cocktail recipe. You can even participate in escape room challenge at the Hood Museum of Art (4)(7),. Museums have long struggled to remain current and engaged. I think they are beautifully adapting and succeeding – (strange that I can say thankfully) due to the pandemic. The Getty Museum made a notable contribution to public engagement early on (April, 2020) in the pandemic that is worth seeing (link provided in footnotes)(2).
More than ever, it is important to keep art pertinent, approachable and relatable, and if we’re relying on “tradition” (religious, mythological, etc… included), we’re excluding a variety of people. If art (and museums) can rely more on culture or “ethos”, viewers can plug in to basic human stories and they would do well to take into consideration what Cotter calls “the art phenomenon: Somebody made this. Someone was here… Art can tell difficult, comparative, and inclusive stories…” and “Instead [of leaning] on the “beauty button”… or a thumbs-up-thumbs-down model.”, viewers are free to interpret what they see instead of trying to divine the intent of the maker.
More often than not, art is a reflection of humanity. It has the power to give people a retreat free from fear and judgement – a pair of traditions that need to be discarded.
An afterthought: Mythology has ugly stories that sometimes tell a worthwhile story. For the most part, the ugliness or beauty of a story’s heroic or villainous character is visibly illustrated in art. Additionally, I think the iconic figures of The Gospels in art are beautiful, repeatable and worthy of praise. I am a Christian and believe the atonement of Christ is a real thing that, if we take advantage of His grace, the opportunity to grow and give grace to others is strengthened.
If my post reads antithetical to faith, understand that I don’t equate faith to religion. My problem rests with organized religion – an inherently flawed construct of Humanity, not God. Many Christ centered denominations have created “traditions” that vainly use God and/or Christ as a bully stick to claim superiority, commit acts of violence, exert control and broadcast intolerance. Any manmade “tradition” that preserves division is not worth keeping.
1 “Cocktails with a Curator.” The Frick Collection. Accessed March 12, 2021. https://www.frick.org/interact/miniseries/cocktails_curator.
2 Compton, Natalie B. “People Are Re-Creating Famous Artworks with Their Pets and Whatever Else Is Lying Around.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 3, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2020/04/03/people-are-re-creating-famous-artworks-with-their-pets-whatever-else-is-lying-around/.
3 Dawson, Aimee. “The Top Six Hashtags to Follow Now as the Art World Moves onto Social Media.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, March 19, 2020. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/the-top-ten-hashtags-to-follow-now-as-the-art-world-moves-onto-social-media.
4 Demo & Presentation: Assyrian Relief Escape Room Challenge. YouTube. New England Museum Association, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogsQD4rLct0.
5 Earnest, Jarrett. What It Means to Write about Art Interviews with Art Critics. New York, N.Y: David Zwirner Books, 2018.
6 The Frick Collection. Accessed March 11, 2021. https://www.frick.org/.
7 Marinkovic, Paulina and Divya Kopalle / The Dartmouth Senior Staff. “Hood Museum Launches Virtual Escape Room.” The Dartmouth, October 26, 2020. https://www.thedartmouth.com/article/2020/10/hood-museum-virtual-escape-room-game.
8 Pham, Julie. “Opinion: Want to Make Space for Awakening in a Woke/Unwoke World?” South Seattle Emerald, February 5, 2020. https://southseattleemerald.com/2020/02/02/opinion-want-to-practice-awakening-in-a-woke-unwoke-world/.