Friday, September 10, 2010

Musings on Tradition

1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition.
2. something that is handed down: the traditions of the Eskimos.
3. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting: The rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.
4. a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.

I love traditions. I love how customs are handed down, how they change over time, how they mix with each other, how they build on each other until you get this big, overarching, awe-inspiring body of work (i.e., the classical music tradition, the artistic tradition). I have a healthy respect for and appreciation of other cultures and their traditions. I want to make that clear, because I'm about to go on a bit of a rant.

See, I have two problems with tradition. The first is that at some point, traditions continue "because we've always done them", not because they have a specific meaning or purpose. Once the meaning is lost, I don't see much point to traditions except to provide people with stability and routine. I think even that's iffy when the tradition is something like the running of the bulls, which can be incredibly dangerous, even lethal. The attitude that "we've always done this" engenders lazy thinking and keeps people stuck in the past, in my opinion. It's used to keep new ideas quiet, unremarked, and discredited.

My second problem is something I encountered in Europe. Specifically, it's something I learned about via a great-uncle and via my father, who translated for the great-uncle and expanded on what he was getting at. It's the idea that the only way to move forward in a specific field is be aware of and educated in the whole of the tradition surrounding the field.

The example that I came across in Europe was art. The great-uncle insisted that the only good art, the only real art, was the stuff created by people familiar with what artists had been doing for the last 2000-odd years. You had to study the past, then create art that was identical to the previous generation's, except for one or two little details. Art builds on itself, in increments. People like the Cubists, Dadaists, and Post-Modernists, or artists who create art without having studied art history even informally, are not artists and not worthy of attention. 

I'm pretty sure this attitude occurs in every creative field. I know it happens with writing—people who want new writers to build on the work of older ones. Writers of literary fiction need MFAs or least BAs in creative writing. Anything else would result in second-rate commercial fiction. You can't possibly write science fiction if you're not familiar with Wells, Verne, Asimov, Clarke, Triptree, le Guin, Butler, Sterling, Gibson, Card, and any number of others. Or you can, but you shouldn't be, because it'll suck. 

I beg to differ. I've got nothing against studying past masters and the history of your field. It's useful to know the tropes, know how things have changed, and get ideas for where you want to take your own work. I definitely recommend knowing at least a little bit about your genre (or style of art, or building type, or whatever) before you jump into creation. But I don't think you need to know everything, and I think there's a point at which education blocks creativity. It's possible to know so much you can't create good art anymore. Heck, it's probably also possible to create good art, genius art, without ever having seen a book or painting in your life.

What do you think? Where's the balance? How much should an incoming/aspiring writer know about their field/genre? How heavily do they have to read in it? Is someone like me (BA not in English or writing, hasn't read the masters but familiar with the general history, decently read in speculative fiction) qualified to add to the fantasy or science fiction traditions?* Can art be created in a vacuum?

*These questions do not reflect insecurities on my part. I'm certain I can make it with the knowledge I have, and the knowledge I'll acquire as I age.

No comments: