Friday, May 20, 2011

`New Variations on Ancestral Glories'

“In my mind the idea of tradition incorporates the concept of a contract in which our ancestors, ourselves, and our descendants are obliged to keep one another’s interests in mind as we manipulate our surroundings.”

This serves as a useful definition of the obligations imposed on those practicing one of the arts or sciences; indeed, any human occupation requiring skill, training and imagination, whether cooking, boxing or writing sonnets. The speaker is the sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith, in an interview published in the latest issue of Dappled Things. Smith speaks movingly of his debt to his teachers and cites as an example

“…a stonemasons’ tradition, in which the current generation of masons starts the process of preparing lime-mortar for their sons’ use twenty years in the future, and at the same time make use of the mortar prepared by their own fathers.”

In the other arts, the cross-generational contract is less direct and may skip a dozen generations. No writer is truly original. Good writers recycle, and always have. Straining after novelty signals an attention-seeking poverty of imagination. Smith is a figurative sculptor, often of religious subjects, and once a statue of John Steinbeck. He says:

“Modern art movements are disdainful of monuments, and especially a monument to the achievements of an individual. Three things breed this repulsion: the individual being represented is old, dead, and it’s not me! The modernist program is essentially motivated by contemporary culture’s fixation with the new, a dread of mortality, and rampant egotism.”

Amen. As Smith is a sculptor, I thought of “On an Early Cycladic Harpist (2600 - 2500 B.C.) in the J. Paul Getty Museum," by Helen Pinkerton (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002). The poem is from a series, “Bright Fictions,” devoted to works of art. Here, Pinkerton writes of a small marble statue from the Cyclades, islands near Crete:

“Oval the sweep, the motion horizontal.
The arched harp seems the entrance to a world
Where sunlight falls on singing faces, arms
Uplifted - instrumental to mused charms.
He listens. Then, singing, hears his contrapuntal
New variations on ancestral glories.
seeing is hearing, hearing touch, sometimes,
Some places. Enter where, immemorially,
Memory holds, sifting, the unlost stories.”

Tradition: memory accuated: “New variations on ancestral glories.”


William A. Sigler said...

Not to be painfully obvious, but contemporary culture evades tradition mostly because it is atheist in its aesthetic. A God who helps determine the permanent and true is a colossal bummer for those who know only the sin of human nature, not its redemption. The Pinkerton poem you cite beautifully expresses a more ancient view, pointing to the role of the divine in actuating memory, in helping man distinguish what will last amid the swirl of the fleeting.

Buce said...

See the link to Orwell's "Woolworth Rose," and link back to the Gilleland anthology on "taking the long view."

Margaret said...

I don't really understand any of this - but it sounds a bit stuffy and broad-sweeping about contemporary culture which is so varied and vast. I love the angels of Fra Angelico. I love the brushstroke of deKooning. I am part of contemporary culture.