In his landmark 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” – published one hundred years ago this year – poet TS Eliot ended with this as one of his key points:
To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad.
He was discussing poetry in the essay, but his point could be taken more broadly. What matters more than the artist – his or her life, biography, or credentials – is the quality of the work. Is the work, as Eliot put it, “an expression of significant emotion”? That was the criteria that the great Modernist proffered as what should be the prime force in evaluation and assessment. Then, in the last sentence, Eliot closed by stating that poets (or more broadly, creative artists) must live “in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”
Having received my formative literary (and artistic) education, both institutional and practical, in the late twentieth century, Eliot’s idea was the gold standard. The work must stand on its own. An artist is not good because of who he or she is, but because of what he or she produces. And, as they say on Project Runway: “One day, you’re in; the next, you’re out.” Put out a weak album or a bad movie or a clunker of a novel, you might be done.
Yet, our current involvement with fast-paced news and social media seems to be changing that. Today, we have people who are “famous for being famous”— minimally talented socialites and hucksters who have managed to turn into image into brand using the democratic modes offered by YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. It is Eliot’s paradigm turned on its head: To divert interest from the art to the artist. Their fans – now called “followers” in a peculiarly cultish bit of linguistic evolution – aren’t looking at them because they’ve produced anything of value or because they seem able to do that at all, but simply because they’ve offered themselves to be looked at.
In my estimation, someone who isn’t doing anything worth watching . . . shouldn’t be watched. As an example, I’d point out much of the content on YouTube: bluster, yelling and woo-ing at unimpressive acts, wide-eyed efforts to draw attention to mundane things, all of which only prove that an Average Joe with a GoPro, a selfie stick, and a grasp of the formula can participate in what was once show business, and what should not be mistaken for the arts.
TS Eliot suggested a century ago that a poet (or artist) should live in the “present moment of the past,” meaning that creative people should understand both the zeitgeist and the history and traditions that led to it. However, convinced that these are unprecedented times we live in, many current performers and “influencers” instead express an open indifference to tradition, even to recent history. Again, Eliot’s idea has been turned upside down by people who want to live only in “merely the present.”
Perhaps this is a regular old, run-of-the-mill historical shift, like the ’60s generation had long hair and flower power that made their Depression-survivor parents say, How could could you believe such things? But man, I hope not. I can’t imagine the results if we do shift to a no-substance, anti-tradition ideal that values spectacle over message, if we do move intellectually away from Eliot’s stance that artistic merit yields credibility, if we do abandon seeing ourselves as part of a historical continuity. We will be in deep, deep trouble culturally if the idle chatter of the inane Tartuffe is elevated while no one has read Tartuffe to know what that even means.