“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives 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.”

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent

Art serves society in a rather barometrical function. It embraces, albeit subconsciously, its role as the expression of the collective undercurrents of public culture. It knows that the masses see it as largely incomprehensible and it is comfortable with that impression. It watches as we hurry through galleries, reading placards and gazing with blank stares at something we seem to think will culture us if only our eyes pass over enough of it. It smiles pitifully as we file into gold-encrusted halls to hear symphonies that we would quickly scroll by if they emerged on the radio (or, as modernity would have it, our playlists). Art is a cloud of externalities that we instinctually feel should probably be more important to us than it is.

The irony in all of this is that we are most easily drawn to art forms that share this sense of externality. When the violinist throws himself about the stage in a dripping frenzy of emotionality, we approvingly assume that he must truly be a master of interpretation. When the poet befuddles us with extravagant arrangements of verbiage that even three readings cannot make clear, we shrug in complacent acceptance of what must be a magnificent literary talent indeed. My argument is that none of this displays true artistic interpretation, and that to achieve that pinnacle is something radically un-emotional and impersonal.

T.S. Eliot’s words strike us as alarming. How can art be impersonal? Isn’t art an expression of the artist’s deepest and most profound thoughts? The consensus surrounding artistic interpretation is that it springs from the artist’s creative genius in a spontaneous, almost sensual way. We view or listen or read with the intent of discovering what the artist is trying to communicate to us. And this is precisely where we have gone wrong, for artistic interpretation is in fact not a pouring-out of the artist’s “self,” however that notoriously amorphous concept may be defined. It is a hard-fought battle against the impulses of the self, combined with an unflagging examination of the art form, that creates a mind capable of channeling ideas into art.

How does an artist or musician or poet achieve this? The process begins with what Eliot calls “tradition,” a word that we more often associate with the snobbish, feigned expressions of historical empathy emitted by modern critics attempting to downplay the application of the past to today’s reality. Tradition makes them uncomfortable because it evokes all of the standards that they wish were not in place but nonetheless are the foundation for their very existence. However, tradition is not just a sense of the past, and it is much more important than academia would have us believe. It is a progression that continues even now, marching through history with a broad, sweeping reach that incorporates the nuances of every era into a comprehensive now. Tradition is what “is already living,” not just what has already lived. It is in this sense that a truly great work of art may be, as Eliot says, one in which “the dead poets . . . assert their immortality most vigorously.” Tradition is not merely an evaluation of things gone by. It is the revelation and experience of the presence of the past as manifested in the present. Eliot puts it best: “[T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

We therefore see that true artistic interpretation begins with a knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and love of the artistic tradition. This involves the entire breadth of artistic history; the writings of Shakespeare, the paintings of Sesshu Toyo, the string quartets of Shostakovich, the poems of Yeats, the sculptures of Michelangelo, and so and so forth. When the artist truly realizes the magnitude of this task – namely that of absorbing as many of these influences as possible – he is staggered, stunned, and humbled. Eliot writes that the artist’s mind “is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” The artist’s goal should therefore not be to produce as much art as possible, but rather to receive and accumulate as many “particles” as he can. Only then will he be able to combine and create from the richness of those mental impressions.

Once this gathering process has begun to mature, is the artist then ready to let loose with the passionate creative fury that he allegedly possesses? No. In fact, there are very few moments in which such release is warranted. True artistic interpretation has nothing to do with such overdone self-aggrandization (for that is what it truly is) but is rather the result of a cerebral ability to synthesize the elements of the tradition that one has gathered – an ability that can only come from the arduous process of deep learning. In other words, artistic interpretation is not about showiness on stage or fake, ethereal emotionalism. It is about intense, long-suffering, detailed, unflaggingly dedicated study of every minute detail so that the artist eventually has complete freedom to create anything he wants from those details when the time comes to communicate a message. Eliot perfectly encapsulates this idea when he says that “it is not the ‘greatness,’ the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.”

Artistic interpretation is not about emotional capabilities; it is about intellectual possibilities. It requires the same thing, regardless of the particular form it takes: a conscious and deliberate control of the mind, which is the hardest thing anyone will ever do, even if it is just for five minutes. Unconscious emotionalism has no place in true artistic expression because such expression is only possible after the application of our highest analytical consciousness to the task of gaining the deepest understanding of every nook and cranny of the art itself. (At the risk of stepping beyond the topical boundaries of this discussion, I might also add that this process requires a level of personal and spiritual maturity – as well as good old-fashioned focus – that today’s media-bound youth possess in increasingly and concerningly minimal doses).  

This is why Eliot is so profoundly correct when he says that “[t]he progress of an artist is continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The rigorous daily study and humility in the face of the great artistic tradition that are necessary for true artistic progress are impossible with an egoistic interpretive posture that focuses on creating art out of one’s emotional “self.” The artist does not create emotions, nor does he magnify them. He uses, as Eliot says, the “ordinary ones,” and he does so through the lens of his continual self-sacrifice to the greater beauty of the music he performs, the brush he plies, or the pen he wields.

And herein lies the paradox; for one cannot release something that one does not have. In other words, letting go of self-focused emotionalism and learning to absorb as much of the world’s artistic heritage as one can is only possible if one has already experienced the depth and breadth of such emotion. Artistic expression is “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.”

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