The closing years of the last century have been marked with signs of change, (for better or worse who can tell?) in every department of human activity. In the realm of art this era of change has ushered into existence startlingly new conceptions: principles and ideals of aesthetics that had dominated for centuries have given place to "up-to-date" theories engineered by "the progressives" of the nineteenth century. While the age of new ideas has given birth to really sound and brilliant notions of truth in some cases, in others the heritage of the preceding ages have been overlooked, nay, despised and rejected by us in the fascination of the new and the bewildering. On the threshold of a renaissance India, to-day, is confronted with a series of new ideas which threaten to displace and sweep away the accumulated traditions of her past years. It is premature to premise whether India stands to lose or gain by her barter of old lamps for new. In the problem of reshaping Indian art and industries it is important therefore to con-sider how much of the remnants of antiquity, it would be useful to retain and how much to demolish. The most radical of the art reformers of the nineteenth century have in building up the art nouveau of their time thought fit in many instances to adopt and perpetuate the methods and aims of the works of their predecessors and have not despised to make of the doings of the master craftsmen of old precedents for the coming generation. It may be interesting to trace and follow up what part traditions have played in the development of art and generally to assess the futility or otherwise of sticking to specific ideas and points of views in reforming the art of a particular community and helping its development on lines peculiar to itself.
A French writer has somewhere said--"It is in the arts themselves as they exist, that we must find the elements to rejuvenate them". There is a tendency in the modern art movements to learn and teach something fresh-to make a break with the past. The effect sometimes is to check the natural and continuous development-the evolution of art. Strictly speaking all new corners of art do nothing but continue systematically a long evolution,-spinning out the thread at the end left by their predecessors. For in one sense art is neither ancient nor modern but perpetual. Painting, for instance, in its broadest aspects preserves from age to age a real continuity. Styles may change but the essentials remain. This continuity of ideas through the varying moods of time, very similar to the continuity and preservation of the human race, seems one of the important characteristics if not the essence of art understood as a form of human expression. In art as in of reality, one is always somebody's son. One never invents anything, one only repeats -although one may marvellously improve. This improvement, this development, of the art of any particular community must be on lines consistent with its ancient history, with its known characteristics, its own traditions.
Nevertheless, it is commonly believed and constantly asserted that the present day art has been shown to be in advance of that of the past or rather that if not equal to it to in some so-called or academical qualities, it is acquiring so many "new lights" from to the general progress of art. The tendency of nineteenth century art, therefore, has been to assert its independence of the centuries to that preceded it, to rely no longer on a tradition with which the times were out of touch ; to look forward rather than look backward, to learn from nature rather than from the old masters. What then is the scope or value of tradition in the development of art?
Tradition is the accumulation of previous modes or manners of expression crystallized under certain wholesome principles and system of work found on trial to be useful by our predecessors. Can there be any development without traditions? On the other hand does tradition in any way thwart or stunt the growth of art? Respect for old age otherwise called tradition is, in the field of art, vindicated by the popularity and the worship of the old masters. Now there are two classes of views with regard to the debt, we owe to the old masters and their influence on the present day artists. Sir Joshua Reynolds in his "Lectures" says: -- "Study the great works of the great masters for ever. Consider them as models which you are to imitate...." There is no phase of modern painting however startling in its novelty, however audacious and revolutionary in its originality, which cannot be paralleled among the most universally respected of these "old masters." "It is mere ignorance" says John Ruskin--"which it engenders the vanity of supposing that we can invent at a stroke a new style of architecture, a new method of looking at nature: a new manner of painting-there is nothing les new under the sun". Strictly speaking there is no new discovery to be made in the field of art and that the only possible development is in the power of expression. The other class says:--The mere imitation of the style of a past age can never produce a great work of art. The form and demands of art have changed and expanded it with the advance of time. The artistic wants not less than the artistic capacities of succeeding ages are entirely different; how should the principles which produced an art for the one be capable of producing an art suitable to the other? It is too much to expect one to worship everything ancient and to despise everything modern. By too much inhaling of traditional forms one loses the power to assimilate new ideas. That would be stifling all originality. By too much thinking in one set of ideas, we get blunted. All originality must disappear when every attempt to break away from tradition is treated as almost a criminal offence. The true leaders of art education are the men who are ready to change their methods as circumstances demand. A hard and fast system can produce nothing but stereotyped effect. Rules are the fetters of genius. We must break the leading strings which tie us to the old system; we must discover fresh fields and pastures new. While new traditions are being created, new cannons of taste are being established, new creeds are springing up, we must not go on bowing down to our old battered and absurd idols, worshipping them not because they are of any use to us but simply because they are old. Being asleep so long like Rip Van Winkle, we do not realize that a new generation has sprung up which regards us as out of date. Like the natives of the Fiji Islands they want to kill off their parents when they are old.
Yet there is another class of thinkers who take a middle path between the two extreme views. "Traditions" they say "should not be preferred to opportunities. You are so scrupulous about observing this ruleorthat formula that you forget that there is anything else to be taken into account. To make new experiments does not necessarily mean disloyalty to great traditions. Worthy traditions must be upheld in a worthy manner. Instead of plodding along in the actual footsteps of the old masters-what we want to see is a proper spirit of independence and a serious striving after originality. We laugh at artists who flourished generations ago because we see that they hedged themselves round with conventions and followed more or less ineffectively a rigid set of rules. In avoiding their conventions you are trotting one after another in just as narrow a round of conventions. You have substituted a new convention for an old one -a habit of eccentricity for a matter of custom-and you have not got appreciably further on the road to great and inspired art. If an artist of striking originality does chance to appear, most of you scout him and do your best to keep him from acquiring authority, and the few who do attach themselves to him discredit him by turning into a convention his mannerisms of and personal tricks of style.-None of you take the trouble to think for yourselves." There is a good deal of force and soundness in this argument. Glancing through these ideas the questions suggest themselves : Does modern art sum up all that has gone before (in the manner of composite photographs) and add something of its own or has it in spite of its broader vision neglected or forgotten some of the fundamental principles of art? Were the old masters with their obvious limitations both of subject and treatment consciously rejecting what they conceived to be beyond the reach of art, or had they merely failed to realize then the full scope and possibilities of their crafts? Has everything possible been attempted or achieved or are there still new worlds to conquer?
In the first place every work of art must be in harmony not only with received ideas but also with independent artistic ones. Even when the genius of artists rests on pre-existing ideas or is inspired by ideas of another age or other countries, it must transform them by impressing upon them the seal of its individuality and by so making them applicable to the manners and conventions of the time. To be faithful to the traditions of our ancestors is not necessarily to be slaves of the formulas of these elders. Yet the training must be wrong indeed if it is based on nothing but tradition. Whenever tradition and only tradition has been the watchword of painting, art has declined until the inevitable reaction sets in and experiment in search of fresh methods takes its place. In every period of art history it has been observed again and again, that immediately following the rise of new ideas in art a period of imitation and repetition sets in and it is this that is called decadence. Again in course of time men grow weary of imitation. They launch out once more in other directions and new movements begin. Unhappily for them and unfortunately for the works of their predecessors the new age does not necessarily work on the traditions of the old nor begin where the other left off. It does not, as it ought to, gather up the threads of all that has gone before. It will be admitted of course that by the process aforesaid each school of ideas, starting on its own account, necessarily wastes a good deal of time and thought-which would otherwise have been saved if it had only harked back to the deserted posts of their predecessors in the field and started the work at the point they left unfinished. The new corners in the field not only deprive themselves of the valuable materials stored up in the results attained by previous workers but stand in in the way of a systematic evolution and thus stifle the potentiality of any set of ideas by neglecting or refusing to carry them on to their ultimate consummation.
How far one new generation of artists suckled in the traditions of a previous age is guilty of imitation and prevents by their own actions the development of their power of invention and individual specialities, is a question that requires some elucidation.
In the first place any artist can be a follower, that is to say, be faithful to the traditions of his art without sacrificing one jot of his independence. To illustrate, Sir Edwin Landseer stands alone in his own sphere, yet as an animal painter he was a follower of Snyders, but in no sense an imitator. So Sir Frederick Leighton was inspired by and was greatly indebted to the ideal Greek sculpture, yet everything he has done is his and his alone. The same remarks apply to the works of George Frederick Watts and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In the second place we cannot exclude all imitation of others. If we were forbidden to make use of the advantages which our predecessors afford us, art would always have to begin and consequently remain always in its infant state and it is a matter of common observation that no art was ever invented of and carried to perfection at the same time. An artist must not only be of necessity an imitator of the works of nature but also of other artists. Some writers admit that our study is to begin by imitation, but maintain that we should no longer use the thoughts of our predecessors. Invention is one of the marks of genius; but if we consult experience we shall find that it is by being conversant with the thoughts of others that we learn to think. A mind enriched by the assemblage of all the be treasures of ancient and modern art will be more elevated and fruitful in resources, in proportion to the number of ideas which to have been carefully collected and thoughtfully digested. Those who have the most of materials have the greatest power of invention. The true and liberal ground of imitation is an open field; where he who precedes, has had the advantage of starting before. You may always propose to overtake him, it is enough however to pursue his course; you need not tread in his footsteps; and you certainly have a right to outstrip him if you can. What is learned in this manner from the works of others becomes really our own, sinks deep and is never forgotten, nay, it is by seizing on this clue that we proceed forward and get further and further enlarging the principles and improving the practice of our art.
Sir Joshua Reynolds has some very pertinent remarks in this connection. "We must not rest contented with the study of the moderns; we must trace back the art to its fountain heads; to that source from which they drew their principal excellences; the monuments of pure antiquity"..."All the inventions and the thoughts of the ancients whether conveyed to us in statues, bas-reliefs, intaglios, cameos or coins are to be sought after and carefully studied, the genius that hovers over these venerable relics may be called the father of modern art. From the remains of the works of the ancients the modern arts were revived and it is bytheirmeans that they must be restored a second time. However it may mortify our vanity, we must be forced to allow them our masters and we may venture to prophesy, that when they shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish and we shall again relapse into barbarism. No man need be ashamed of copying the ancients : their works are considered as a magazine of common property always open to the public whence every man has a right to take what materials he pleases and if he has the art of using them they are supposed to become to all intents and purposes his own property. For, he who borrows an idea from an ancient or even from a modern artist not his contemporary, and so accommodates it to his own work that it makes a part of it, with no seam or joining appearing can, hardly be charged with plagiarism."
It will be interesting to quote the remarks of John Ruskin which are pertinent to the subject. "The originality which proves vital does not mean doing what nobody has ever seen attempted before; it means spontaneity of genuine thought and unaffected feeling, working within traditionary bounds with complete power and insight; it is parallel to the vexed conception of Free Will in Ethics, and as much misunderstood. In reviewing the history of art it becomes evident that the great achievements have been in development of existing ideals and methods not in antagonism to them; the more we know about the great schools the more we are forced to recognize their continuity.” In discussing the value of tradition we must distinguish the effect thereof convention. To quote Dr Coomaraswamy, “Convention may be defined as the manner of artistic presentation while traditions stand for a historic continuity in the use of such conventional methods of expression. Many have thought that convention and tradition are the foes of art and deem epithets “conventional and traditional” to be in themselves of the nature of destructive criticism. Convention is conceived solely as limitation, not as a language and a means of expression. But to one realizing what tradition really means, a quite contrary view presents itself; that of the terrible and almost hopeless disadvantage from which art suffers when each artist and each craftsman, or at the best each little group and school, has first to create a language before ideas can be expressed in it. For tradition is a wonderful expressive language. It is the mother tongue, every phrase of it rich with the countless shades of meaning read into it by the simple and the great that have made and used it in the past.
“As long as art is living, tradition remains plastic, and is moulded imperceptibly by successive generations. The force of its appeal is strengthened by the association of ideas- artistic, emotional and religious. Traditional forms have thus a significance not merely foreign to an imitative art, but dependent on the fact that they represent rather race conceptions than the ideas of one artist or a single period. They are vital expression of the race mind: to reject them, and expect great art to live on as before would be to sever the roots of a forest tree, and still look for flowers and fruit upon branches.”