My new colleague at Coral Ridge, Daniel Siedell (author and curator of Liberate), has a terrific series of posts over at Patheos on “The Poetics of Painting.” In the final installment, Siedell examines modern painter, Frank Stella, and his minimalist paintings from the 1970s, rehearsing questions about how a modern minimalist, who painted simple, repeated stripes on a canvas, could have been so enamored, enthralled, and informed by the tradition of painting that had come before. Evidently, Stella was obsessed with the work of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). This leads Siedell into musings on the role of tradition in modern painting, which are worth quoting at length because of how transferrable the discussion is to being a modern worship leader, musician, and songwriter:
Tradition gets a bad rap. Modernity has taught us to be skeptical of it, wary of its ossifying leaven that spoils our individuality and autonomy. It suffocates our freedom, removes us from the realities of contemporary life and throws us into a sepulcher, death by doing things “the way they have always been done.” And so we believe that art, as the apotheosis of individuality and freedom, has nothing to do with tradition.
But history tells us otherwise. Modern artists, from Courbet and Manet in the nineteenth century to Picasso and Pollock in the twentieth, understood the catalytic role that tradition plays in artistic practice.
Tradition makes it possible not only to paint a painting, but also to hear it as well.
When an artist drags her brush across a canvas for the first time she is doing what countless artists have done before her and what countless artists will do after her. And so when she paints she hears voices. Or at least, she should.
Tradition is these voices. It is a conversation. It reminds the painter that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she does not work alone. She is participating in a cultural practice with a tradition.
The question for modern worship leaders, who often hold tradition at arm’s length in their leadership and songwriting craft, is, “Do we understand ‘the catalytic role that tradition plays in artistic practice'”? Do we own the Great Tradition (a term re-given to the Church by author Jim Belcher) as the lifeblood of our modern artistic craft? For instance, do modern worship songwriters examine the Church’s song across time with the same intensity that Stella summoned when pondering for hours the brush strokes of Velázquez?
Stella proves that art that looks very “un-traditional” is still better, more powerful, and more profound when it is informed by tradition. Traditional(ist) church musicians look at modern worship as a history-shirking enterprise, but just because it looks very different from the musical expression that has come before does not necessitate that it must be anti-tradition. In fact, Siedell is encouraging us to see our art-making as more informed and empowered if we were to out-study traditionalism’s best students.
I’ve seen this principle at play in the maturation of worship songwriters who, after a period of time, delve into the majesty of the the Church’s great hymn tradition. Their songwriting becomes more imaginative, theologically robust, metaphorically complex, and emotionally diverse. Their art expands.
If you’re a modern worship leader that doesn’t give a rip about the Church’s tradition, just know that there may be certain benefits to your craft to being a student of tradition (in other words, you don’t have to compromise on the values that you think modern worship has over against tradition). Even within your genre, you will all the more excel as you study and imbibe the work of our brothers and sisters through the ages.