Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Today in class we had a bit of reading that was presented as a student essay discussing ukiyo-e and modern Japanese pop culture. At one point, the 86 word bit reading stated "I think manga and anime will be traditional Japanese arts like ukiyo-e someday." It struck me as curious because certainly manga and anime already are traditional arts. The first verifiable Japanese animated films appeared in 1917 meaning that the art form is now on the cusp of having 100 years of history. The history of manga is more disputed with some people pointing back to the 12th Century and certain scrolls that showed some of the pacing methods of manga and others pointing back only to the 18th Century. In either case, the history of manga is over two-hundred years old and may be as old as nine hundred years. So why are neither considered a traditional art form?
Looking at the arts that we consider are fit to be used with the word traditional, there seems to be one thing in common: they very often aren't ongoing and common art forms. We don't seem to use the word to describe culture that is currently evolving but rather to denote the predecessors of current culture. If you were to use the phrase "traditional music" most people would think of people in archaic costumes playing songs that are one hundred or two hundred years old. Changing "music" to "rock and roll" gets you thoughts of the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Elvis.
Beyond that, there is a bizarre and somewhat inconsistent line of definition between a traditional art and pop culture. The sort of dancing occuring in hip hop dance battles requires every bit as much rhythm, athleticism, and energy as ballet or tap dancing and can be just as beautiful but it won't be regarded as a traditional art. For that matter, in terms of being "traditional" ballet has a much better pedigree than tap-dancing. Cartoonists and comic artists similarly have to spend as much effort studying and perfecting their craft as do novelists and painters of portraits but most people won't consider it a traditional art form.
Likewise, game design and gamemastering are art forms that require a fair amount of practice to achieve success in. In the case of gamemastering, even within the gaming community the idea of being a professional who is paid to run games is something that is sometimes regarded with ridicule. Gamemastering is seen as a past time to do with friends and many think the idea of charging for such a service is something of a confidence game. Many would consider the idea of gamemastering as an art form to be putting on airs or being presumptious.
Traditional is also often used in an accusatory or exclusive manner. Someone who doesn't like the style of a new variation of an art form will refer to the traditional pieces as examples of the way the art should be practiced. Meanwhile, someone who enjoys a new variation might refer to the limits of traditional versions of the art. It's like drawing a line in the sand to divide the world into acceptable and unacceptable things. Whether the word is used to convey something positive or negative depends on whether the speaker likes recent changes or not, but either way it is used to force a division on the situation.
In either case, traditional is used to refer to a prime example, one that has not experienced any changes from its base form. The broader the term following "traditional", the further back in history our thoughts go until we find what we think is the start of that category and then we think "this is traditional, this is what it was like before things were changed." At which point many people would start to judge the example on that basis.
Traditional can also be used to identify a particular style or practice as being characteristic of a particular cultural group. Once again, this purely descriptive use is often applied a sort of value judgment. For example, one person might praise a Japanese mangaka for their art style and story-telling and then turn around and deride an American comic artist for the use of the Japanese style because it is something they feel the American does not have a right to use. The term "cultural appropriation" might be used. To be clear, I am aware that there are some people who take up a foreign culture's traditions for the purpose of mocking them or demeaning them and I find that reprehensible, but at the same time the primary way new culture arises is from the places where two cultures meet and blend their styles together. Because of this, I often see uses of the word "traditional" and the phrase "cultural appropriation" applied to cases where someone has been legitimately inspired to create something new.
This rant is sort of circling in on itself in a few places. I've never seen tradition in and of itself as a reason to either change things or leave things untouched. It seems to me that placing a positive or negative connotation to the status of being a tradition is counterproductive, causing us to dismiss options or methods that might otherwise be something useful or enjoyable. Traditions can be either good or bad. Describing practices as traditional or not-traditional by and large feels like an unimportant distinction to me, but I still do it on a knee-jerk basis and have done so at a couple of places in this post already.
To me, a tradition is sort of like a bloodline or family tree. It is a way of tracing the heritage of a cultural practice and seeing how it has evolved and grown over each generation. Comics, game design, gamemastering, cosplay, and other similar things are often referred to as pop culture, but they are living and evolving traditions with every bit as much validity as theater, novels, orchestra, ballet, sculpture, or other such traditional arts. To force us to remain within the styles and practices considered traditional, whether for a particular category or a particular ethnic group, is to basically starve the world of cultural growth.
at May 10, 2017
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