I watch too much YouTube. More often than not, it’s a big waste of time. But sometimes you can come across something interesting there. I recently watched an interview of the film director Spike Lee. He was asked by the interviewer to put together a list of films that he would recommend to anyone interested in film. At one point, he expressed his dismay at how often he meets young filmmakers who have never seen many of the movies on his list, which consisted of about 100 films – few of which were obscure, most having been made by well-known directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. As he went through the list, he noted that his own movies contain many elements from these classic films that influenced his own development as a story teller and director. Lee’s point was that his strength as an artist was in part based on his ability to take something already-existing and build on it, so that it could help him share with his audience the insights he received from them about reality.
If what Spike Lee said was true about the lack of familiarity among would-be filmmakers with the great films of the past, then this could only have a negative effect on their ability to create good art. How can one make an excellent piece of art that expresses something true and good if he or she has never engaged the work of those who represent the best at that art form? Originality and innovation are overvalued as serious engagement with what has been handed down is neglected. This leaves us with a culture that tries to mask its shallowness with titillation and technique, because it does not know how to engage serious questions about human nature and life’s meaning in a serious way.
The trend of devaluating the patrimony and traditions of our culture goes beyond the fine arts. Lately there have been many stories about universities shutting down their classics departments for lack of student interest and because these fields do not generate funds for the institution. The same is true for a growing number of departments of philosophy, theology, history, and literature, which are being downsized or reorganized. Being familiar with the best of what has been handed down over time is very important if we are to understand and evaluate our present moment. We call them the “Liberal Arts,” because they are “liberating” in the sense that they are supposed to help us to see what a truly good life looks like and free us to pursue it. They help to foster the conditions for human flourishing. When we cut ourselves off from the wisdom of the ages, we become completely vulnerable to conventional wisdom and the “hot takes” of pundits that serve to manipulate their audience rather than seek truth.
A love for tradition is particularly important for us as Catholics. To live as a Catholic involves the cultivation of a Catholic imagination, to see ourselves as part of something much bigger than ourselves and the current moment. It is to be steeped in the Sacred Scriptures and to be familiar with our artistic, architectural, and musical patrimony. It is to pray the prayers that our ancestors prayed to the Incarnate God who created and redeemed us, and whom we continue to worship together in the sacred liturgy. Catholicism is not a relic, frozen in amber. Nor is it supposed to be an ever-changing movement, untethered from the past in order to follow the spirit of the age into some unknown future. It is a living tradition, strengthened and enriched by what we have received from its having been lived out in different cultures over the course of millennia, and forever preserved in Truth by the Holy Spirit. It is an awesome thing to be a part of. And it should fill us with humble confidence as we accept our role as heirs of the Faith, who are now responsible for the work of evangelization – to build upon and share what we have received from those who came before us.