These Days, Who’s Beat and Who’s Lost?

There’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while and have discussed with a few people. Through the years some places have been centers of creation, places that produced many artists, writers and musicians or drew them together from various countries, in both cases you can see those loose groups creating whole new types of art, styles of writing, influencing their period.

From around 1860 with Monet and Manet to the first World War it was Paris with Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Czanne, Seurat, Signac, Degas, Vuillard, Dufy, Picasso and Braque all lived and created around the butte.

In the 20s some of them like Picasso and Modigliani moved to the Montparnasse neighborhood and were joined by Miro, Kandinsky and many others. Not far from there the Lost Generation was named by and loosely gravitated around Gertrude Stein. It included Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the 40s and 50s it was the Beat Generation in New York and San Francisco with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

In the 60s Warhol’s Factory in New York with Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Truman Capote.

In the late 70s and 80s there was another Factory, this one in Manchester with Tony Wilson, Joy Division / New Order, The Durutti Column, The Happy Mondays, James and (briefly) Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

In the 90s Nirvana led the rise of Grunge with Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden all based in Seattle.

Also in the 90s there was a bit of simmering activity in eastern Europe, especially with the expats in Budapest which has lead to books by Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer and Arthur Phillips. Although including them here is kind of pushing it as they were specifically trying to duplicate that Lost Generation “feel”, not creating something new.

Currently New York and London could probably be targeted but that’s a general statement, there is no specific movement going on (that I know of).

I’ve mentioned groups that were painters, writers, musicians, in each period but I’m sure there were others, some of you might be insulted at a list with both the Montmartre crowd and Grunge side by side, I probably made some mistakes in associations within groups and most of them weren’t necessarily based in the cities and neighborhoods I mention, they were there for a while, met in other cities, possibly did most of their work in other places. The point of the above list is not absolute exactitude, it’s to show that there are always places where creativity was burning especially hot. Which leads me to two questions; first, where—if anyplace—is this happening currently and two, which of those effervescent periods/places did I miss?

Before letting you answer though, back to the discussions I’ve already had and a theory. Steph first brought up the internet as the virtual place where creative people meet, people don’t feel the need to move to a specific place, they can live and be influenced by whatever environment they prefer and interact through the interweb. Now I love the net and all it’s brought but, call me romantic, I don’t think a virtual “place” can be on the same footing as those centers I’ve mentioned.

Also, it should be noted that when I (and Steph I’m sure) mention the net and it’s creativity and collaboration I don’t necessarily mean what is visible on the web, I mean the ease of communication and loads of content and how they influence everyone that has access to it. Might be a painter reading up on techniques or discussing ideas with someone on the other side of the planet, might be a writer posting chapters of an upcoming novel and getting feedback, might be a film maker offering a trailer to find financial support, might be graphic artists swapping photoshop files from one continent to the other, could be a group of programmers creating a revolutionary piece of social software, etc.

Last week Karl brought up a fine tuning of the net “theory” or actually added to it and it kind of brought home the idea for me. He reminded me that travel plays a part in that globally interacting virtual meeting place. Yes, the internet lets folks from everywhere connect, yes there is a lot of creativity being stoked by those communications but it’s wrong to see it as only virtual. Thanks to those connections and cheap travel there are meetings everywhere, conferences or individual encounters. More and more bloggers set up meetings, get personal tours and come in contact with locals thanks to connections they’ve made with readers and other bloggers. Kino film makers keep in contact by email and use cheap travel to create cells everywhere in the world. The Fray publishes stories by writers from around the globe and meet in person once a year in Fray Cafes held in various cities. Those are only a few examples, I’m sure there are others.

So, lets hear what you think about the first two questions and lets add a couple more; do you have examples of easy instant communication and cheap travel combining to create virtual and/or temporary creative bubbles? Are there any that we’ll one day look back on as we now look on the Beats, the Lost and the Grungy?


aj December 11, 2003

Ah, you forgot Britpop, London (Camden!), 1993-97…where are they now, aside from Blur?

The whole “scenes” thing is basically over now. In the 19th century you *had* to travel from the provinces to the Big City to meet with likeminded people. Even well into the 20th century, if you’ve read William Weintraub’s City Unique, Montreal – a much rougher place than the refined, genteel city we know and love today – was still attracting farm kids with bright lights, jobs, schools, etc.

But now the cosmopolitan comes to the rural. This trend isn’t new: people Oop North wanted to know of the Latest London Styles, in the 60s shows like Ready Steady Go broadcast pop culture from the epicenter to the hinterlands. And today, anyone with a satellite dish can get 500 channels of subcultures to choose from.

I think what we’re seeing is much less the emergence of regional movements or scenes (a media creation, anyway) than trans-national ones, diffuse, but with the cumulative effect of the network. And the emergence of really individualistic creative people. Who, really, is a peer of Rufus Wainwright, or the Dears? They’re both from Montreal but nothing alike, and there’s no scene around them, really. Their fans are probably more different to each other than they are similar. (I don’t really know enough about the other arts to comment.)

And thanks to network effects, these individual artists from the hinterlands can “broadcast” to potentially millions of fans. It might be just one fan in North Dakota, and a cluster of kids in Chapel Hill, NC, and hundreds in Chicago, but they can all buy the CD at Amazon…

The network routes around dumb local records stores and Big Box emporia who only stock Britney!

So, the scene is everywhere and nowhere… and there is no scene!

I take exception to the cheap travel bit. Travel is cheap because oil is artificially cheap at the moment. We are at the peak of oil production right now, with a complete falloff in new discoveries. Air travel in particular will not be cheap in 10 years, and it’ll be prohibitively expensive in 20. By 2061 it’ll be effectively gone forever. So enjoy it while we have it. Or better yet, stay home and ride your bike…

Alex December 11, 2003

I’m not sure, I heard people are moving to Berlin now, there’s supposed to be something big happening there soon.

Mathieu December 11, 2003

To me, it’s not about places, it’s about individuals. The fact that you have those “scenes” is simply that like-minded people often attract each others. Today, they simply attract each-others in many more ways.

Since society remember and credits only the significant few (the further you look in history, the fewer they are), there is no telling which of those millions of artists currently active will make its imprint society’s collective memory.

No matter how hot and amazing you are… if you or your art is not remembered or immortalized in some way, it makes little difference to the following generations.

Trying to guess right now who’s “really-hot” and who’s “not-really” is to my opinion simply impossible… its nothing more than an educated guess… because although the actual art is made today, its consecration will come much later.

Also, it is obvious that this new era of information technology spurred an amazing growth in every art-field… its hard to deny that the sheer amount of artist has grown amazingly in the last 50 years.

But will it result in more people being actually remembered? I doubt it will be proportionate.

Society’s capacity to forget is a lot more developed that its ability to remember!

So… in short: No, I wouldn’t know where to look either! Sorry :o)

Martine December 11, 2003

How about La Cabane as a current scene?
Sorry, that was an easy one…

I think A.J. is secretly afraid of flying.

More seriously, the scenes you describe are often highly romanticized and only a very small elite could feel like they were part of them. These days, trends come and go at a very fast pace and so do the scenes. Who remembers the San Francisco South Park scene of the mid-90’s dot com bubble and/or who takes it seriously? The Web as a virtual space for the new scenes makes things go even faster. 50 years ago, flash mobs might have been popular for 4 or 5 years. We might have thought of them as a “scene”, an important art and political movement. But in 2004, we saw them in New York and two weeks later the flashmobs were in Paris, Montreal, Berlin, and then they died.

In an area of globalization, each “scene” will get its 15 minutes of fame, but not much more. I wonder if I don’t prefer it that way. It feels less elitist and more democratic. The fact that there are too many scenes and too many trends might make us do less “admiring the elite from a distance” in favor of “acting directly and locally”.

aj December 12, 2003

Ah yes, the Lacabanier movement of 2003 :)

Martine, you said what I wanted to say! You writers, always being so darned eloquent.

I love flying, actually. Flying is much safer than driving; they give any idiot a driver’s license. Now flying cars…that’s scary!

Not to get too OT, but oil is a limited resource, and we’re at the peak of production right now, after which supplies start to fall off.

Unless they come up with efficient aircraft that run on alternate fuels (hydrogen? Biodiesel? long extension cords?), air transport as we know it will be effectively too expensive to be sustainable. Climate change may make fossil fuel use relatively moot sooner than that, anyway.

I’m not holding out for a transatlantic high-speed rail bridge: We might have to get used to taking 7 days to get to Europe by boat, and resigning ourselves to the fact that life in the 21st century will be a lot slower paced.

blork December 12, 2003

Clearly, clearly, the “scene” these days is happening in Longueuil. No really.

But seriously, I agree with Martine that we tend to romanticize the scenes from the past and what they must have been like at the time. Pick a scene, any scene, and if you could inject yourself into it, you might find that the people involved weren’t so aware that they were part of a “scene” when they were living it.

Kandinski and the others in Montparnasse may have be deliberately avoiding the “scene” across the river and up the hill in Montmartre. It was only after the Montparnasse scene died out that anyone labelled it a scene. In other words, once a scene is seen as a scene, it’s already has-been. (Whoa, what’s in my coffee this morning…?)

I also agree that we live in a time of micro-scenes. In Montreal for example (specifically, on the Main) in the early-to-mid 90’s there was a spoken word “scene.” Does anyone remember that? There were events happening at a rate of a few a week, mostly drawing on the same pool of a dozen or so “spoken word artists.” Artsy magazines all around were reporting on the “spoken word revivial” and such, and pinpointing Montreal as one of the epicenters.

That scene is long gone, and largely forgotten. The only survivor that I’m aware of is Catherine Kidd, and that’s largely because — from my understanding — she has always focussed on the work, not the scene, and she didn’t allow herself to be ghettoized.

Other scenes pop up and die quickly, due to the highly accellerated culture we live in. That includes an acute sense of “scene awareness.” Everyone is looking for a scene to belong to, but like I said, once a scene becomes self-aware, it already has one foot in the grave.

Michael December 12, 2003

Ed, you could also say that Rufus (and Martha) Wainwright are survivors of that scene too. Rufus did get his big contract and such through other contacts AFAIK, but he worked out his schtick there and had his proud mom out at the shows and everything, just like anyone else would have had.

steph December 12, 2003

Looking at it another way: the number of people who point at me and tell me I’m part of the “blogger scene”, or that I work alongside some big names in Web standards and thus I’m part of that “scene”.

Scenes happen mostly in hindsight :) They don’t have a present existence. People meet and work together because they are like-minded and have things to share, knowledge to exchange. Scenes happen when connections are made and people meet up.

I know a writer, whose publisher got to know some band who knows Chris Cornell, and the next thing she knows, she’s doing a reading of an excerpt off her new novel with some well-known folks in her audience.

And I’m sure there are hundreds of such meetings going on, all around the world. The ones which will be remembered in 50 years’ time are the ones where individuals within the group have made notable achievements. And as for which, we will not know for another 50 years.

Patrick December 12, 2003

Great comments boys and girls :)

– Scenes are mostly identified in hindsight.
– They are only remembered if some members “make it big”.
– Identifying something as a scene affects it.
– The new communication mediums dont only create some scenes they also speed up the rate at which they appear and disappear.
– Aj is afraid of flying.

Martine December 12, 2003

Patrick, you are good at synthesis (sinthesizing?). You would make a great show host! ;-)

Mathieu December 12, 2003

So, if “identifying” a scene changes it and makes it “has-been” right away… didnt we just blew our chance of being part of one (la cabane) by flagging it as such?

Damn… it sure was fun while it lasted!!!

Here’s a nice tagline for the next yulblog: “Welcome to the best “has-been” scene in montreal. Your too late, but its fun anyway!”

blork December 12, 2003

I like it. The theme is “It’s over, but we’re still sitting here drinking!”

TheDon December 13, 2003

Isn’t “Le Plateau” one of those scenes? Perhaps in our own microcosmic ways, anyway.

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