The Death of the Artist

December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole.  What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art.  It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes.  Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent.  We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.

I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality.  What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality.  Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out.  But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same.  Sort of, anyway.  In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke.  Love sang:

When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!

And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter.  We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else.  I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s.  Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality.  We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.

But now, it’s 20-30 years later.  What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream.  Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver.  As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).

Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter.  This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure.  Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines.  These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos.  We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings.  When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same.  They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses.  And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.

Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset.  I wish I could disagree with her.  But I can’t.  As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world.  So it turns out I still have a little punk in me.  Who knew?

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§ 8 Responses to The Death of the Artist

  • I don’t know much about the artsy-fartsy world, but from what I’ve seen in my home country artwork only gets noticed id the creator already has a NAME, regardless of how ridiculous it may seem to the public…

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Sadly, that seems to be the way it is these days. It’s more than kind of sad. It seems like there is more art than ever out there, and most artists are exiled from the mainstream, or even something close to the mainstream, and the only way for them to get noticed is through homogeneity.

  • nif dü says:

    Oh, I don’t know. I think there are still wild and untamed corners of culture, outside the reach of cold and impersonal corporations where the human spirit can roam wild and free like our ancient ancestors once did across the African desert.

    Art is alive and well in the deep dark recesses of our primal hearts waiting only for an invitation, scribbled in our own forgotten blood, to reemerge and flow freely from our hearts and our minds.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Yes, art is still out there, but as you note, it’s in the corners of our culture, exiled to the fringes, due to the corporatisation of art, through the professional degrees like the MFA and so on. From what artist friends tell me now it’s harder to get a break, to get into a gallery, a record deal, a book deal, without knowing someone who knows someone. And while it was always that way to a degree, the number of artists who DO have those connections is today impressive, and those artists with those connection and who are in the mainstream reflect a pretty standard view of art and culture, far less experimentation and much more “safe” art.

  • […] Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind (also here); Terry Eagleton’s On Evil; and Amy Waldman’s The Submission).  Time […]

  • art bergmann says:

    re:’death of the artist’ been musing on this for 30 years;the lost art of imagination,even….go find the arts of the cultures that have been colonised,brutalised out of our vision;perhaps redemption lies there for ‘new ways of seeing’ (john berger)…great to read you John.artbergmann

    • I can imagine this is something you’ve thought about for a long time, given your background in punk and what has happened to Vancouver since the 1980s, or in my case, the early 90s, when I was in the punk scene there. I find it depressing that punk has been stripped of all of its meaning, it’s anger and fury, and rebranded as a suburban lifestyle option.

      As for what we the West have done to other cultures, indeed. We can start with our own country and what Canada has done to the indigenous populations. This is a wicked world. Thanks for reading, it’s not often one of your heroes comments on your blog!

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