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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