The following is the second and final part in a series on creating a flourishing independent arts scene. The first part covered two of the “four C’s of scene,” “credit” and “cheap.”.
3. Creativity (Diversify)
I have been saying that part of art is creating a space for that art to exist. This means exactly what it says. It could be as simple as sweeping oneâ€™s arm across a table to make a place to put a sculpture, or as desperate as starting a gallery in the back of a bar. Whatever it takes, the creative impulse must always be on display for the artist. If it is not, then it is no longer art, but posturing, politicking. Oddly enough, the sort of sweeping and desperate motions I described could be viewed as the very essence of posturing and politicking. And perhaps that is true, but one must always remember the place in which it is happening (refer back to point two). If one postures and politicks from a place of privilege, then itâ€™s often hollow, doing those things for the sake of doing those things. If, however, it comes from a space where there was previously no space for posturing and politicking, then it indicates a real reason for that creation. The creation of space is, in fact, part of the act of creation. The creation of a new scene is an artistic act, of sorts. Politicking in an old scene, however, is oftentimes simply rehashing whatâ€™s been done before.
And this is the essence of what it means to be creative on an art scene: not simple imitation, but new creation. Those who are on a power-based art scene love to be imitated, because their scene is a reflection of their ego. Therefore, they tend to only let those on who imitate their style or reflect a similar aesthetic taste. When something new comes along that subverts them, it is immediately branded as aesthetically unpleasant or undesirable (remember the very first reactions to hip-hop?). A good art scene has to fight exist, has to fight for its place. And it stays good if it stays fresh, does not allow itself to be dominated by ego, but instead what moves the ego. When taste starts to ossify, it is the indication of a dying scene. When those tastes are being constantly reborn, however, life continues. A tree that doesnâ€™t bear fruit is worthless.
It is important to remember, as well, that a creative scene is often a raucous scene. Everyone is oftentimes doing their own thing. So much so that a creative art scene can be almost self-defeating. Only a sense of community can actually help prevent this from happening (this will be addressed in the final point). But in general, raucousness should be encouraged. This has two effects. First, it destroys any unnecessary gravitas that might cling to an art scene. When a crowd is overwhelmed by the weightiness of a truth in a piece, you will know. When the bar goes quiet because of the poem you just read, you know itâ€™s good. There is an annoying habit of readers on many poetry scenes these days, where a poet asks the audience to not clap until the end of the reading. This is egotistical on two levels: first it assumes people will clap, and second, it allows for no reaction if something overwhelms you in the moment. What kind of art is that if youâ€™re not allowed to break out in laughter, or break down in tears at that very moment? Donâ€™t muzzle the ox while itâ€™s treading out the grain.
The second effect a raucous environment has is to shun those who would seek to muzzle the ox, so to speak. Thereâ€™s nothing these people can stand less than a bunch of half-drunk people getting up and reading poetry. Thatâ€™s because thereâ€™s a risk involved. If your poem sucks, and youâ€™re reading to a half-drunk audience, somebody just might tell you. This is a needed ego check to which many artists are not willing to submit. The fact is, however, most people in a friendly art scene arenâ€™t going to shout somebody down who they know is a first time reader or a beginner. Thereâ€™s a love thatâ€™s generated within a community that protects those in it that are weak and targets those who would seek to exalt themselves at otherâ€™s expense. The fact is that in a scene where ox-muzzling is the norm, while they might not shout you down for a bad poem, they will not build you up or encourage you either. And in fact, if you read something that is not even bad, but aesthetically out of step, you can almost guarantee dirty looks from across the room by a group of swanky folk dressed in gray and drinking Brooklyn Lagers (who have more than likely bought into the whole scam of Brooklyn itselfâ€”but thatâ€™s another topic for another time).
The last point I wanted to make about creativity being the hallmark of a scene is this: be creative in what you consider a success. I do not mean be self-delusional. Rather, seek other avenues in which you can consider yourself and your scene a success. For example: perhaps it is more of a success to read at 10 local readings to a total of 400 people, than to read at one prestigious venue to a total of 100. Perhaps it is more of a success to self-publish or publish with a micro-press and give your book to 100 people, than to sell it to 20 or 30. In all these cases, not only do more people actually hear and read your work, but you can almost guarantee theyâ€™re more appreciative. The swanky venue is often full of self-interested people who cannot stand to see someone else up there reading (theyâ€™re often only there to brownnose or sit in envy while drinking a free Brooklyn Lager), whereas those in the local scenes are there because they love it. Which is better, you have to ask yourself?
Instead of waiting around for your big break to hit, hit the local areas yourself. Network locally and get your name known regionally. Build slowly rather than splash suddenly. This will first guarantee you a dedicated fan base that will not wither if your big splash turns out not to be so big after all. It also keeps you more attune to the real world, which is infinitely better when it comes to creation, as opposed to the world of commercialized faÃ§ade.
4. Community (Demand)
Perhaps I should have put this quality first, as I believe it is a sense of community that allows for the success of the first three points. One cannot disperse credit unless one values the success of the community over their own individual success. I would argue, in fact, that the greatest individual accomplishments have come from art scenes that were more communal than individualistic. Consider the Beats or the New York School before it. They were connected by more than a similar writing style or school of thought, though there was overlap in regards to this. Rather, they grew out of a community, and the individuals of that community were able to not only build off each other artistically, but praise each otherâ€™s works without feeling threatened themselves. Other such â€œschoolsâ€ were the Black Mountain school, or even the Southern Agrarians (all these schools were a major influence in my thinking when I started The Cartographer Electric! and helped organize its accompanying reading series). These communities were largely literary (though the New York School branched across many forms of art). For examples of this in music, one could look to the Seattle grunge scene of the 90â€™s. Or any number of the punk scenes that have sprung up. In film, one could consider any number of the Wes Anderson films that clearly originated amongst a close group of friends. In these there was always a sense of community that transcended the art being created.
Community does several things. First, it roots the creation of art to a place in time; it associates it with a group of people. It helps avoid the danger of creating art in a vacuum, free from a social awareness of any sort. Of course, creating in an especially inbred community of artists could do the same thing, hence the importance of diversity in creativity. With the input of such creative diversity, the complexity of the art being created in such a community can only increase. This is the second thing community does: allow for alternative creative input. That is, one does not create in a vacuum of craft, but rather, amongst a community of (hopefully diverse) peers whose differences help challenge and bring new perspective. A good community allows for a safe environment in which one can share work. It creatively supports risk taking, helping spur it on, as well as absorb the blows if such a risk fails. Additionally, if there is success, there is the simple human joy of sharing that with others.
Community is like a trampoline. It can help shoot an artist higher as well as soften the blow of falling (and indeed help turn that falling into rising again). Community indeed helps bring satisfaction to creativity. Part of the joy of creation is sharing that with others. I believe it is a lie to create art for artâ€™s sake. Art must be rooted in people and place; it cannot exist in a vacuum. In community, youâ€™re not creating art for artâ€™s sake, but instead for each other. If you donâ€™t make a big splash, there is still contentment in creation that can be shared with others. Even the most insular person desires to share their art (yes, even shut-in Emily Dickinson) and a community is the best place to do it.
Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.
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