Friday, January 05, 2007

Creative sites

Today the conventional wisdom holds that, because of the ease of electronic communication, it doesn't much matter where a creative person lives nowadays. So one might as well move to a place where the climate is mild and rents are low.

Maybe so, but that has not been my experience. It is true that I have met some persons who influenced me on the Internet, but on the whole I believe that this facility supplements, rather than replaces the old-fashioned "face-work" of actual encounter in a specified locality.

Sometimes this locality can be very specific, a microenvironment, as it were. In the early sixties I did a brief career detour into the world of publishing. I was fortunate to have Bernard Myers occupying an office next to mine on the twentieth floor of the old McGraw-Hill building (an architectural landmark, but that fact is incidental). Every other day, Bernie would invite me to lunch and tell me all sorts of things about intellectual and professional life in New York (he was born, if memory serves, in 1909). One day, though, Bernie got a promotion and was moved to another floor in the building. Our colloquies ceased. Still, I had learned what I needed to know, and later on, when I was living an impoverished life as a student in London, Bernie Myers gave me freelance work. If we had not shared an office wall, my life would have been different.

A cultural historian has drawn up a map of the places of residence of leading intelleectuals in Munich prior to World War I. Few people outside of Germanists realize the fact, but this was one of the most dynamic centers of creativity in Europe a hundred years ago. A space of little more than a square mile in the Schwabing district contained the apartments of Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee. Peter Behrens, who jump-started modern architecture, lived there also, as did Stefan George and Thomas Mann. And many more. Not all these luminaries knew one another, but collectively they created an atmosphere of incredible brilliance. Or as they said in those days "Muenchen leuchtete"--Munich shone.

Such constellations of creativity are fragile, and this one was no exception. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 destroyed the preeminence of Munich. It was never to return.

It is less easy to define why the city developed this eminence. To be sure, in the 19th century the Wittelsbach house had begun a campaign of embellishing the city architecturally and building up its museums. However, Munich came into its own only after 1871, which began the age of German industrial expansion, symbolized by the Ruhr and by Berlin. Munich, traditionally a center of the Bavarian baroque with close ties to Italy, thrived because it was not the Ruhr, not Berlin.

The novelist Robert Stone has just brought out a book chronicling the efflorescence of the East Village in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the district has been gentrified. The arts scene didn't die though, it moved to Williamsburg and other places. Affordable housing, especially in rundown disctricts, is a key factor.

This is one reason why the prescriptions of Richard Florida, perporting to show what cities can do to make themselves attractive to creative people, have generally failed. Creativity flourishes under conditions of benign neglect--at least of a certain sort.

A further question is, What is creativity? Fifty years ago the answer seemed easy. It is achievement in the fine arts of literature, theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture and architecture. In the post-Gutenberg era this deck has been scrambled and the popular media of movies and television, rock and rap seem to fit the Zeitgeist all too closely.

But is the addition of these new media to the mix wide enough? Some advocate the principle of "symbolic analysis," which would include all brain workers.

One feature remains, though. About the only thing we know about creative districts is that they develop a critical mass after a few innovative souls have settled there, leading to the attraction of others. So far, so good. But then a version of the St. Tropez Syndrome sets in. Too many people, especially the uncreative rich, move in, rents go up--and the magic is gone.


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