I saw this picture recently and started wondering, as I always do when I see pictures like this: who has/had it better?
Here’s Earnest Hemingway and friends, sitting in a cafe in Pamplona, Spain, where the bulls run. This was around the time he was writing The Sun Also Rises.
This is every modern fiction writer’s dream, the fantasy of everyone you see pounding away on a MacBook in a coffee shop. Hemingway and his pals hung out in Europe, particularly France and Spain, soaked in the times, lived adventure, and then he wrote about it. Fitzgerald did the same thing. This lifestyle has been greatly romanticized in modern times. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you know what I’m talking about.
And looking at them, I’m struck by how these people changed history, made a mark, an impression on people, and they didn’t have Twitter. They didn’t even have to worry about such a thing. They spent their days writing.
That’s good for us. All those artistic legends and more—Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter—converged on Paris at the same time. They produced. If Ernest or Scott or Pablo had spent their time posting to Facebook or setting up websites for their work, organizing book parties or deciding on a proprietary font for their names, think of all the time they would not have spent writing. Or thinking about what they wrote about. Or just experiencing life that they then converted to fiction. (As it was, Fitzgerald only had Zelda to blame for his interrupted productivity.)
So much of the fiction I see today seems like it’s based on television. Or movies. Or the Internet world—what the writer knows about people through the narrow sampling of blogs, Google and text messages. Our worlds, despite the massive access to information we have (or maybe because of it), are getting smaller. I recently wrote about an artist I admire tremendously who prefers to shut herself away in solitude. This may be why her work is so profound. Depth isn’t a hallmark of much of today’s fiction. I know some people will automatically say that’s only because we’re only remembering the good stuff, that Gatsby didn’t sell well initially either. All true, but I still think, fifty years from now, despite the fact that there are more writers than ever publishing more works than ever to an oversaturated market, I don’t think we will come away with as many masterpieces.
And I don’t think artists are, in the long run, doing themselves a favor by being their own publicity machines. Maybe Warhol could do it. But everyone is not a Warhol and thank goodness for that, because one was enough, despite what modern prices for his work may be. I think he was brilliant at capturing and marketing the zeitgeist, but penetrating it? Getting beneath it and shedding real light on it? I don’t think so. I can hear the hate mail coming already, though.
Interestingly and coincidentally, as I was writing this I came across an article in the New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink. It concludes that despite the vogue of “brainstorming sessions” among businesses, solitary thinking actually produces better results. This finding doesn’t surprise some of us who are unimpressed with trendiness. I have never sat in a brainstorming session that yielded anything noteworthy, and groupthink actually has a dangerous tendency to homogenize thinking—the opposite of what’s intended. I used to work in advertising, and such sessions are de rigueur in that industry. I would sit patiently, silently counting the minutes, and then return to my office and come up with real ideas. My boss probably thought the sessions were doing wonders for me. My boss understood nothing about creativity, as most business and even academic-types don’t.
When I look at this photo of Hemingway and his friends, I understand something my advertising boss and others I have had to deal with over the years do not: creative thinking happens when you’re sitting in a cafe, when you’re walking along a trail, when you’re taking a shower or even something else in the same room (messy if you keep a pen and pad with you, I know). Creativity can’t be booked between ten and eleven-thirty on Tuesday in Conference Room 2-B. The artists who sat along the Left Bank in Paris were spending their time much more efficiently, despite modern day wisdom. They were working, or gathering material for their work. Would Hemingway be making better use of his time having drinks here or removing himself from the world to tweet, or post on FB, or work on his website, announcing a new deal on his last book or trying to create “buzz” for his next? All his posts and video uploads wouldn’t be worth one short story. I wonder how any masterpieces are lost today because of these distractions and obligations.
Don’t get me wrong. Some people can do this sort of social media. And some people hire others to do it for them, which I think is probably the best idea. I am reminded of reading once how the wife of Charles Schulz was annoyed that the cartoonist was not very good with his hands, and more useful around the house. I felt to the contrary she should have insisted he spend every moment he possibly could with Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest. Only one man could draw Peanuts. Plumbers are a dime a dozen.
Heningways and Picassos aren’t. I’d feel sorry for those gentlemen today, having to organize events on Facebook and deal with answering tweets and maintaining their social profile on the web, instead of doing what they do best. We think all our gadgets and multitasking make us more efficient, more productive. Sometimes we forget about that hazy thing called quality. Often it’s a singular, solitary endeavor. There was a reason Thoreau escaped to the woods, and Melville was a loner. I look at this picture above and I imagine the thrill of coming across Hemingway at a cafe and sitting down next to him to see what he was doing, what he was thinking. I would be very disappointed to find him fiddling with his Twitter account.
I recently went to two art exhibits, both in San Francisco: they feature Picasso, as well as Matisse, Renoir and other members of the “Parisian avante garde” of the early 1900s. One, at SFMOMA, deals with how the Steins — that’s Gertrude & Company to you — left San Francisco early in the 20th century to live in Paris. There, they became friends and patrons of up-and-coming artists, particularly painters. They bought works from them for a song, or sometimes just a supper. Not many years later they were able to sell these works for a pretty penny, or franc. It’s hard not to feel envy surging through the veins when one reads on Wikipedia, “The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904 … They spent … at Vollard’s Gallery, buying Gauguin’s Sunflowers and Three Tahitians, Cézanne’s Bathers, and two Renoirs. And they probably still had change to get some steak tartare afterwards.
Eventually the Steins found themselves priced out of the market of the artists they’d helped to create.
But before that, the Steins opened their modest apartments at 27 Rue de Fleurus to everyone interested in the new art. People were invited to come on Saturday and view the works, but it was more than just that. Siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein discussed the concepts behind the work. Sister-in-law Sarah Stein even took art classes with Matisse, and kept a journal, later published, of everything he taught.
It isn’t just this crowd, though. In Paris they were all talking about the new music, the new literature, the new everything. Seemed to go well with the new technology of the new century: the aeroplane, the automobile, the wireless. Everyone from Debussy to Stravinsky to Diaghilev to Nin was causing a stir, and people were talking about it, in some cases fighting about it.
There have been other periods like this too: among recent times, the late sixties stands out, of course. But to me turn of the century to the 20s seem like one of the best examples of this. Maybe I’m biased, but to me for every breakthrough and insight in the 60s, there were a hundred examples of faux art and pretension, even if some of it sold for a lot of money to the nouveau-riche. Sorry, but most of the 60s revolution strikes me as fueled more by brownies than by ideas. The ideas had already been birthed in the teens and 20s, and were just coopted by lesser intelligences in need of its own secular religion, in everything from The Beatles to Berio. So shoot me.
Imagine going to one of these gatherings and talking about, and arguing about, the ideas contained in this art. Imagine seeing the changes right before your eyes — the way a painting by a newcomer that you bought three years ago for a few coins is now a masterpiece, the artist you once shared breadcrust and red wine with is now a celebrity, and it all started in your parlor. You were in the center of it. You saw intellectual concepts be born, and advance and mature. You.
One would think, with all the communication and travel advantages of today, that we’d be full of burgeoning movements. But we don’t seem to be. As I left the museum exhibits, and watched people in the gift shop looking at refrigerator magnets, night-lights and coasters of what used to be eccentric (and unsettling) art objects, I thought about why this was so. Or rather, why it is that art movements now 100 years old continue to intrigue us.
One of the thrilling things about being alive back then, I concluded, was that we were just starting to break the rules. Oh, to have lived in exciting times: women were starting to dare do the things men did: drink, smoke, vote, wear pants, skydive. Okay, getting ahead of myself maybe, but society was changing. Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsburyians were up to such radicalisms as having coffee after supper instead of tea in the afternoon. Imagine! Next they just might burn their bras and start dancing to this new “jazz music.”
Just listen to Debussy’s études and preludes, and how radical they were compared to everything that came before. It’s the aural counterpoint to Picasso’s or Matisse’s or Cézanne’s paintings. Stravinsky dared to tell Parisian audiences in 1913 that ballet music could be something radically different from what they’d ever heard before, the same way Picasso told them the painting above was of a table. When you have rules you are breaking, you have a gauge, a position, a point of view, that exists. Debussy’s music strikes us — still — as so fresh and new when we know what led to it and how it was different.
There’s a problem with revolutions, however: they soon become the status quo. And new revolutions happen. Nothing wrong with that in the abstract. But when the rules have been broken repeatedly and radically, the new revolutions…well, they have nothing much to rebel against.
When was the last time a painting shocked? Or a piece of music, or a theater piece. I don’t mean for shocking social content so much as technical considerations, though even socially, it’s hard to stun audiences in the age of Piss Christ. Anything goes. It seems quaint now, it really does, that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre caused people to nearly bludgeon one another at the premiere. Today the biggest controversy would be that someone’s cell phone went off during the concert. When artists start hurling paint at a canvas in such a way that it’s literally indistinguishable from road kill, how do you lead a revolution against that?
I’m not trying to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not a Philistine. (Well, perhaps I am. Perhaps some of the “avant-garde”ists actually are too. Who’s to say?) In one way the journey to where we are now was inevitable. If there’s going to be one artistic revolution there will be more, and if we begin to go from order to chaos we will continue towards more chaos until it is the reigning element. But if we stay steadfast with order and rigidity, art stagnates and rots. Those are your choices. Oddly, they meet full circle eventually.
And I think that’s why we’re not seeing our Bloomsbury groups and Stein art Saturdays much anymore. When we do have them, they are either obvious marketing grabs or self-conscious attempts to harken back to the past — or both. They have all the authenticity of petroleum companies supporting public television because they claim to care about culture.
I keep telling myself that perhaps I am wrong about all of this. Maybe there are groups that meet today, movements that are fomenting, and I’m just missing it. But these movements should bear fruit, and I don’t think there’s been a serious artistic movement in the last 25 years, at least in music or painting or film. (I can’t speak about theater.) We seem to keep dipping into the past, however: retrospectives are big business, and we leave them with big coffee-table sized books commemorating our experience. That thinking seems so out of step with the Steins and Bloomsbury Groups and beat poets and so forth. Has even revolution been coopted, marketed, T-shirted? Will it not be televised because it’s already out on Blu-ray and Netflix? Or has the academizing of it all served to kill it, putting it, like the tidy, sanitary music of the only jazz composer to win a Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, under the shiny glass of museums? No sooner do movements get off the ground than they become categories — marketed, taught and placed on a shelf somewhere. A dangerous jazz composer like Charles Mingus would never be handed a Pulitzer.
I thought at one point the Internet might change all this. But it is devolving into the shallow, narcissistic world of social networking, which is just guerilla marketing taken to extremes, instead of creating a true place of community: an “interest” you can click “like” to and them move on to Mafia Wars is not a community. I know I personally have unfriended a couple of people who used to be interesting, curious, seekers when I knew them back in pre-internet days; their communications are now exclusively the marketing of themselves in an effort to get people to notice them — ultimately why I’m not sure.
But blaming the tweet is a cheap way out. These issues are not new — social media merely makes it easier for them to happen. What is new is the fact that there hasn’t been a real revolution in a long, long time. And the radicals are today as familiar as the gift wrapping paper that many of their works are now reproduced on. I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe we’ve reached the end of the line for what we traditionally term “art.” Maybe not. But I do envy those salons, those informal gatherings, those heated arguments and unveiling of new works and ideas and thoughts. And judging by how hard mainstream people today try to imitate them and their lifestyles today — in hair, dress, deportment, lifestyle…but alas, never in actual revolutionary change — I’d say so do many, many others.