Picture This: New York, Paris and creativity

Blondie still
copyright: BBC

I watched two documentaries the other night or BBC, Blondie’s New York… and the making of Parallel Lines and Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities. The common thread between them was the importance of place and time in creating an environment whereby a critical mass of artist, musicians and writers converge. In this crucible, creative people who are sensitive enough to the moment can create something that captures the moment and becomes a seminal statement of that particular environment.

In the case of Blondie, it was New York in the 70’s. The city was not at its best at the time: bankruptcy, crime and neglect, contributed to the feeling that the city was on its last legs. The movie Escape from New York probably captures the overall sense of doom. In all this, however, there was a space where people could experiment and create relatively unhindered. It was cheap to live in NYC at the time and there was plenty of space to practice, paint and perform.

Out of all this, musically, two major trends emerged: punk/new wave and disco. It was the bringing together of these two in the album Parallel Lines that made Blondie more than just another CBGB’s band. They melded the influences around them, their own particular talents and personalities into something that is still influential forty years after it was created.

Paris 1928 BBC show
copyright: BBC

James Fox explores the relationship of time, place and creativity more broadly in Bright Lights. In the episode on Paris, he shows how, in 1928, the conditions in Paris were ripe for a coming together of artists, dancers, musicians and writers who would have a profound impact on the rest of the century. Fox argues that, like New York fifty years later, Paris at the time was cheap, liberal and in flux. This attracted artists who would be associated with surrealism, writers like Ernest Hemingway and Afro-Americans, like Josephine Baker.

In both cases, there was a concentration of artists who shared influences and cross-pollinated with one another. In addition, there was a large enough group of supporters who could sustain the artists and help spread the work that was being produced. Punk, disco and surrealism were intensely local art forms, coming out of the particular moment, yet they somehow managed to transcend their origins and resonate across the globe.

New York and Paris changed. The conditions that fed those movements disappeared and with this, the opportunity to create something new and game-changing. So where are the new Paris’ and New Yorks? Is this the time for something new and, if so, where are the places where its articulation can germinate and spread?

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