Monday, April 25, 2011

The Chief Function of the City, for the Arts

The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity. -- Lewis Momford

How can a city convert power into form, and what attributes of different cities contribute to variations in form? How can a city convert energy into culture, and what attributes of different cities contribute to variations in culture? How can a city convert dead matter into the living symbols of art, and what attributes of different cities contribute to variations in the arts? How can a city convert sex into social creativity, and what attributes of different cities contribute to variations in social creativity?

Different cities have famously been centers of different kinds of creativity. Paris has been the artistic capital of the world at various times. New York has been the theater capital of the world. L.A. has been the film capital. Blues run up and down the Mississippi velley, but always in cities: New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago. Even country musicians go to Nashville. What is it about these cities that contributed to the creation of particular genres, including their own variations on already-established genres (such as the Blues)? I mention these American cities only because it would be easy to dismiss comparisons among New York, Sydney, and London as examples of different cultures playing themselves out. But how to explain the same range of variability within national borders? Surely the answer is the indiviuality of the cities in question.

A closer analysis of patterns of literary development and their relationships to cities seems to be something that would be worth investigating, if it hasn't been. Looking too at the roles of institutions in those cities -- similarities and differences -- would certainly be worth investigating. These are bound to contribute to some of the variations and similarities among artistic genres.

Of course, all of this plays out across time as well as space. As Richard FLorida observes in The Flight of the Creative Class, citing Sir Peter Hall's Cities in Civilization:

The actual geographic locus of the world's centers of creativity and innovation varies from one era to the next. Classical Athens, Hall notes, was the "scene of a unique creative explosion." Florence "pulled off the same trick" some two thousand years later and one thousand miles away. Just as Britain forged the Industrial Revolution but then lost its lead to Germany and America, so were Manchester, Birmingham (UK), the Ruhr Valley, and Detroit once the "smart places." (160)

He is talking about technology, but one can just as easily trace artistic booms through the same time periods. During Detroit's economic and technological heyday, it was also a musical center: Motown. Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century was an industrial center -- and a literary one as well. There developed there the “Chicago School of Literature,” characterized by the kind of gritty realism found in the works of Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Studs Terkel. Not all of these were born -- or even stayed -- in Chicago, but Chicago contributed to their world views and, thus, to the kinds of literary works they produced.

How cities do this is vital to understanding artistic production.

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