I need the night. The sounds and voices from the street below, hooting owls, crickets, frogs, even the stillness. I need some time alone, where I can sit and think. It is a Heidiggerian dictum that one can glean only so much information from a conversation with one’s self. At some point a hermit must leave the cave in search of observation and conversation. In Japan there is a saying, ‘If you want to catch the tiger cub you have to go into the cave.’
Conversation was a seminal contributor to the robust intellectual and creative activity of 14th Century Florence, 19th Century Paris and mid-century New York. The convergence of cultures encouraged breaks with tradition that hastened the development of bohemian culture. What was it about the Parisian café culture and the New York bar atmosphere that so comfortably accommodated social interaction and the rise of the avant-garde? The answer is free and continuous access to conversation; being able to sit for long periods of time while drinking and talking. Certainly these were not conversations generated or regulated by class, nationality, profession, religion or political philosophy. Under such constraints conversation would not flow easily, and language would by necessity be reduced to a pidgin vernacular that could be encoded cross-culturally and cross-linguistically in order to be accessible to all participants. Astrophysicists/theologian John Polkinghorn says that true novelty only occurs at the juncture of chaos and order. He is referring to such cosmic phenomenon that occur at the centers of galaxies (event horizon) and the macrocosmic events in the environment adjacent to volcanic vents. The human version of such collisions used to occur in cafés and bars. That would be the place where one would walk on the edge of chaos and order, and enter into the cave of the tiger. There, the confusion of languages, religions, arts and science drives the participants to the discovery or invention of metaphor. It is an ideal device that can serve as a cipher to decode those big ideas that float easily in the of winds café culture. The metaphor is a Knight of Faith, providing and encouraging a leap of an idea across cultures.
Back in the 1980s when I lived in Washington, artists were constantly waxing nostalgically for the Washington Color School (not really a big idea). In an effort to recreate café culture or at least bar culture various groups were formed with high-minded hopes of talking about things that might prove revolutionary. The hope was that such forums would be the places where world-altering ideas could emerge. It never happened. Why?
1. These groups were hand picked (for the most part) and therefore they never really approximated the zeitgeist of that time and place. (Café society evolves by serendipity.)
2. Many of the subjects were pre-planned and one had to prepared for each discussion. (Café conversation evolves spontaneously with many juxtapositions contributing to shifts in direction and content.)
3. The language was academic, which brings with it two major problems. Academics are always guarded with their words (that’s why they read their papers at CAA), making the accidents of genius and products of extemporaneous conversation virtually impossible. Academic conversations are class warfare, employing cryptic language denying participation by all but the elite. Many of the best artists are academically challenged often rendering true genius, mute.
Café culture is unguarded because Bohemians admire and envy outsiders. For people like Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock, “naïve” artists were envied.
There are not many new exciting ideas floating around in the art magazines. Most of the good art ideas are regarded by magazine culture as passé or naïve. The “good” ideas, the fertile ones, are elsewhere, in aboriginal mythology, in physics, chemistry, literature, philosophy etc. These are the ideas of people who speak and think differently. Their ideas are of the kind that fester up from the brew of café society. Ideas that appear disjointed and lack linear order.
But there is no longer a café culture Nor are there bars or meeting places where artists hang out speaking and thinking freely. Any bar successful enough to survive has live music and conversation is impossible. Street corner loitering is outlawed. So the coffee houses (Starbucks) have become the cafés, along with the Internet cafés! These do not exist as a place in any geographic sense. They are located in hyperspace. There is not much probability that novelty can emerge from an insular art culture like New York. We all use the same Internet. Were it not for banking and fashion, cities like New York, Berlin, Tokyo and London would have died long ago. The present day prime movers “are” things like fashion, real estate and banking. These are not “big ideas”. Their tenure is fickle and limited to whims of a few. Like Indra, they sit tenuously on the fragile nap of Vishnu. That is not to say that observations about the power of fashion and banking by Warhol, Mary Boone and Saatchi are not genius– but it is to say that a system is culturally bankrupt when its only source of inspiration is a mediation on one’s own naval.
Tom Nakashima is a painter who is included in numerous collections including The Smithsonian Am. Art Museum and The Mint Museum. He is a recipient of numerous awards including The Joan Mitchell Award and AVA11.
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 19-20