Thursday, January 03, 2013

Whatever Happened to the Creative Cluster and "Can You Top This?" Artistic Competition?

“In 1966 Eric Clapton was the undisputed king of rock guitar in Britain. That was until Hendrix turned up on the scene. Jimi had only been in England for a week, yet there was already talk of this amazing American guitarist who had been creating a storm in London's blues clubs. In a particularly over confident gesture Hendrix asked if he could jam with Cream at their gig at Central London Polytechnic. Hendrix took the stage and tore through a version of 'Killing Floor' in double time. Cream soon regretted allowing him to join them. Hendrix's outrageous stage antics and dazzling guitar playing caused Clapton to leave the stage in a state of shock. He asked Chas Chandler afterwards "Is he always that fucking good?" (
“Raphael's work in the Vatican Stanze was open to the curious; while Michelangelo left strict orders that no visitors were to be allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, busy as a bee himself, consumed with a daunting task, apparently had little interest in Raphael’s work. But Raphael had an interest in his. Raphael paid a secret visit aided by the pope to view Michelangelo’s ceiling in progress. So profoundly did it affect him that he returned to his work in the Stanza della Segnatura (the pope’s private library), where he proceeded to pay tribute to Michelangelo by incorporating a seated figure of Michelangelo in the foreground of his masterpiece fresco, The School of Athens.” (Brenda Harness, Art Historian;
“[Martin] Scorsese entered the Hollywood scene with peers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. Together, they were known as the "Film School Generation," (though Spielberg was actually a dropout) contributing highly to the "New Hollywood Movement" also known as the "American New Wave." These four stormed into Hollywood and quickly made their mark. Along with other filmmakers characterized in the New Hollywood Movement, they brought artistic integrity back into mainstream cinema and changed the way the game was played.” (Luke Hickman;
“On a visit to Los Angeles in April, Paul McCartney played [Brian] Wilson a song from [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band], "She's Leaving Home"; later Wilson was said to be "deeply affected" by hearing a tape of another song, "A Day in the Life". Directly afterward, Smile was abandoned, and Wilson would not return to complete it until 2004, when it was released as a Brian Wilson album of the same name. Van Dyke Parks later noted, "Brian had a nervous collapse. What broke his heart was Sgt. Pepper." (
“Though The Beatles stayed fairly up to date on popular music in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan wasn't on their radar until the spring of 1964, a full year after The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan established the young songwriter as American folk music's premier voice. Once the band heard that record, during a tour of France, it had an immediate impact on them. "For three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it," Lennon would later say. "We all went potty about Dylan." The band's early hits, though deceptively complex, were clearly intended for a teenybopper audience more interested in dancing to backbeats than listening to poetry and acoustic guitars. After hearing Freewheelin', The Beatles—and especially John Lennon—were inspired to write more mature, narrative-driven folk songs in the manner of their new hero.” (Scott Beauchamp and Alex Shephard;

Through this blog, I spent the last two weeks extoling the music, theater and films that not only entertained me throughout 2012, but in large part sustained me.

Still, on days when I don’t have anything more acute to annoy me, I routinely find myself perplexed by what I perceive as a relative scarcity of newfound artistic brilliance pervading entertainment and cultural realms.

The seeming paradox isn't lost on me and I do not mean to disregard myriad examples of creative excellence exhibited by talented individuals in many fields, nor denigrate the wide variety of performances and creations that truly do enrich my life.

From actors amazing me within storefront theaters, to poets garnering rapt attention at public readings, to painters, photographers and sculptors peddling their wares at art fairs, to rock, jazz, blues, classical and other musicians making people smile—somewhere—every night of the year, and even to TV shows I enjoy week-after-week, there are innumerable “great artists” out there, who I admire and appreciate, many even without any direct awareness.

But while realizing the triteness of perpetually kvetching about how things used to be better, I genuinely believe that when it comes to transcendent artists of recent vintage with a modicum of mainstream relevance, it’s possible we may be at a historically low ebb. (Take a look at my Best Concerts of 2012 and Best Albums, and you'll notice a preponderance of old, or at least well-established, artists, rather than new ones.)

I’m not sure why this is, although I have to imagine the internet is somehow to blame, between splintering our attention, sensationalizing the superficial, simplifying the educational & creation process, abbreviating artistic gestation and aggrandizing the pursuit of the almighty dollar far above any aesthetic appreciation.

Yet this still doesn’t explain to me why I can only name a relative paucity of new artists—perhaps emerging since the turn of the century—who have a fair amount of mainstream acclaim, or who are, to my awareness and assessment, worthy of it.

Practitioners in the following realms used to be widely celebrated, but...
who can you name that has come to attention within the past 10 years or so and shown signs of historic significance in these areas: rock band, jazz musician, folk singer, classical musician, classical composer, Broadway composer, painter, sculptor, poet, movie director, movie star, stand-up comedian, cartoonist, photographer, dancer, architect, playwright and journalist?
If you can cite 10 names, combined, I’d be impressed.

Now, I realize that “historic significance” is open to interpretation and hard to judge without some chronological distance. And I really don’t know if people like Miles Davis, Allan Ginsburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Lenny Bruce, Joan Baez and Leonard Bernstein were truly household names. Perhaps their stature has grown once their legacies were shown to endure.

And I certainly realize my gripes are nothing new. Generation after generation, throughout history, has likely derided the relative fatuousness of subsequent ones. But my point here is really to point out that whether during the actual Renaissance or as exemplified by artistic torrents ranging from Impressionism to Bebop to the first 25-year surge of rock ’n roll, truly transcendent (or even just great) artists rarely developed or existed in a vacuum.

As illustrated by the anecdotes that opened this piece, talented creators—including many of the most historically exalted—have been inspired by their peers. And although nowadays, extraordinary gifted artists will still occasionally rise above the din, I really don’t see much evidence of what I call the “creative cluster effect,” in which great painters or authors or rock bands or movie directors engage in a (real or merely perceived) game of “Can you top this?”

Take for just one example, rock music in the 1960s. The Beatles exploded on the scene, having themselves been influenced by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and other American rock pioneers. After the Beatles came to America in 1964, bands like The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark 5, Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Yardbirds and The Who would soon follow, and all these years later, much of the music made by these artists still holds up.

Of course, you also had Motown going on, with the Supremes and the Miracles and the Temptations and on and on, as well as other American vocal groups such as the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. And with the rising tide of Vietnam in the background, Bob Dylan’s reverence for Woody Guthrie helped spur him to bring activism to pop music, with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Masters of War.”

Over the next decade or so, these artists would directly or indirectly, and perhaps a bit coincidentally, push each other to musical heights that—in breadth and depth, within pop music genres—haven’t been topped since. As referenced at top, Dylan prompted the Beatles to get more political. And the Beach Boys’ brilliant Pet Sounds album clearly helped to inspire Sgt. Pepper’s, upon whose release the breakdown of Brian Wilson showed just how seriously the artists were about competing with each other.

After 2012, a year when I was hard-pressed to compile my Best Albums list with 10 releases I really liked (or at least that I can imagine caring about 5 years hence), it’s hard to fathom a year like 1967.

Take a look at the Wikipedia page for “1967 in Music” as well as the year’s page on the “Best Ever Albums” website. 1967 saw the release of two new albums, each, by the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Traffic, plus masterpieces from The Velvet Underground, Love, Cream, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane, Dylan, The Kinks, The Who, The Moody Blues and more.

One of the more astonishing things to think about is that the Are You Experienced? album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience—on which Hendrix introduced a plethora of new sounds—was only a decade removed from Buddy Holly’s astonishing yet much more musically quaint output. Does anything today sound that much different from 2002?

I truly believe the period from 1955-1980 represents a rock ’n roll renaissance that likely will never be seen again. Narrowing it down even just to 1964-1975, the amount of great musical artists who came of age—besides those already mentioned, the Byrds, Creedence, CSN, Neil Young, Elton, Bowie, Queen, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, The Faces, Santana and many others—is rather mindblowing.

Now, I realize that we may very well be in the midst a “Creative Cluster” in the genre of Electronic Dance Music, which isn’t rendered inconsequential by the fact that I don’t care about it.

Similarly, even though it’s also a bit beyond my own personal tastes, I would argue that “Dramatic TV Series created by Cable TV Channels” may be our greatest Creative Cluster of the moment, with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, etc. supposedly being among the best on TV. It also seems possible that dramatic television is the only artistic genre currently at an all-time peak. (Though for TV itself, I prefer the ’70s sitcom cluster with All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, Taxi, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork & Mindy, etc.).

Further countering my own hypothesis, which seems to hold up best largely in the realm of pop music, perhaps the ongoing Technology Cluster that has Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon continually playing the “Can you top this?” game will go down in history as something of a Renaissance in its own way.

I guess it’s possible that we can only have a certain amount of Creative Clusters at the same time, and they come and go. I mean, if the 1930’s had a cluster of historically significant classical music composers, or the 1970s a cluster of museum-level fine artists, I can’t say that the practitioners of such readily come to mind.

So perhaps it’s just a matter of time before another Nirvana-Pearl Jam-Soundgarden-Alice in Chains-Smashing Pumpkins cluster comes along, or maybe in time I’ll eventually see the Tarantino-Fincher-Aronofsky-Coen Bros. cluster as estimable as the Coppola-Scorsese-Spielberg-Lucas cluster of the early ’70s.

In sum, I’m not really sure what my conclusion is, just that something seems lacking.

Inspiration, perhaps.

1 comment:

Bigplatts said...

Really interesting article. I'm going through a Rolling Stone's binge as we speak and this sort of subject was going through my mind, and you just put it to words perfectly. I do think there will be another creative-cluster someday (hopefully soon), and I would count the 90s film directors as a good creative cluster between the like of Tarantino, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Fincher, Kevin Smith and the Coens, they all just pushed themselves to their peaks in the 90s.

Can't wait until a new era of music like that again, I hope I'm alive for another 1967.