"To comment on this astoundingly primitive idiocy (I mean the word), I must come at it from another angle. Whether from the inevitable disillusionment of middle age or from an accurate perception of reality, I began to notice a decade ago that the spirit of our times indulges in an inordinate amount of gratuitous meanness. Meanness: a withholding of generosity, a willingness to hurt, a perverse choice of the bad when the good is equally available. Journalism proceeds thus: the worst possible light is the one that sells newspapers and magazines. The blinding type we must read nowadays in books is another example: before computer generated-type the various sizes were designed individually, the proportions of smaller type being different from those of larger. Modern type designers draw one font and reduce and enlarge it photographically, not caring that the smaller reductions are anemic and an awful strain on the eyes.
"It is difficult to distinguish gratuitous meanness from greed. The thin wall that is not a boundary for noise, the rotten concrete that collapses on New Year's Eve, the plumbing inside walls that requires the destruction of a house to be repaired, the window that could so easily have been designed to swing around for inside washing rather than requiring a ladder. You can think of a hundred more examples, but whether they are the result of indifference or stupidity is a nice question."
—Guy Davenport, "A Letter to the Masterbuilder," in The Hunter Gracchus, pp. 150-151.
* * *
Davenport wrote that so many of the great American poets and writers and artists lived in the sticks—Olson, Welty, Meatyard, and so on. As is the case throughout the history of civilization, the major cities tend to draw in & product, support, the cultural capital. Benjamin warned that there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. This sentiment can be used as a snappy aphorism but I believe it is one of the richest sentences on the summation of human culture. If major metropolitan centers—the ancient capitals, the new "global cities" (cf. Sassen)—are nodal points, of course a thriving accumulative society provides a material basis in which the identities of 'artist,' 'intellectual,' 'amateur,' 'dilettante,' etc., put down roots. The thriving society may have these bustling nodes but, if indeed it thrives, the sticks themselves will produce and retain noteworthy producers of this cultural product as well. In the time period when Dickens first started writing in London, schooling for children was a massive concern—mediocre educators could make a decent enough living by overseeing a few dozen pupils in a cramped, dirty room. (Allowing for differences in pedagogical philosophy, these schools provided students with lessons in Scripture, history, geography, Romance etymologies--but J.L. & Barbara Hammond's book on the time period quotes amusing records which indicate how much this education was rote, and how easily you could spot its flaws simply by tweaking the schoolmaster's questions to the scrubbed, obedient schoolboy. "Who was David?" "Son of Jesus.") A few decades after Dickens died, Ezra Pound could actually make a living in London by contributing to avant-garde poetry magazines!
Sculptor Forrest Myers discusses his migration to New York, his settlement in SoHo:
"I consider myself a SoHo Pioneer. I came [downtown] in 1962 and they were building the world trade center where I and other artists were living and I actually got run out of there too, they were going to demolish buildings… And so I moved to SoHo and people said why are you going to SoHo there’s nothing there but a bunch of trucks. Well at that time there were a lot of spaces for rent, not only in SoHo, but other places. Artists lived downtown… there were so few artists when I came to New York it was just odd. There were about 400 artists."
Now there are tons of artists, tons of galleries. Plenty of money. Is this saturation? If so, is the saturation of metropolitan centers a sign of cultural decline? (I dislike that word but there's an inherited vocabulary when discussing civilization; I don't consider "decline" a bad thing a priori.) Are still Olsons and Weltys and Meatyards, and Davenports for that matter, making a living in Gloucester, Jackson, and Lexington? How much longer will New York remain the playground of the rich, a place where urban gardens are reclaimed by real estate owners after communities make them attractive, where almost any beautiful and humane block is too expensive for most people to inhabit? In America, places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco present people with great cultural riches. Perhaps though we should be wary when the riches become too great, too concentrated. My city may have thriving "scenes" but almost every suburban place I have visited in recent years looks exactly the same. Speaking as a bit of a nationalist here (which is against my general inclination): what Americans could fail to be outraged at this theft of our people's rights and liberties, this drab enforced homogeneity underwritten by the even greater theft of resources & labor of people elsewhere?