Is a Hip Home Base Necessary for Good Art?

Mural by BLU in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood (Image via Street Art Utopia)

In the latest installment in the New York Times Magazine‘s excellent Riff column, Robert F. Coleman recounts the story of how his band moved to Berlin, that well-known utopia of artists and creativity, and promptly failed.

Coleman’s story is a familiar one — he and his band wanted to find a city that felt fresh, dynamic, and accessible, one that had the benefits of both being affordable and fun. Berlin had a “laid-back lifestyle,” he writes, which we can safely say includes lots of nightlife, warehouse parties, and German beer (among other substances). In other words, they sought out a bohemian paradise.

In the beginning, that looked like it was working out well. Coleman and company met a slew of interesting, creative ex-pats, but slowly realized that the city wasn’t exactly conducive to getting stuff done. As one filmmaker told the writer, “In Los Angeles, people actually get stuff done because you’ll go homeless if you don’t hustle. Here you can be super poor for years and still live comfortably.” So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Brooklyn’s Bushwick art neighborhood (Image via Art Observed)

For the band, it was bad. Distracted by nightly adventures and “raves at abandoned airports,” their work routine decayed. Though they had all the time and space in the world to rehearse, they had no drive to get it done. Coleman ended up leaving Berlin for the relative stresses of Melbourne.

It’s a cautionary tale of a too-cool environment taking away from the real work at hand. Sure, it’s great to live in an international artistic center, with the added bonuses of a supportive community, constant change, and a respect for the arts. But it also means there’s a lot of noise to be dealt with — life has to be balanced with getting down to the difficult labor of actually making things.

Brooklyn’s Bushwick, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and London’s Shoreditch come with all the trappings of bohemian neighborhoods. You can get a good cup of coffee and stumble into an art gallery or studio without much difficulty, which is, of course, a nice quality for a home base to have. You can feel “cool” pretty easily, and the sense of healthy competition provides a constant inspiration to improve yourself and your work.

Isolation, on the other side of the equation, also has its advantages. It’s possible to work without interruption, to live cheaply, focus solely on your passions, and follow your own muse without comparing yourself to those around you. Monastic seclusion forces you to figure things out for yourself.

The lesson here seems to be that it’s not so much the place that guides how your work, whether that’s musical, artistic, or literary, turns out. It’s discipline, the ability to force out interruptions and maintain concentration on doing what you came to do. If you think a move to Berlin is going to make you a better artist, well, you should probably think twice.

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