The juxtaposition of two articles about the creative life in the big city in today’s New York Times — one by the musician and artist David Byrne, the other by his daughter Malu, a jewelry designer — makes clear the difference in what sixty-somethings and twenty-somethings think of as the Good Life. It turns out these differences exist even when the parent and child, in this case the apparently sympatico pair of Byrnes, are looking for many of the same things out of life.
David’s essay is about biking in New York City and in other great cities around the world. It ends with a love song to his time as a young man in Manhattan. Just out of college, he writes, he arrived penniless in New York, where he lived “in glorious squalor” with the other twenty-somethings of his day. (Really? Did the squalor feel glorious at the time?) “We spent most of our full, busy lives in bookshops, bars, tiny apartments and cheap ethnic restaurants,” he writes. “It was exciting and productive, but it wasn’t easy.”
Ultimately, he and his peers realized that life could be less of a “constant struggle” if they redefined success in terms of quality of life rather than material wealth. Fine. I agree with him. And I agree that a place like New York is a wonderful place to feel the creative buzz, to raise a family, live an interesting life, and grow old without feeling useless or bored.
But Malu Byrne isn’t so sure.
In her essay, Malu suggests that the very things that her father values about the vibrant city are the things that make it virtually impossible for struggling artists to live and work here. (And she knows that she herself isn’t struggling nearly as much as her peers are; for now she’s living rent-free with her famous dad, making jewelry in his living room.)
Malu mentions friends in the arts who choose to live in small towns and villages because of lower rents, more relaxing surroundings, and the ability to engage in ventures like opening up galleries of their own. These are familiar arguments, and I understand why a twenty-something fiber arists or jeweler might prefer to set up shop in Hudson, New York than further downriver in Chelsea. But there was one example Malu made that was surprising — that one reason it’s harder to be productive in New York is that there’s too damned much stuff going on. As Malu writes:
Francesca Capone, a writer and textile designer who lives in New York, says she’ll probably get more done during her two-week term as an artist-in-residence in Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Me., than she has accomplished in two years in her Manhattan studio. “The city is not that conducive to creativity,” Francesca says. “There’s always a friend in a band or an art opening or an interesting party at night, and you have to work so damn hard to pay the rent.”
OK, I get it, the rent is high and you have to work long hours to be able to pay it. But that’s not the heart of Francesca’s problem. I’m surprised to hear that all those band performances and art openings and interesting parties are what keep her from producing anything worthwhile. Because there was a time — though maybe I’m romanticizing the good old days as much as David Byrne might be doing — when such “vibrant” nighttime activities are precisely what led people to wake up the next morning burning with ideas that they wanted to get on the canvas or the page.
I still would rather think, as David Byrne does, that a community of like-minded souls, talking and interacting and making music and art in one another’s company, is a prod toward productivity, not a barrier. And that’s the real problem for twenty-somethings trying to find themselves as artists: even the “glorious squalor” of city life is beyond their financial reach these days. And if they all end up heading to the countryside just to make ends meet, they won’t have a chance to find out if non-stop urban interaction might have been a better, richer kind of creative life.