Community and Creativity in New York in Patti Smith’s Just Kids – Jasmine Choice

Patti Smith performing in 1978. Image via Wikipedia, distributed courtesy of Creative Commons licensing

The prolific New York art scene gained momentum in the 1950s through the subversive Beat movement and the experimental first-generation New York School of poets. Both celebrated community and were integral in inaugurating a defiance of the mainstream and the innovation of art as collaborative. These artistic coteries shared geographical proximity; personal relationships; and similar evocation in style, methods, and subject matter, facilitating both individual and collective developments of these movements. This essay explores the intrinsic relationship between community and creativity in 1970s New York, a period of urban degradation, political dissonance and counterculture. This epoch generated a scene that was ‘demonstrably different from any other arts community in the United States at the time’.[1] Committed artist and punk rock icon Patti Smith published her memoir Just Kids in 2010, providing an exclusive insight into this relationship through a nostalgic account of New York and the intimate details of the extensive art community during this period. Her depiction of the downtown poetry scene as a whole reinterprets the definition of neighbourhoods. ‘Creative neighbourhoods’ replaced the traditional geographical boundaries, bringing together artists and musicians and enabling a conducive exchange environment of creation.[2] Smith migrated to New York from New Jersey in 1967, an era of creativity, revolution and acceptance. Her hunger to create catalysed her growth as an artist – an individual journey in which Smith ‘worked aggressively to reinstate uniqueness to the figure of the poet’.[3] Nonetheless, her relationships with pioneering poets, artists and musicians within shared spaces of production emphasise the significance of community in constructing an atmosphere of ‘density, diversity, vibrancy and quirkiness’ which reinforces the lure of the city as a place to push the boundaries of art.[4]

Despite New York’s vast size, its advantage as a walkable city was that it provided extensive opportunities for unexpected contact with fellow artists. American academic and author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett acknowledges Manhattan’s reputation as an environment in which politically and artistically radical communities emerged, supported by the close proximity of galleries, cafes and loft spaces which fostered cultural clustering.[5] She reinforces the importance of this unique geography in promoting an atmosphere of perpetual creativity within intimate circles, enabling its development into a key centre for cultural production.[6] Smith’s initial solitary wanderings of the city ‘absorbed in [her] own condition’, allowed her to submit herself to urban life, pre-empting her engagement with the cultural sphere.[7] The simple walkability of the city is pivotal in understanding the formation of communities and facilitated Smith’s chance pedestrian encounter with artist Robert Mapplethorpe which changed ‘the course of [her] life’ (31). This relationship, foregrounded in Just Kids, dramatically influenced Smith’s personal relationship to art and the community.

Mapplethorpe’s identity as an artist was a concept he struggled with and crafting a unique, consuming aesthetic which expressed his current creative mindset became his primary goal. His desire to produce art that ‘sought to see what others did not’, (61) isolated Smith as he became engrossed in intense, personal projects which explored ‘areas of dark human consent and made them into art’ (199). However, his distinct style and methods offered a contrasting insight into the extensive subjectivity of art as a platform of expression. Their differences abetted each other’s development; although they ‘seemed to be moving towards different destinations’ (56), Robert’s visceral vocabulary was akin to Smith’s poetic discourse. Their mutual dependence on each other for critique and inspiration, originating in their instant ‘comfortable and open’ (39) connection, is symbolic of the intimate friendships and collaborations that flourished. New York’s geographical network of aspiring artists illustrates the potential of the many run-ins possible between those offering artistic skill sets and those needing them, initiating mutually beneficial relationships.

The migration of these ambitious artists, determined to seek out art, to a city in which the streets, bridges, landmarks were infused with the personal lives of poets, produced a tangible atmosphere of creative production. [8] Smith remarked that ‘this open atmosphere was something [she] had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem oppressive to anyone’ (27). Her internal response to the vibrancy of what she considers a ‘real city, shifty and sexual’ (26) characterises its pulsating ambience, branding New York as a living organism. This generated a connection between the physicality of the city and the conscious minds of its inhabitants, suggesting that while Smith and the extensive art community consumed the city’s culture, they also played a role in the curation of its image. The liberating condition of shared attitudes, embedded in the simple desire to produce art, is pivotal to the concept of a creative community and helps to negotiate the fluid perimeter of community boundaries. Throughout her memoir, Smith remembers the moments in which she first encounters esteemed artists of the epoch in unanticipated locations. She first met Allen Ginsberg in an automat, admitting that although they had never met before, ‘there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists’ (123). Ginsberg later became a friend and teacher to Smith, mirroring the relationship of mentor and protégé, highlighting the possibilities for lasting connections crucial to sustaining creative communities.

Smith was aware of the history and legacy of New York prior to her arrival. She instantly formed attachments to landmarks and locations with which artists she revered were associated, claiming she could feel the presence of artists and their work. Wandering through Washington Square, Smith insists that she ‘could still feel the characters of Henry James’ (27) and she labels Second Avenue ‘Frank O’Hara territory’ (30) referring to the poet’s abstract epic of the same name.  This visceral relationship between artist and experience is prominent in Just Kids and influences Smith’s connection with her environment. Despite the volatile nature of the city, New York’s economic decline fuelled a creativity born of cheap accommodation and abandoned buildings which became artistic enclaves and the source of reinterpretation.[9] Smith details the series of filthy apartments she inhabits yet focuses primarily on their transformation through the combined efforts of herself and Mapplethorpe in creatively altering the space by incorporating their own artistic pieces. This environment became their studio and was therefore paramount in fostering a space in which they could ‘work side by side for hours, in a state of mutual concentration’ (45). The precarious condition of the city required artists to adapt to the failing social structures in place and take responsibility for their own pursuit of art. This popularised the DIY aesthetic rife in New York since previous decades, contributing to the creative communities. Struggling artists in an abject environment were unified in their attempt to challenge notions of established literary production through communal efforts and formed close bonds in the process. Art and artists excluded from the mainstream worked together to disseminate raw and revolutionary pieces which had been denied a chance to be seen or heard.

Ginsberg’s naming of poets as ‘community and family’, Daniel Kane argues, ‘underscores the tacit acceptance of poetry as a group phenomenon’.[10] While Kane acknowledges the implicitly collective nature of poetry, Ginsberg’s classification of the community as family outlines the prominence of intimate circles, specifically within institutions such as the Poetry Project, which gained elite and exclusive status. For Smith, the harsh economic climate impacted her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and their ability to produce art at times. As an amateur artist, it was difficult to make money or gain recognition and their impoverished lifestyle inhibited access to adequate resources. The lack of creative outlets for poets propelled the need for self-made spaces and methods of dissemination. This inspired communities which Kane defines as ‘underground autonomous zones’, to distribute their work themselves, facilitated by the mimeograph revolution which created cheap, self-made publications.[11] He argues that writers and musicians ‘went far in terms of negotiating the spaces between the underground and the purported mainstream’ through a collective subculture founded on community-based production and distribution.[12] The occupation and creation of shared space is essential to community. New York’s synthesis of its physical infrastructure; the collective hunger to produce and share art; and the energetically charged nature of the underground scene, gave birth to a radical atmosphere of creativity. This subculture functioned in opposition to the mainstream and was paramount in cultivating innovative styles of art.

The birth of these subcultures can be traced through the proximity and underground aesthetic of distinct urban spaces in which creativity flourished. Integral to Smith’s growth as an artist and performer were the Hotel Chelsea and the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, which she lived ‘just a block away from’ (214). Just Kids provides an insider’s account of these intimate downtown communities which shaped many seminal artists and contributed hugely to their work as a source of inspiration and collaboration. Fusion and hybridity flourished within these venues, asserting the power of community in shaping attitudes towards collective creation, and contributing towards the artists’ success. In an interview with Kane, poet Larry Fagin conveys the importance of the process during collaborative projects, emphasising the ‘sheer joy of the activity’ and the celebration of a ‘third voice’ or entirely new sound.[13] Expression as a creative outlet anticipates the prospect of originality and positive reception from like-minded individuals. This characteristic is incentivised in a community setting with the opportunity for both individual and collective development, motivating artists to maximise their potential output. Smith characterised the atmosphere at the Chelsea as an ‘open market’ in which everyone had ‘something of himself to sell’ (107), capitalising on the exchange value of art during this period.

Indeed, that is how Smith and Mapplethorpe found themselves living there as ‘you could get a room at the Chelsea Hotel in exchange for art’ (93). This unusual commercial trade sets the precedent for the appreciation and value of art in downtown New York. During periods of adversity, Smith branded the act of committing to great art as ‘its own reward’ (57). This classification was reinforced by the Chelsea’s recognition of the economic value of art within a commercial context, revealing a shifting appreciation of the personal effort and implicit value of artistic design. Her timely arrival at the Chelsea was a ‘tremendous stroke of luck’ which provided her with a ‘sense of security as well as a stellar education’ (99) given the influx of prominent figures, such as Gregory Corso, always ‘passing through the lobby’ (138). For Smith, occupying artistic space, both literally and symbolically, was essential to her relationship with creativity and community. The radically open space at St. Mark’s Church exuded a sense of accomplishment and challenged persistent social narratives through the verbal reframing of poetry, resonating with Smith’s yearning to explore the physical nature of art.

Directed by poet Anne Waldman, the oral-based Poetry Project featured three readings a week, workshops, special events and an atmosphere Smith described as ‘anticipating future revolution’ (35). This was the most influential community that Smith engaged with and impelled her future success as the ‘godmother of punk’.[14] St. Mark’s was the home of collaborative and performative poetry: it was a social centre in which artists could mingle freely and in which personal behaviour and social formations played a role in determining the future reception of a given text.[15] The audience represented a huge social network which provided critique and feedback during the readings themselves. This strong sense of community created a supportive, conducive space for artists to learn from fellow performers. However, despite its purported intimacy, the project grew to become an elite, coveted environment, the social politics of which Smith did not want to navigate. However, her revolutionary first performance at St. Mark’s, in which an electric guitar was used for the first time at the church, showcased Smith’s unique stage presence and voice, triggering playwright Sam Shepard’s vision of her fronting a rock band. She was already grappling with the conflicting aesthetic of St. Mark’s and her own sense of what was important in poetry – a conflict founded in Smith’s desire to ‘infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll’ (180). Yet Smith is clear to assert that despite her passion for performative poetry, committing to this new and unfamiliar territory would have never occurred to her without Shepard’s direction. Smith’s access to this community and its collection of talented artists instilled her with the confidence to explore her own impulses in song writing. Physical spaces, which could be frequented by the same intimate networks, played a huge role in the formation of creative communities in New York.

However, although the project’s influence on Smith’s artistic trajectory, and her individual impact on redefining the limits of poetry, are intrinsically connected to community, Smith’s resistance towards what she considered an ‘incestuous community’ (214) at St. Mark’s exacerbated her commitment to art external to the project. The sexual liberation of the epoch was prevalent in the intimate circles of the Poetry Project, as was the rampant drug use which made ‘sober communication about art or process challenging’ (204). This contributed to Smith’s withdrawal as she reflects that ‘she would never fit [in]’ (214). While communities flourish in atmospheres of similarity, establishing social boundaries in environments that harbour oppositional aesthetics or lifestyles is vital in avoiding conflict or detachment.

While I have asserted the abundance of creative influences, the contribution of individualism to artistic ingenuity, both within and external to communities, cannot be overlooked. Art is the product of a person’s physical output and internal formulation. Just Kids reminisces on Smith’s personal, provocative relationship with New York and the hard-edge notion of entering the art world. The literary genre of memoir accentuates her determined attitude and hunger to grow as an artist, enabling an authentic reflection of her true ambitions: ‘the urge to express myself was my strongest desire’ (6). The narrative continues in this vein as Smith repeatedly emphasises her personal relationship with art, asserting that she wanted her work to matter: ‘I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not’ (11). Smith’s infatuation with the precision, intimacy and subjectivity imbedded in art as a form of individual expression distinguishes aspects of her development as external to community. Despite the volatile social conditions and the ambitious nature of individuals, Smith’s assertive discourse depicts a level of respect and reverence for artists who shared the same passion. She portrays a sense of pride in bestowing knowledge and inspiring other artists, omitting the notion of competition as a destructive burden from Smith’s experience. However, readers of this nostalgic account of Smith’s rise to stardom from sleeping on the streets will gain a romanticised account of this turbulent period in New York, in which her personal reverence of the city becomes entangled with historical events to create a hybrid, performative piece which is both factual and poetic.

Smith’s precarious existence on the edges of society triggered her to feel ‘disconnected from all that was outside the world’ (65) which her and Mapplethorpe had created. The reality of life as an aspiring artist in New York during this turbulent period was arduous: ‘pay was very low, the hours were long, and the atmosphere was dispiriting’ (51). Smith’s persistent belief in herself and her work radiates throughout Just Kids through her declarations of resilience – ‘when you hit a wall, just kick it in’ (170). It is this attitude, and her rejection of conformity, which illustrate the importance of her own efforts in shifting the performativity of poetry to give birth to a new genre of music and iconoclastic aesthetic.

The creation of punk signalled the birth of a confrontational, energetically charged style which welcomed multiplicity and rebellion through the acceptance of outcasts. Kane’s assertion that Smith didn’t want to “fit in” too well’, and writer Victor Bockris’ remark that she was ‘totally ignoring’ the downtown literary scene despite her all-access pass, exemplify her individuality and contemptuous attitude.[16] Smith engaged with community while the emphasis centred on shared goals and aesthetics; however, her rebranding as a punk artist outlines her capacity to establish new creative communities in line with evolving practices. Kane characterises Smith’s negotiation of the literary and musical spheres as both ‘rejecting and participating in a wider artistic community’, suggesting that successful engagement with community projects is fluctuating and subjective.[17] Her rejection of certain elements of community projects and networks, originating in her notion of poetry as song, were exposed in a letter to Anne Waldman in which Smith wrote: ‘I pretty well hate most of the stuff you guys do, I also love you guys. […] I just got different theories’[18]. These aesthetic differences serve as an indicator of her own commitment to creative practices she believed were important, such as art which sought to ‘transform’ time, rather than ‘mirror’ it (69). Philosopher John Dewey proposed that art is given by, and represents, the community that is its context, which binds creativity to its origins in communities, be it geographical, contextual or founded in shared beliefs and practices.[19] However, while Smith’s beatnik, non-conformist attitude, androgynous appearance and rejection of cultural norms position her as an outcast, the downtown art scene of New York was fundamental to her evolution into the ‘punk poet laureate’.[20] 

New York’s unique progression as a social hub of artistic enterprise can be traced through its succession of creative communities. The city itself, embodying a dynamic atmosphere and encouraging an influx of artists, is pivotal in the conception and sustainment of these communities. Smith migrated to the city in the pursuit of art and artists, whom she felt an innate connection towards and perceived as ‘their own breed’ (188). The economic disintegration of New York produced artistic enclaves in self-made communities and specific venues of creativity, which were then frequented by growing networks of aspiring artists of diverse styles and practices. While Smith’s peripheral position within certain communities, due to a clash of aesthetics and non-conformist values, outline her own creative flair in redefining poetry as performative, the downtown scene at both the Hotel Chelsea and St. Mark’s were integral to her development as an artist and her access to the art world. The thriving nature of the arts community in New York during the 1970s represents the intrinsic relationship between creativity and the fluid social networks and spaces which encouraged the positive, collaborative interactions that innovated the art scene.

*

Jasmine Choice is an English Graduate from the University of Birmingham. Studying two modules which focused on the artistic developments and innovation of New York art during the latter half of the 20th century spurred her particular interest in the 1970s music scene. She enjoys listening to a variety of music and understanding the social conditions that impacted the conception and trajectory of new genres.

References

[1] Daniel Kane, ‘Do You Have A Band?’: Poetry And Punk Rock In New York City (New York, United States: Columbia University Press, 2017) <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=5276021&gt; [accessed 18 November 2020]. p. 7.

[2] Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City – New Edition (Princeton University Press, 2008). p. xi.

[3] Daniel Kane, ‘“Nor Did I Socialise with Their People”: Patti Smith, Rock Heroics and the Poetics of Sociability’, Popular Music, 31.1 (2012), 105–23 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261143011000481&gt;. p. 108.

[4] Currid-Halkett. p. xv.

[5] Ibid. p. 8.

[6] Ibid. p. 9.

[7] Patti Smith, Just Kids, (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 29. All subsequent references will appear in parentheses.

[8] Rona Cran, ‘Multiple Voices: New York City Poetry’, in New York, ed. by Ross Wilson, 1st edn (Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 180–93 <https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108557139.013&gt;.

[9] Currid-Halkett. p. x.

[10] Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in The 1960s (Berkeley, United States: University of California Press, 2003) <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=470947&gt; [accessed 9 April 2021].

[11] Kane, Do You Have a Band? p. 8.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kane, All Poets Welcome, p. 158.

[14]  Manohla Dargis, ‘Godmother of Punk, Celebrator of Life (Published 2008)’, The New York Times, 5 August 2008, section Movies <https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/movies/06patt.html&gt; [accessed 15 April 2021].

[15] Kane, All Poets Welcome. p. xiv.

[16] Kane, ‘“Nor Did I Socialise with Their People”’. p. 117; Victor Bockris, ‘The Poetry of Performance: An Interview with Patti Smith’, Carry Out, (1972), p. 11.

[17] Kane, “Do You Have a Band?” p. 138.

[18] Ibid. p.130.

[19] John Dewey, Art as Experience, (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2005).

[20] Laura Barton, ‘Patti Smith: punk’s poet laureate heads back on the road for her sins’, in The Guardian, 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/apr/17/patti-smiths-horses-the-making-of-the-worlds-punk-poet-laureate&gt; [accessed 16 April 2021].

Bibliography

Adhikari, Arnav, ‘The Case for the “Flâneuse”’, The Atlantic, 2017 <https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/reclaiming-the-cityscape-for-women/517629/&gt; [accessed 14 April 2021]

Barton, Laura, ‘Patti Smith: punk’s poet laureate heads back on the road for her sins’, in The Guardian, 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/apr/17/patti-smiths-horses-the-making-of-the-worlds-punk-poet-laureate&gt; [accessed 16 April 2021].

Bockris, Victor, ‘The Poetry of Performance: An Interview with Patti Smith’, Carry Out, (1972)

Cran, Rona, ‘Multiple Voices: New York City Poetry’, in New York, ed. by Ross Wilson, 1st edn (Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 180–93 <https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108557139.013&gt;

Crane, Diana, The Transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York Art World, 1940-1985 (University of Chicago Press, 1987)

Currid-Halkett, Elizabeth, The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City – New Edition (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Dargis, Manohla, ‘Godmother of Punk, Celebrator of Life (Published 2008)’, The New York Times, (5 August 2008), <https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/06/movies/06patt.html&gt; [accessed 8 January 2021]

Dewey, John, Art as Experience, (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2005)

Kane, Daniel, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in The 1960s (Berkeley, United States: University of California Press, 2003) <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=470947&gt; [accessed 9 April 2021]

—, ‘Do You Have a Band?’: Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City (New York, United States: Columbia University Press, 2017) <http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=5276021&gt; [accessed 18 November 2020]

—, ‘“Nor Did I Socialise with Their People”: Patti Smith, Rock Heroics and the Poetics of Sociability’, Popular Music, 31.1 (2012), 105–23 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261143011000481&gt;

— ‘From Poetry to Punk in the East Village’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, ed. by Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman, 1st edn (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 189–201 <https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521514712.014&gt;

Lowe, Seana S., ‘Creating Community: Art for Community Development’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 29.3 (2000), 357–86 <https://doi.org/10.1177/089124100129023945&gt;

Smith, Patti, Just Kids, (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

Wilson, Ross, ed., New York: A Literary History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) <https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108557139&gt;

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