An interesting thing happens when you intersect two texts, Howard Becker’s essay on “Art Worlds and Collective Activity” (1982) and David Byrne’s essay on “How to Make a Scene” (2012), with each other. Somewhat anachronistically, the former enlists the latter into its thesis.

To begin, Becker’s text is not especially directed toward the contemporary interest in ‘scenes’ that a course called Musical Urbanism might address: the geographic agglomeration of artistic creators, institutions, infrastructure and consumers at the scale of neighborhoods and cities. Becker’s writing on art worlds points toward the spatially and temporally extensive assemblages of things (artistic media, material, equipment), people (audiences, funders, supporting technicians, teachers), organizations (studios, venues, supporting institutions including the state), conventions (shared understandings in art practices, aesthetics, manufacture), and supporting activities (economic exchange, art education, criticism and other social rationales for the valuing of art by creators, patrons, and audiences) that have to come together to make any artistic creation possible. Place-based scenes may be a setting for an art world, but then again they may not, as his discussion of cloistered poets illustrates. It varies, Becker characteristically argues, not as a matter of creative fields’ intrinsic principles but of their practical accomplishment.

Becker’s concept of art worlds, essentially a malleable framework for inventorying far-flung networks of material, aesthetic and interactional cooperation, is radically relativistic. His thesis on art worlds demystifies the cult of ‘the work’ and of the aesthetic distinctions made by artists, critics, and cultures that enshroud and enforce this cherished Romantic ideal. (Grasp this point, and you can begin to understand how Becker has been recently positioned as Pierre Bourdieu’s archnemesis in French sociology.) Nor is Becker interested in elevating certain art practices over others, or even in promoting cultural education and art literacies in general (although one imagines that Becker, long a working jazz musician, would be sympathetic to the latter). His analysis takes for granted that somehow, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the art will out; the question for him is, which cooperative networks will particular arts draw upon. Creative breakthroughs sometimes occur precisely because all the usual elements cannot be summoned, although so too do creative ‘declines’ (e.g., the redefinition of ‘art’ as ‘not art’ when technicians, craftsworkers and lay people break the artist’s monopoly on particular creative activities).

David Byrne’s text takes us closer to the contemporary interest in ‘scenes.’ For one reason, his examples comes from music; for another, he discusses scenes in a recognizable form as “that special moment when a creative flowering seems to issue forth from a social nexus—a clump of galleries, a neighborhood, or a bar that doubles as a music club.” It’s the last example that he draws his case from. This essay advances a pointedly CBGB-centric analysis of the late 1970s downtown scene where Talking Heads and so many other great NYC bands originated.

Analogous to Becker’s discussion of conventions, Byrne emphasizes the importance of rules in stimulating scenes. Some of these rules were explicit, most notably Hilly Kristal’s insistence that CBGB bands play original material; thus did a new generation of musicians in revolt against the nightlife hegemony of the cover band get their foot in the door, first at CBGB and then the venues that followed. Other rules are actually formulas for bohemian sustainability: rent must be low, bands must be paid fairly. Yet other rules are principles of efficient physical and organizational architecture. His point that “it must be possible to ignore the band when necessary” generalizes from CBGB’s layout, in which the long bar was, at least back in the day, spatially sheltered from the stage. Thus could CBGB’s distinct ecologies of music-goers and barflies thrive independently yet overlap to mutual benefit, as did (in a different context) the ecologies of downtown bands and downtown art scenes.

Byrne isn’t striving for Becker’s scientific generality, and the combination of personal anecdote and his characteristically odd, oblique insights makes the essay an enjoyable read. Yet like Becker, Byrne proposes his own kind of relativism: a practical, how-to perspective suitable for a variety of creative undertakings in a variety of places. In this case, however, historic moment trumps intellectual inclination; these relativisms aren’t equivalent, no matter how comparable they might seem on paper.

As evidenced by his writings for The Guardian and other periodicals esteemed by well educated readers, Byrne is well aware of the contemporary interest in urbanism (to which he’s contributed various perspectives on bicycling, among other things) and the now-conjoined interest in creative economies (he presented an alternate version of this particular argument in a 2010 TED talk). These are the social currents that contextualize and inform the essay’s passing reference to “successful scenes” (“A successful scene presents an alternative”). ‘Success’ here is ultimately an aesthetic distinction, albeit one defined not by music critics but by professional and lay urbanists. At stake are is the aesthetic legitimation and social distinctions behind today’s ‘vibrant,’ ‘creative’ city. The verdict is still out whether creative economies can in fact sustain cities or mitigate inequality, but that hasn’t stopped the collective embrace of (a certain kind of) city living as a project for artful living and public investment.

I don’t have a particular axe to grind about the fact that Byrne is tapped into these insular yet influential ‘public interest’ realms via his writing and speaking appearances. In an age of declining revenues for recording artists — another of his recurring topics — I can’t really fault his hustle. Instead, I think it useful to consider Byrne’s new field of activity through Becker’s lens. Critics and other gatekeepers for the value of art are essential participants in art worlds, less for the force of their ideas and more for the practical and symbolic consequences of that their collective activities. (“Another activity consists of creating and maintaining the rationale according to which all these other activities make sense and are worth doing,” Becker writes.) In this way, Byrne can likewise be understood as another gatekeeper — only now, the art world in question is not music, but the contemporary city.


[These 1009 words comprise my attempt the first Musical Urbanism paper assignment. Here were the instructions Hua Hsu and I gave the students:

Write 800-1000 words in response to the following prompt:

Compare and contrast Becker’s analysis of art worlds with David Byrne’s argument about how to make a scene. How would Becker respond to Byrne? What kinds of agendas do these two texts present for understanding local milieus for artistic activity and thinking about cities as unique cauldrons for musical economies?

In answering this question, we’re always interested in how musical urbanists might be concerned with “scenes”. Hua and Leonard regard helpful responses to and extrapolations from the readings as important as faithful comprehension of their perspectives.]