Montmartre to The Moulin Rouge: Can an Art Scene be Fabricated?

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul,’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion, but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”[1] For what is man, if not a soul? With it we consider our world and ourselves, we assess life according to dimensions beyond food and safety. It is the soul that desires more than these. It is the soul that knows the difference between life and the abundant life, between that which is merely material and that which transcends the world to embrace the spiritual. And when the soul turns its eye to the abundant life, it sees beauty. This is the realm of Art. Or, perhaps, it’s the value of Art. For what is the value of Art if not to affect souls?

For some time, however, there has been confusion on this point, and this confusion has been costly in two ways. First, as Thomas Frank of The Baffler explains in his must-read article, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, urban leaders and arts foundations waste millions trying to stimulate economies by fabricating neighborhoods into “vibrant art scenes.” Their notion, that importing artists makes a place cool, and that such coolness will somehow create prosperity, is a vacuous will-o’-the-wisp. They have no idea how an art immigration might stabilize an economy or cause growth.

Second, this misunderstanding of the place and purpose of art in life and community distracts us from the profound value an artist does bring to those near him. This value is not prosperity. In the Venn diagram of society, economic growth and abundant life only marginally intersect, as economics is concerned with what people have, while art is concerned with what people are. A prosperous place provides food, safety, and comfort. Art nurtures the soul. Living in an artful place is a spiritual experience because artists of all kinds contribute to the soul of that place. I want a healthy, productive artist population in my village not because it will become cool and mystically prosper, but because I want my town to nurture my soul, helping me to see differently and question differently, helping me to appreciate a color I’d never known or find a musical chord unplayed on the radio. Marcus Aurelius said, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” The place in which we live is the context of our thoughts. For our soul to thrive there, it needs the rich nutrients of art’s insight and beauty, art’s mirror into our own soul and window into the soul of our neighbor.

For this, we need some artists, living if we can find them, but dead ones are good too.

* * * *

Five or six years ago, my friend Mike and I were in Paris, enjoying a weekend away from our work in Belgium. He had been to Paris several times and was my guide. We toured the Louvre, sat in on a funeral at the Notre Dame, and climbed the Eiffel Tower.[2] The next morning Mike took me up a 400-foot-high hill to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, a towering cathedral overlooking Paris from the city’s highest point. As we walked, he described the Basilica and mentioned, casually, that there was also a “small artist colony” nearby. My interest in the cathedral was mostly archaeological. We traveled often together and if there was a castle or cathedral where we were going, we made every effort to see it. But I had never been to an “artist colony” and was excited, for anthropological reasons, to see what a colony of artists looked like.

Later I learned that this “small colony” was the most prolific art scene in the Western World: Paris’s Montmartre. Artists such as Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Langston Hughes, and many others worked there at some point in their lives. Some were very poor, barely able to get by. I don’t know whether Montmartre prospered as a community during their time, but it certainly thrived.

I wasn’t expecting what we found there. As I stood outside the Basilica, the whole neighborhood had a calm economy of beauty: diverse but simple, vigorous while at peace with itself. Art was everywhere, near and far. Paintings and people trickled into the cobblestone streets. Beauty breezed in from every side. To my right rose the old cathedral, white in the morning sun. Below, to the left, the city of Paris—also white, oddly enough—stretched to the horizon, the black Eiffel Tower rose to one side. The place was quiet, but hopping. Shops opened, people swept sidewalks, tables and chairs were arranged on sidewalks and in the square. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I remember how easy it was to breathe there. All was calm, but not sleepy. At a table on the sidewalk in front of a pastry shop sat two people, I don’t remember if they were old or young, sipping morning coffee, smiling at each other. I was struck. The soul of man—ancient, industrial, and modern—came together in that spot as a blanket for that couple.

We only spent a few hours there, drinking coffee in the early morning, exploring the paintings and stained glass treasures of the Basilica and wandering the streets until lunchtime, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place more “human.” It wasn’t merely the art that gave the place its soul. It was the centuries of people living off the beauty, creating it and being molded by it. By the time I got there, the neighborhood and its art had become one.

Later that day Mike and I wound our way down to the lower city’s 9th arrondissement, at the foot of Montmartre. The tone of the streets changed. The buildings became tall, their faces flat. Plywood paneled the outside of a nightclub. The sidewalks had a greasy sheen to them. Few people were about; it was still daylight.

From a gash in the storefronts rose a red windmill: the Moulin Rouge. I had seen the movie—I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write—but hadn’t known the place was real. It didn’t look anything like the grand circus in the film. It looked like a strip-club. The door was hidden by the shadow of a deep entryway. Had it been open I might have entered, for purely anthropological reasons, of course.

I got the sense that the Moulin Rouge was prosperous. It was quite a spectacle. Red neon scrawling wandered all over its front. And I have no doubt that once the sun set the dark streets would be vibrant indeed with certain performing arts.

The walk from the peak of Montmartre down to the Moulin Rouge is about one kilometer. Both are prosperous, but only one has soul.


[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  8.

[2] We did this in one day, though I was very sick. Apparently the pharmacists in France are alchemists. Using mostly charades and sign language I was able to acquire a pint of something that fixed me right up.

photo by:

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.

The Lifeblood that Drives
the Dreams of Champions

Like so many love affairs, this one began in a quiet café near the Seine in Paris. Unlike those others, this was not the chance meeting of two wanderlust strangers, eyes dancing over the top of books not being read. Nor the dreamy gaze that follows a handsome patron’s catching a falling waitress, nor even a random conversation uniting two souls’ destinies. It wasn’t like any of those. In fact, it wasn’t with a person at all.

This café was the kind of place where famous authors famously sat to write famous novels before their infamous demise. And at a small table tucked away by windows peering over rustic streets, their glass dripping toward Notre Dame, I was baptized. Not into the church, not into prose, but into the complex, the complicated, the rich and robust world of coffee. A world that, even just an hour earlier, I would have declared I could unapologetically avoid.

How I had hated coffee. The look, the smell, the feel, the taste. I hated everything about it as long as I can remember hating anything about beverages or foodstuffs. Roasted, dried, mocha-fied. In chocolate, in ice cream, in liquor, in anything. Hated it.

For a time I tried to quaff in the culture of coffee drinkers. A fast-paced and productive culture carefully groomed to maintain an intellectual appearance I so wanted to have. Alas, my excursions there left nothing but bitter tastes in my mouth. I preferred the shame and humiliation of that timeless winter classic – hot chocolate – whilst my peers (or so I thought, though I doubt they reciprocated as I chugged my Neapolitan-Lacto-Choco-Blast) savored sophisticated java.

I confess I have a compulsive need to both fit in wherever I find myself, and stand out as an individual thinker. A popular outcast, if you will. A free, group-thinker. To be in the crowd, but not of the crowd. I’ve always hated that feeling of being outside the circle; of looking through glass at happy diners and their culinary delicacies while trapped on the green searching for an entrance and running from self doubt’s demon-dog.

(As you scrape your memory for the preceding 80s blockbuster movie reference, I’ll add that it was that very compulsion that helped me turn the corner.)

Just after touchdown on my first trip to Paris, I found myself jaw-dropped, nose and cheek pressed against the glass, gawking at fashionable, thin smokers sitting and sipping . . . coffee. Though I bore a cocoa brown HC on my palate for years, self-conciousness was not about to commit the international traveler’s cardinal sin of being from America and looking like it. You know the people of whom I speak: the guy wearing the ridiculously huge, clearly inflatable and blinding red Kansas City Chiefs jacket in the Louvre, or that family with the matching sneakers, squeaking their nikadidasumas all over the floor where Napoleon was wedded to Josephine.

How a culture consumes its coffee says perhaps more than anything else about what it means to be a part of that culture. And I was more than desperate to fit into it. So as my wife and I entered the café, I fully intended on ordering (mega gulp) coffee.

One hurdle remained: I didn’t know anything meaningful about coffee and now I was about to order some in a global capitol of coffee drinking. My infantile language skills, barely good enough to make out a few words on le menu, didn’t help slow the adrenaline coursing through my body, heightening my awareness that I had no idea what the hell I was doing there, and urging me to leap out of the chair, spring for the door and slam a coke somewhere (which is noticeably more refreshing in Europe thanks to the absence of high fructose corn syrup – a topic for another occasion). Being French, the server arrived at our table an excruciating fifteen minutes after we sat our jet-lagged derrières. Watching his lips allow the escape of sounds, which brought none of a year of college French to mind, I assumed I ought to order. I spoke two words with a frogginess that at least might have given him the impression that I, too, was a chain smoker. Two lip-licking, luscious words that would be the beginning of my romance with coffee.

Just two tiny French words. Café Crème.

Mmm, how they roll off the tongue, like Proust. Café Crème. I often dream of that moment and literally taste again for the first time what it means to be French. A culture exclusively renowned for culture; a culture that savors every slow sip of its café. The French don’t order café to go and then consume this beverage while prancing, meandering, striding or pounding the pavement on their way to anywhere. On the contrary they will order a coffee, and sit, and drink. They just drink, simply for the pleasure of the experience. No thought of productivity, no obsessions about meetings or agenda items. Only coffee and croissant and desgustation. If no where else in the world, in France, doing “nothing” is doing something.

Ironically, the trip left me quite cynical (since after one week I was now an expert on all things café) about coffee culture in the U.S., believing that we were beyond repentance. Taking the time to stop and enjoy such a multi-sensory experience like a cup of coffee is a thing long lost in America. Thus we have awful coffee. In our big-box, mega-conglomerate, profit-minded, market-driven food culture, we’ve devalued experiences of the wonderful and new because we are conditioned to favor the familiar. Two full generations have come and gone immersed in this paradigm and we’ve lost the tools and palate for sensory adventure or even simple appreciation.

But it’s not too late to once again smell new aromas and taste flavors that truly demand attention and reflection. My grandfather – a man of the last generation not reared on rampant consumerism and homogenization of taste – with a single cup o’ joe, gave me hope.

Before I left for to visit my grandparents in Florida, I dreaded what coffee I might imbibe. Would it be the diner sludge so many daily tolerate not realizing the universe of unfathomable flavor just outside their cup? Would it be the thrice-reused grounds and swill that is New York City street vendor coffee? Starbucks? Those are almost all the choices these days. Though many good local coffee shops brew in college towns and quaint, old downtowns, they are not the standard bearers of coffee culture this side of the Atlantic.

The first morning, Grandpa rose with the sun and had completed eight sudoku before eyes had rolled from the back of my head. Dragging myself to kitchen to endure whatever was about to pass for coffee, I found Grandpa in the kitchen with a burlap sack of raw green Guatemalan coffee beans, carefully shoveling scoops into a jet black coffee roaster, equipped with a small catalytic converter to quell the smoke that would otherwise coat the kitchen when roasting coffee beans at home. One has many expectations before a trip to Florida, both good and bad, but homemade, fresh-roasted coffee was not one. Yet there I was with a rich and bold mug of black coffee, cradled in hand on a dewy Ocala winter’s morn that I could not have had anywhere else in the world.

That is beauty. I can’t say it rivaled the seduction of a café crème. But I can say it was a delicious and unique adventure, a special opportunity to broaden my experiences – to have hot water that’s dripped over ground, burnt beans change my worldview.

It reminded me there exists an ocean of new experiences waiting for us to reject the notion that what we already know and like is what is unquestionably best – waiting for us to indeed question, to ask ourselves if we’re merely habitual creatures unwittingly shaped by consumerism. Have I settled for rotten and ubiquitous fallen fruit when the door to the garden of delights is wide open beckoning me to come in, look up and taste the world that ought to be? A world that will be.

It’s sad that what drove me out of my shallow preferences was an improbable mixture of vanity and self-consciousness. What is brilliant is that it was my grandfather – a man categorized with those stereotyped as unmovable and stuck in their ways – who embraced an epicurean adventure that taught me, so can we all. So say we all.