There’s a tendency in our culture to equate great art with great cities. The reasoning is straightforward enough: most of the good art galleries, music venues, literary events and dramatic performances take place in cosmopolitan centers such as Chicago, Montreal or Berlin. In Canada, especially, the major cities are spaced so far apart that if you live in a small town, there’s a good chance you aren’t even able to drive into a culturally vibrant environment to appreciate culture. Some may perpetuate the fallacy that in a cultural vacuum, it is difficult to stimulate artistic creation, but this is plainly not true.
It is perhaps because the suburbs can be so drab that so many great musicians and artists come out of smaller communities. If your world is bleak and boring, making something alone or with your friends helps you access another world that is more to your liking. With the advent of the Internet, it is possible for suburban teenagers to familiarize themselves with cultural movements and join them remotely. Bands like the massively successful Broken Social Scene grew up out of the suburb of Etobicoke (now snuggly ensconced in the GTA Megacity). If you live in the suburbs of Toronto and feel compelled to nurture your teenager’s artistic leanings, signing them up for the best music lessons in Markham might be a crucial cornerstone to building their young career.
As for Broken Social Scene, three of the original members – Kevin Drew, Emily Haines and Amy Milan – attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts where they studied drama together. Another important lesson is that when teenagers engage in different artistic vocations, they may experience spillover, a sort of synesthetic sharing between music and drama or visual art and dancing, for instance.
The suburbs are a great metaphor for a blank canvas in a way, because the environment is something of a cultural void. It might be overwhelming to grow up in the west end of Toronto or in the Park Slope Neighbourhood in Brooklyn, because there are so many talented artists with strongly established voices. In this sense, a cosmopolitan city be artistically oppressive: it’s hard to find your own voice when you’re overwhelmed by all the loud voices in the vicinity.
Early in their career, Broken Social became like a center of gravity, pulling musicians into its atmosphere and creating an aesthetic that became synonymous with Toronto. Ironically, most of the members were born in the suburbs, or in different countries altogether. Certain scenes in certain times will pull together people from all over to create a cohesive artistic energy. Another massive Canadian collective, The Arcade Fire, also pulled itself together from a variety of scenes: lead singer Wyn Butler was raised by Mormon’s in rural Texas, later moving to Montreal where he met his future wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne who’d grown up in a small suburb of that same city. The band’s most accomplished album to date is even titled The Suburbs.
While big artists may end up in big cities by necessity, it does not necessarily mean that they are from there to begin with. Often it is just the opposite. If you think that moving your family to a big city might help stimulate your children’s artistic impulses, think again: the blank canvas of the suburbs is way more compelling.