ON JOINING A “SCENIUS”

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My friend, the writer-cartoonist Austin Kleon​ turned me onto the word, “Scenius”, which was first coined by Brian Eno.

Basically, it’s a scene full of talented “geniuses” who ended up being associated together.

Think of the Impressionist painters in Paris in the 1870s.

Or the pre-1914 Bloomsbury Group in London, or the San Francisco Beatniks in the 1950s. Or Dorothy Parker’s Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. Or the Greenwich Village Folk Singers in the 1960s. Or the New York downtown scene artists of the 1980s- Haring, Basquiat, Madonna etc. Or the Manchester post-punk scene of the 1980s. Or the improv scene around Chicago’s Second City that spawned Saturday Night Live. You get the idea.

In his terrific book, “Show Your Work”, Kleon advises young people to find their own Scenius in order to “meet their peers”, get their name out and get their careers underway.

I think that’s a good idea, for the most part. As an artist, I’ve accidently ended up in a few sceniuses that ended up going somewhere. The 1980s Slacker scene in Austin, that Richard Linklater immortalized in his film. Or the Chicago pre-gentrification Wicker Park art scene. Or the early blogger scene that took the media world by storm a decade ago.

Here are my thoughts on the Scenius strategy:

1. Eventually the rock stars leave when they no longer need you.

That’s what Bob Dylan did with the Greenwich Village folk scene. That’s what Madonna and Keith Haring did with the New York downtown scene. Ditto Kerouac and Ginsberg with the Beatniks.

And the ones who get left behind… feel left behind. So they spend the next couple of decades droning on about how great the scene was before so-and-so sold out etc. I can think of better ways to spend one’s later years.

2. Sceniuses have short lives. Very short lives.

The first year, nobody knows what’s happening. The final year, nobody notices the thing ending. In between that, you have maybe one to three years of people doing cool stuff in the spirit of mutual cooperation. Then the hangers-on move in and take over like weeds, the whole thing becomes tedious, the aforementioned rock stars move to Hollywood, and everything implodes.

3. A scenius is a great place to launch a career, not a great place to sustain one.

Like the previous point says, people move on, and move on quickly. So you need to be ready for when it happens.

4. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal at the time.

Me and my former scenius pals spend a lot of time on Facebook nowadays, posting old pictures from the scenius years, talking about how amazing and fun those times were.

The thing is, they may have been the best of times, we just didn’t know it then. We were too busy trying to hold down day jobs and pay rent and get laid and all that other day-to-day crap to notice. Had we known how special a time it was, we probably would’ve spent less time being miserable and insecure.

5. It’s nastier, more cliquey and more political than people like to admit.

Yeah, it’s junior high school repeating itself. Especially if the scenius revolves around a charismatic leader a-la Andy Warhol or Andre Breton. You have been warned.

6. You can’t plan for it to happen.

You may think the crowd you’re hanging out with is the most culturally significant group of party people since Max’s Kansas City, but the more seriously you believe this, the more likely you’re wrong. Real sceniuses are just a lot of young people with a lot of talent, stamina and discipline hanging out together, kinda randomly, for a while.

And then it ends and real life takes over. To think of it as anything more than that is just asking for trouble.