by Sarah Nardi
Before I go on, it should be said that I am one of those people who assumes that the past was better—especially the Europe of the past. Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, I grow nostalgic for things I've never known and sometimes wallow in the idea that I was born too late and on the wrong continent—which makes me a romantic or kind of a dick, depending on how you want to look at it. But it's difficult to compare the bohemian splendor of Baudelaire's Café Tortoni to, say, the Starbucks near Kinzie and Orleans and not find the latter somewhat lacking. It may seem like a false analogy on its face, but the European cafe, with its collection of newspapers and little cakes, where it was not uncommon to pass hours at a time, was the forerunner to our modern coffeehouse. And while today you may be able to find a decent cafe creme or the occasional linzer torte, the European cafe's role as the heart of creative and intellectual life is something coffeehouses can't seem to capture.
Given that they're probably quietly decorating a calendar somewhere in your grandmother's house, it's hard to imagine that Monet's water lilies could have ever been controversial. But when a group including Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Manet began meeting weekly at the Café Guerbois in the 1860s, impressionism was a nascent movement and the artists were considered iconoclasts. The Paris Salon, which revered the rigors of classicism and romanticized patriotic scenes like Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People," wasn't ready to embrace Monet's dots or Manet's picnicking prostitute. The artists found their work routinely diverted to the Salon des Refusés—the Exhibition of Rejects. Rejection is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to creative achievement, so who's to say what would have happened to the impressionists, each of whom now enjoys a pretty much unassailable position in the fine-art canon, had they not sat around a table at a cafe every week and spurred one another on? Am I romanticizing it to a degree? Probably. But walk into any coffeehouse today, from Starbucks to some hip, independent shop, and what you're most likely to observe is a sea of individual faces, bathed in the blue light of laptops, wearing earphones to drown out the world.
Perhaps nowhere were cafes more central to creative life than Vienna. Viennese cafes, in all their mirrored and gilded grandeur, were patronized by luminaries from all disciplines, such as Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein, and Klimt. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals known as the Vienna Circle began gathering in the Arkaden and Reichsrat Café, and it was during these meetings that a young logician name Kurt Gödel would present the first notes on his incompleteness theorem, demonstrating, in part, that no axiomatic system contained propositions that could all be proven true without some also proving false. True and false at the same time? Boom. Let that blow your mind.
Vienna was also home to Café Sperl, where two groups of artists who regularly gathered there, the Siebenerklub and the Hagengesellschaft, would eventually unite to form the Vienna Secession in 1897. Just as the impressionists challenged the Paris Salon, the secessionists broke from Vienna's dominant exhibition space, the Vienna Kunstlerhaus, over the institution's blind reverence for tradition. Secession artists, including Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, and architect Josef Hoffman, sought to make room for progress by freeing art from the rigid confines of tradition and allowing "every age its art and art its freedom." The secessionists themselves eventually splintered over philosophical differences and one former member, Adolf Loos, went on to build his own cafe as an embodiment of his aesthetic principles. An early proponent of the idea that form should follow function, Loos's Museum Café shunned ornamentation, which he believed to be a conceit of the bourgeoisie. Loos even went so far as to assert that ornamentation was criminal, as it was a waste of material and labor. His sleek aesthetic is now widely considered to be the progenitor of modern design.
Did coffee make all of this possible? Probably not—though stimulants have aided many an intellectual and creative epiphany (just ask Freud). But what the European cafes did was foster an air of creative collaboration, an environment in which ideas were exchanged freely and interactions across all disciplines were possible. When I imagine that the past was better, I'm not only lamenting that we don't have beautiful cafes with marble tabletops on every corner, but the fact that our age seems to lack the culture surrounding those cafes; the kind of vibrant, electric milieu from which true creativity was born.
The last time I was in the Starbucks on Orleans, there was a sign asking people to write their holiday wishes on a Post-it note and then stick it to a bulletin board above the cream station. Someone wished for a promotion; someone else wanted snow for Christmas. But nobody had wished for the birth of a new aesthetic movement. But then again, neither did I. And I took my coffee to go.