Shoal Hope and Something for Nothing were, among other things, opportunities to look into the phenomena of Bohemia as it evolved in the early Twentieth Century, the way the concept of Bohemia began to lose its way; from Berger’s Moment of Cubism before World War I, to the aftermath of that war, and the corroding effects of the manic prosperity and colossal hubris of the twenties.
Bohemia was a kind of “Nature Preserve” that modern western culture began setting aside in the Romantic Period. By the turn of the Twentieth Century it reached its zenith in Paris. By the 1940s the concept had begun to unravel even as it reached what has become the iconic Bohemia for our time, the Greenwich Village and SOHO of New York since the fifties and sixties.
Bohemia was a conjunction of elements that provided a safe haven in which self-identified outsiders, artists, could come together and form a community of purpose. It required the possibility of propinquity for people to gather who lacked wherewithal. It provided them with access to high culture, museums, performance spaces, patrons, and a press. It also gave them an inspirational contact with nature, whether simply the venerable light of Paris, Venice, or New York; or, as in Provincetown, a wondrous light within an encompassing natural setting that was still within reach of artists lacking in means.
There was also a conjunction of social realms. In New York, and Provincetown, as well as elsewhere, there was a combination of an old Yankee sensibility with an influx of southern European immigrants who helped buffer and create a space of tolerance between the old guarde and the influx of outsiders. In Greenwich Village this part was played by the Italian immigrant population in the old village. In Provincetown, this part was played by an influx of Portuguese immigrant fishermen and their families.
In Paris, and other earlier European Bohemias, this role was played by poor country-folk who were entering the cities in large numbers and filling out slums and providing a base of day-to-day living on which Bohemians could attach themselves. In all of these cases, the working poor showed a tolerance to the outsiders, in large part because they were outsiders too. Also because, as the working poor, they had little time or energy to spend on xenophobia. As much as we are led to believe it’s the poor who are bigoted in this way, it tends to be the better-off who have the energy and time to indulge these fantasies.
The part the Bohemians themselves brought to the picture was a dedication to working out questions of meaning and staking their lives on the outcome. These were times and places where for a significant concentration of people a significant portion of their efforts was dedicated to searching for meaning – as if this were the most important thing in life. Their environment, on the edge between high-class/high-culture old guarde enclaves and the cheap and welcoming – at least tolerant and not hostile – poor ghetto, allowed them to pursue these aspirations under rather optimal conditions.
What happened? Well, to Bohemia, as with the rest of humanity, the Twentieth Century happened. As I’ve gone into in my reflections on Berger’s Moment of Cubism, World War I exploded the opportunities that had presented themselves in the first decade of the new century. In every respect, physically, psychically, emotionally, and intellectually the reverberations of that conflict and its echoes through the decades following effectively gave us all a nervous breakdown while eroding the quality of the world we inhabit.
Specifically this effected Bohemia in a few significant ways. First of all, so many died or were destroyed in the trenches of 1914-1918. Those who survived had to deal with the trauma of what had happened. To the self-identified Bohemian, who tended to be a “canary in the coal mine” as a relatively high-strung, aesthetic being; this was catastrophic. The collective manias of the post-war years, Prohibition, the Stock Market Bubble, the various isms, political and artistic that strove to channel and control artistic expression as the broad movements attempted to control the new “mass-humanity;” created a situation in which the old Bohemian Project derailed in a number of ways.
The cult of personality and personal fame – which Warhol predicted would end in what we have now, the “Information Age” in which everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, or at least can try out for the “X-Factor!” or “Hell’s Kitchen!” – began to take the most obviously brilliant survivors of Bohemia and place them on a pedestal, both blisteringly Narcissistic, and corrosively directed towards personal enrichment. This reached its apogee with the Rock Star. For the rest, the easy conviviality of the old working poor enclaves decayed into true ghettos of the dependent poor as they scrabbled along chasing after “funding” to replace the more relaxed patronage of the recent prewar past.
By 1950, as New York began to take off as the ultimate Bohemia, it was ripe to be co-opted by everyone from the CIA to Real Estate developers. By the seventies, it had become a series of “business plans.” Strategies for great wealth for a few, either as star artists, or those who turned-over the newly chic old slums for the ride of re-gentrification of the major cities. The rural enclaves of Bohemia, Provincetown, the Hamptons, Woodstock, or Taos; followed similar trajectories, with tourism and rural gentrification playing-out their roles.
What now? Places like Detroit seem poised to follow the old pattern as best they can. Only the general collapse has caught up with all such dreams. There is little chance that the old vision of Bohemia, whether as seen in 1912, or in its toxified simulacra of 1985, will emerge again anywhere.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries artists could ride demographic waves and position themselves at these high energy junctures where the conditions were right for their blossoming. Today there is some of the spirit of the 1930s in New York and elsewhere. There was a sense among those struggling to keep going after the crash of a becoming humility. Artists, working on in straightened circumstances because they must, and not as a ticket to be punched on the road to fame and riches. They made do, and sacrificed to keep going, and they felt a renewed affinity for the poor surrounding them. This is hard to imagine today as we are pitted against each other, the effete elite versus the red-neck pharisee.
I’ve recently seen a connection within the old folk tale, Stone Soup, of a possible way forward for the artist. The beggar in that story is driven by dire necessity and through creativity lights on a way that brings those around him, trapped in the isolation of individual and household poverty and misery, and shows them a way to find their strength in the sufficiency they can still muster if they join together. The community he inspires integrates them back into something greater than their own fears, and gives them reason, and an outlet, to celebrate life.
This vision has nothing to do with what Bohemia fell to be. It takes us beyond any wishing to get back to a set of conditions that were only marginally and for a brief moment a viable alternative, trapped as it was even in its fullest flower by the forces of mass-culture and the pursuit of domination and control. By placing the artist in context with the fundamental human condition of finding sustenance, community, and meaning; this tale clears the way. It is another illumination for our singular moment of clarity.