The Bohemian Diaspora

They're all part of the bohemian diaspora.

One winter night in 1916, Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and several other artists made their way to the top of the Washington Square arch, where they built a bonfire, ate a picnic, shot off some cap guns, and declared Greenwich Village an independent republic. And why not? Home to the wild advocates of socialism and anarchism, free love and free verse, the Village was a place out of sync with puritan America. Here, a left-wing monthly called The Masses actually opposed the Great War (for which the federal government effectively censored it). Here in 1918, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap began serializing the banned Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review (for which they were charged with pandering obscenity). Here, at a time when women in American did not even have the right to vote, some were joining together to form the Heterodoxy Club for "unorthodox women"—which included feminists, several "out" lesbians, and one black woman.

They were bohemians in the classic sense—people alienated from middle-class values (artistic, sexual, political) who knew where to find a community of like minds. The word came from bohémien, the common French term for gypsy, a people defined in the popular mind as social outcasts. By now, "bohemian" has been recycled so endlessly it has no precise meaning—though it continues to evoke an image: the Rebel With an Aesthetic. "The bohemian spirit. Not too hard to spot," says a current ad for Bohemia beer, beneath a photo of a man in a leather jacket repairing a motorcyle in his perfect white-walled loft, while a draped and available woman sits on his bed.

Even though it originated in 1830s Paris, the whole notion of a bohemia seems so American (Dream) to me, so much about "lightin' out" for the frontier. Bohemia still plays a role in bourgeois fantasy as the road not taken, where you couldn't wouldn't done your own thing, free from the yoke of work and family. This quest for breathing space was always less about art than about capitalism, an escape from the rat race and the cultural cookie cutter. In this fluid zone, someone from the lower class could slip in and someone from the upper class could opt out. Certainly, a revolt against capitalism is something few people—and few artists—are interested in these days.

In 1991, it's becoming something of a cliché to describe Western culture as a flattened landscape where the boundary between margin and mainstream has eroded. As critic Hal Foster put it, in his book Recordings: "the center has invaded the periphery and vice versa." It's the media spotlight that erases the line between them.

The demimonde, for example, revolved around its "third spaces" (not home, not work), the now-legendary cafes and clubs: Toulouse-Lautrec at the Chat Noir, Pollock at the Cedar Tavern, every East Village artist at 8BC. Expatriate Paris flocked to Gertrude Stein's salon, while the Harlem Renaissance had A'Lelia Walker's. But there are no equivalent hangouts now, because once they're discovered by the media, they disappear. (The night I spotted Jerzy Kosinski and David Lee Roth at 8BC, I knew the end was near.) Compound that with the problem of finding any affordable downtown space at all, and it's no accident that most of the boho energy I've encountered in Manhattan in the last couple years radiated out of a squat (Bullet Space) or someone's living room (Gargoyle Mechanique, Gusto House). An exception like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe—holdout from an older era—simply provides the rule.

Of course, bohemia was something of a media invention right from the start. The first stories about it, written by Henry M and based on himself and his friends, appeared in a small Paris newspaper in 1845-46. They were adapted for the musical stage in 1849, collected in Scenes of Bohemian Life in 1851, and immortalized in Puccini's La Bohéme in 1986, romanticizing what some still romanticize: the garret, the bonhomie, the "sacrifice for art."

But the lore of the starving artist changed with mass media, till image was everything. The artist became the emblematic chic figure of the '80s—the rebel fit for a beer ad. The media feeding frenzy around "East Village art" developed in part because those promoting this scene used its marginality as a marketing ploy. The ensuing spotlight quickly corrupted the playful impulses behind the original galleries and inflated the relatively modest accomplishments of many of the artists. Such inflation of reputations, of expectations, of the very idea of what it means to succeed as an artist—distorted the '80s art world. Made it a bottomless pit of neo-celebs. And of course, it inflated rents as well. Now, even the faux bohemia once known as the East Village Scene is gone, replaced by the usual Manhattan real estate protectorate where the extremes of capitalist life coexist like two sides of a knife.

By the late '80s, more and more artists had decided to leave what some of them now called the Beast Village. For the most part, they were moving directly across the river to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, just one subway stop into another space-time continuum. This is the newest artists' neighborhood, and a quiet one, barely visible in the working-class nabe around the L train or the barrio-near-the-bridge fed by the J and M. A few "spaces" are open, like Minor Injury and Brand Name Damages. (What could such names portend?)

« Previous Page
Next Page »