The Bohemian Diaspora

The difference between censored artists in the '60s and the '90s goes to the heart of how things have changed in the bohemian margin. Artists like the so-called Defunded Four—Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller—have now been catapulted out of their contexts on the backs of the media. All the publicity did was expose them to an audience guaranteed to find them intolerable, while artists of the "any-ink-is-good-ink" school looked on with envy. But none of the four have ever done work for a mass audience, nor have they wanted to. These days, however, transgression is just one more sluiceway into the undifferentiating whirlpool of media attention.

Censorship used to mean arrest; now it means publicity. That's the superficial observation. Imagine Jack Smith's fate if Flaming Creatures had been targeted by the religious right, discussed on Good Morning America, and televised across the country on CNN. As it was, Smith found the exploitation of his movie so unbearable he withdrew it from circulation, at one point declaring it "lost." He never completely finished another film.

As Smith once said of his own work in Semiotext(e), "Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that's the thing that has been handed for me to do." His was never work intended for mass audiences, but for kindred souls. And such work is valued less and less. Such work was the demimonde's raison d'être.

Bohemia has always been an official margin, the dominant culture's test site for new isms, its holding pen for "different drummers." And from its funky confines, certain artists have been able to launch themselves into the mainstream. Such outsiders-turned-insiders fill the pages of 20th century cultural history. But from Rimbaud to Kerouac, they've been mostly of the whiteboy persuasion.

While there have always been significant Others in bohemia, they've rarely articulated their own cultural realities—in part because their audience, though unconventional, has always been, for the most part, straight, white, and male. If key figures in the Beat movement were bi-or homosexual, they didn't consider that an identity with its own potential for radicalism; like their straight buddies, they worshiped masculinity, despised effeminacy, and shafted women. And gay men were the most likely Others to cross over. As for women, writer Joyce Johnson, one of Kerouac's girlfriends, would write years later of being a "minor character" in the Beat Scene. And as for people of color, bohemia American-style has always included folks like LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Ralph [Rafael Montanez] Ortiz, and Yoko Ono—to name just a few. But people of color and women in general remained outside the canon long after Ginsberg and Burroughs had become the stuff of Hollywood films and Nova conventions and papers presented to the Modern Language Association.

There has always been a single bohemian tradition—and it didn't include something like the Harlem Renaissance, still the demimonde most bohemians know least about. (It's barely mentioned in most boho histories.) Of course, Harlem in the '20s was different from the Village. Reacting to life in a racist nation, writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston struggled to give voice to the voiceless African American, and so were less alienated from a larger community. They sought their roots, while white artists fled from theirs. But like any other demimonde, the Harlem Renaissance had its salons and soirees, little magazines, quarrels, cranks, and utopian political ideals. Its artists and writers occasionally crossed paths with their Village counterparts at, say, Mabel Dodge's salon on Lower Fifth Avenue. But Harlem's so-called Talented Tenth made few inroads into white America. Their particular margin—being unofficial, thus invisible—couldn't launch them into the big time.

These days the whole concept of marginality is in flux, thanks to the advent of multiculturalism. No, that's not a code word for "minority representation," but a movement that would have recognized both Harlem and the Village; a movement in which every margin is visible; a movement that would redraw the map of the art world to make it more like the real world.

Much more is at stake in the margins now than there was during, say, some style war leading to the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout modernism, the demimonde had a worthy but narrow function as an official periphery. In that milieu, artists defied the official center, some crossed over and the art world got a steady flow of new product—but never a challenge to its basic assumptions. Now, however, multiculturalism is exposing art history as exclusionary, art theory as incomplete, and bohemia as one margin among many.

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has played a major role in shaping multicultural debate in the art world, invoked the image of Columbus when he spoke of the Latino Boom and the margins from which he emerged: "The model of discovery is in place. Going into the territory of the Other, discovering the Other, bringing the Other back into the mainstream. The big question of the '90s for the Chicano movement is, can we be in control of our context? Will we be able to keep our negotiating powers, or will we just die on display like the Arawak [the native people Columbus sent back to the Spanish court]?"

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