In Search of Bohemia

For 150 years, the demimonde has been a visible part of urban life. But media saturation and multicultural reality have dislocated “The Scene.” Bohemia is a state of mind.


A worn gray tepee sits at the edge of the city’s oldest shantytown, just yards from where Manhattan Bridge traffic hits Canal Street. But it also sits in terra incognita. The two artists who’ve lived in the tepee since Thanksgiving 1990 admit to feeling “muddled” at times about what they’re even doing there.

Seated in the dim interior on foam pads, Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer began to explain. For years, they’ve collaborated as Thieves’ Theatre, trying to “embody and articulate” the voice of the disenfranchised. Doing Genet’s Deathwatch with prisoners in Illinois. Doing Marat/Sade with punks and ex-mental patients in Toronto. Trying to work with the homeless in the city’s shelters, but rejecting it as an “us/them” experience. That propelled them into the shantytown, where they decided to stage Heiner Müller’s Despoiled Shore Medeamaterial Landscape With Argonauts in the teepee.

As the artists struggled to explain their mission, I got the impression that they’d spent hours, days, months trying to unravel the koans presented by their new life. How to do theater in the shantytown without being elitist. How to go public without being consumed. How to determine who the audience would be, could be, should be. Such questions become inevitable to artists without a community. I mean — apart from one’s own circle of friends, is there such a thing anymore as an artist with a community?

Schafer and Fracaro had settled in among the alienated, but homeless people aren’t necessarily bohemians. Most of them share the values of the larger world, and other residents of the Hill (as those who live there call it) saw the artists as the outsiders they really are.

Several times someone called in through the tent flap, “Hey, Chief,” and Fracaro would ease himself out to talk to a neighbor. The Hill is clearly a man’s world. Schafer is known there as “Mrs. Chief.” She made the tepee last fall out of 78 U.S. mailbags while Fracaro spent weeks getting acquainted. The artists did not want to move in without the other residents’ permission. (And after much discussion, they decided not to give up their Brooklyn apartment.) They share a job at a movie production warehouse and live sparely. A few tools. A few books. They dubbed the tepee the Living Museum of the Nomad Monad. They’ve kept it drug-and-alcohol-free, providing coffee to their neighbors in the morning. Fracaro and Schafer say the others accept them now, but still regard them as odd.

The artists call the shantytown a “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” They had come across this phrase in an obscure text called T.A.Z. [The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism] by an arcane anarchist who calls himself Hakim Bey. I’d read the book myself, since I’m interested in what’s passing for autonomy these days, when a New World Order seems to permeate even our attempts at disorder or dissent. “Realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution’ but also that we give up wanting it,” writes Bey. “In most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.” The artists in the tepee had managed to disappear by refusing to speak to reporters. (“As soon as the TAZ is named [represented, mediated] it must vanish, it will vanish …”) Only now, as they intuit that their days on the Hill are numbered, are they willing to talk to me.

I was reminded of other art satellites I’ve encountered over the last few years — the Neoist rituals in Tompkins Square, the Sideshows by the Seashore on Coney Island’s boardwalk, the Festival of the Swamps beneath the Williamsburg Bridge — all of it unfolding far from the grant-getting vortex, part of no movement, isolated from any larger context.

Certainly I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those “autonomous zones” seemed irreparable. That historic institution once called “bohemia” has been so intensively exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture — more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Now — relentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thing — the media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830-1930) to New Bohemia (the ’60s) to Faux Bohemia (the ’80s) has atomized now into trails that can’t be followed: the ‘zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.

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 could’ve would’ve 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 proves the rule.

Of course, bohemia was something of a media invention right from the start. The first stories about it, written by Henry Mürger 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 Bohème 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?)

But in contrast to the publicity-mad East Villagers, many artists in Greenpoint don’t seem to want their neighborhood publicized. As a friend who’s lived there for years put it, “We don’t care about getting validated by people from Manhattan.” There’s nothing for the hype to stick to, anyway. No trendy new ism. No glamour. No “No Wave.” Just cheap rent. But the artists find one another. There’s a knot of community. For example, Mike Ballou and Adam Simon run a symposium called Four Walls out of Ballou’s home. (“Don’t print my address.”) Simon started Four Walls in Hoboken a few years ago, so its move to Brooklyn follows the trail of cheap loft space. Once a month now, guest curators hang a show in Ballou’s studio for a day; it ends with a discussion of the work among the exhibitors and artists from the neighborhood. It’s always crowded.

But there are crowds and then there’s the Crowd. Last June, intrigued by flyers wheat-pasted all over the East Village, I made my way to an abandoned warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront for a one-night-only art extravaganza called the Fly Trap. I’d heard good things about an earlier event called the Cat’s Head, and so had everyone else, apparently. By midnight, the line waiting in the rutted dirt road to the warehouse was two blocks long, complete with the old buzz surrounding the place-to-be. Inside, I found 20,000 square feet of huge and uninspired installations, live bands, and beer — club fun, a contrived atmosphere of outlaw revelry. Hanging art in some decrepit quasi-forbidden old building? A veritable tradition — and we did it better in the ’70s (Times Square Show). Then we did it better in the ’80s (Real Estate Show, Warren Street Pier).

Artists who fled to Williamsburg precisely to escape trendification are horrified to find it following them. Painter Amy Silliman, a longtime resident of the area, said of the Fly Trap: “Don’t assume that this is a summary of the neighborhood. It’s just the bad old East Village come to haunt me.”

Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth played MC for the five young poets who would all go on to achieve some measure of poetry-fame — Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen — while an unpublished and unknown Jack Kerouac, too shy to read, passed jugs of wine through the packed gallery. But this became a legendary evening on the strength of the one poem, still unfinished, read by Ginsberg: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving hysterical naked …”

As his biographer Barry Miles reports it, Ginsberg was “transported … arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words” while Rexroth listened with tears in his eyes and the audience yelled “Go!” at the end of each line. “Howl” was an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, the collective howl reverberating through every outsider enduring the lonely-crowd ’50s. This was poetry that changed people’s lives.

In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima describes the electrifying moment when she first encountered the poem and sensed that, for better or for worse, her isolation was over. Someone had brought Ginsberg’s now-familiar little square book to a dinner party at her “pad.” Scanning the first lines, she immediately left her own party to read the whole thing, then returned to read it out loud to everyone. “Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends — and even those friends claiming it ‘couldn’t be published’ … all these would now step forward and say their piece … I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.”

It’s hard to imagine anything with “Howl”‘s impact emanating from “high culture” now. The breakthroughs, such as they are, seem to come from the “low” — the first Sex Pistols record, for example, which rewrote every rule about what music could be or say or spit on. It was during the ’50s that the spite of “danger” and “rebellion” began to shift from the art world to mass culture. The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of the mass media. Ginsberg’s biography notes that “he took pains to show the difference between the Beat Generation … and the beatniks.” But the media didn’t observe the distinction, “and the public perception was that Allen was the progenitor of all the bearded young men who wandered around Greenwich Village in handmade leather sandals.” The Beats thought they could inject their vision into mass culture, but what the “bearded young men” really signaled was the beginning of the community as artifact.

In the ’50s, the media image of the beatnik became a corollary to masscult images of rebellious teens. James Dean, that icon of Misunderstood Youth — wasn’t he also the Tortured Artist? As for Elvis Presley — wasn’t the emblematic scene in each movie the one where he dropped the dumb ballad and learned to rock, blow, go-man-go? Today it’s easy to forget how two people as different from each other as Presley and Ginsberg would have grated against the status quo in the Eisenhower years.

If this didn’t quite make for a mass Bohemia — yet — Kerouac could still complain that the Beats were nothing but “a fad.” His own overnight transition from vision-seeking subterranean to flavor-of-the-month celebrity was a painful one. When On the Road appeared in 1957, he’d been trying to get the book published for six years. Suddenly The New York Times declared it the testament of a new generation, and one day later, the interviewers began to arrive. What was it really like to be Beat? they wanted to know. Soon Kerouac was appearing on talk shows spouting metaphysics to the likes of Mike Wallace (“we are great empty space … an empty vision in one mind”). He never seemed to understand that the press wanted hot copy, not enlightenment. It was a San Francisco journalist who invented the word beatnik (after Sputnik), and soon the media had the movement boiled down to jive talk and a set of bongo drums. By 1959, the most famous beatnik in America was Maynard G. Krebs.

Back in 1957, while the brand-new Village Voice covered a few Beat moments like Kerouac’s appearance at the Village Vanguard, it featured much longer pieces on old Bohemians — infamous Village characters like Joe Gould and Maxwell Bodenheim, who were virtually unknown outside the neighborhood. Fierce rivals, these two impoverished writers were reportedly fed and given drinks at one Village bar for awhile “so customers would come to watch the hostilities.”

Bohemia itself was moving from West Village to East at the end of the ’50s, and would house a very different sort of “freak.” There would be no more Goulds. The Voice piece on his funeral speculates on the whereabouts of Gould’s lifework, The Oral History of Our Time — 11 million words written in dime-store notebooks as he sat in Goody’s Bar on the Minetta Tavern. (Oral History remains a lost work.) Today, Gould’s portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern, but surely someone so unkempt, ornery, and wild-eyed would no longer, uh, suit the decor. This was the boho as hobo: the rebel who could not be televised.

What the full flowering of electronic media made possible was alienation as a growth industry rather than an emblem of community. Malcolm Cowley, part of the so-called Lost Generation, describes in Exile’s Return how the First World War and a new set of values set his generation irrevocably apart from the one before it. In the ’60s, of course, this feeling infected mass culture, creating the infamous “generation gap” — for it took no more than loving the Beatles, the world’s most popular group, to set one apart from one’s parents. While “do your own thing” was the notion at the heart of the old bohemia, during the ’60s it found a place in the heart of every teen consumer. Nonconformity, transgression, risk — adjectives once associated with bohemian values and avant-garde art — suddenly described superstars whose hits played in Peoria. And Jimi Hendrix became a Fluxus artist when he burned his guitar.

On February 9, 1967, 16 patrol cars pulled up around the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque on West 41st Street. Helmeted police converged on the stage inside and arrested artist Charlotte Moorman during a performance of Nam June Paik’s Opera Sextronique. Moorman had been playing the cello topless. The Brahms Lullaby. A “lewd act.”

Three months later, a Manhattan criminal court judge convicted her of indecent exposure. Moorman faced one to three years in prison. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended the sentence, however, calling the cellist “weak and immature.” His 29-page opinion is a classic artifact of official contempt for the avant-garde, with its references to “bearded, bathless Beats” and “those ‘happeners’ whose belief it is that art is ‘supposed to change life’ as most of us know it.” There the judge had a glimmer of art’s true potential for transgression. It could change life.

And that never seemed more possible than it did in the ’60s, when every art form broke apart into something rich and strange. Remember cynaesthetic cinema? Cybernetic sculpture? Intermedia? Destruction art? Underground film? The death of painting? The death of the novel? The death of the theater? One could make a case for the ’60s as “the end of the avant-garde.” But the media gravitated to Warhol and Ginsberg and the other supernovas of an official demimonde, ignoring the aesthetic ferment behind the personalities. It was up to critic/advocates like Jill Johnston (performance) and Jonas Mekas (film) to witness the revolution. Certainly Charlotte Moorman, an emblematic figure in the ’60s avant-garde, could not expect a Times review. Nor a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

To be part of the art netherworld then was to be part of something suspect, outré, and perhaps even illegal. Moorman’s arrest was no anomaly. In 1961, postal inspectors busted LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima for sending obscenity through the mail — their literary magazine, Floating Bear. (A grand jury failed to return indictments.) In 1964, Lenny Bruce got a one-year sentence for using words like fuck and cocksucker onstage at the Cafe Au Go Go. (It was overturned on appeal after Bruce’s death.) That same year, two detectives broke up an East Village screening of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, arresting Jonas Mekas, who had programmed the film. (Mekas got a six-month suspended sentence, and Smith’s film was banned in the state of New York until 1970.) These were people who’d chosen a life in art that would keep them impoverished, marginal, embattled. They were “don’t-wannabes.” Bohemians.

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]?”

Now the shifts and schisms in the margins reflect the tug-of-war going on throughout the world: the trend towards globalization versus the trend towards community. The pressure to assimilate versus the urge to segregate.

Traditionally, an artist like Gómez-Peña would be seen as culturally specific, not universal. In fact, he is both, though his universalism is lost on those who see only Otherness. “Our generation belongs to the world’s biggest floating population,” he once wrote in one of his manifestos. And he’s not just referring to an ethnic group. He means all of us — “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those who left because we didn’t fit anymore, those who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss.” This perfectly describes the bohemian diaspora: an autonomous zone of the mind.

We’ve come full circle, back to the original meaning of the word bohémien: “gypsy.” Of course, bohemia was always part of the exile tradition, the place where the lost ones went to find each other. But it was exile from one tangible place to another. Now that there is no place, the exiles have become nomads, and there’s a whole culture of the disappeared. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2020