Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bourgeois and Bohemian

The photograph above with the naked dancing man is not last Saturday night in the East Village.   It's a small party in the studio of the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in Berlin in 1912.
The photo on top shows the artist himself in 1904 with his family.  Kirchner is the young man seated on the far right.  The old gent in the center is his father, a prominent chemist employed by a paper manufacturer.
"Bourgeois" is an old term of abuse that we still hear (usually shortened to "Boojy" these days).
From the days of the Romantic  movement in the early 19th century onward, we read letters, essays, speeches, and manifestos by artists, poets, and others roundly condemning or mocking the bourgeoisie.  Which is remarkable, since the overwhelming majority of these artists were from the bourgeois class, like E.L. Kirchner above.
The bourgeoisie was -- is -- the commercial and professional class, the people who make their living through business and through the professions like law, medicine, engineering, and academia.  As a class they've been around for a long time; since about the time urban life starts to come back in the 11th century.  "Bourgeoisie" is from an old French word that means a city-dweller.  And indeed, those shopkeepers, merchants, professionals, and artisans who made up the early bourgeoisie lived in the towns and cities, as opposed to the landed gentry and peasants who lived in the countryside.  It was the bourgeoisie who came to power with the American and French Revolutions, and who made the modern world.  Modern culture, including modern art, was a creation of the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie.
So why the antagonism between artists and their native class (most of them anyway)?  This is an antagonism that is still very much around, though the present consumer society with its culture of marketing complicates that conflict in ways unforeseen even 20 years ago (now, everyone wants to be a glamorous outsider, only they want to keep that suburban sense of safety).
Bohemias are bourgeois (and very middle-class) creations.  They come straight out of those very bourgeois virtues of initiative, independence, skepticism, and honesty.  They are reactions against those very bourgeois vices of greed, hypocrisy, evasion, status-envy, and conformism.  
The industrial economy which put the bourgeoisie on top was -- and is -- a heavily credit dependent economy.  Trustworthiness counts above all else.  The demand of the industrial economy for reliability imposed a strict code of conduct that extended into all areas of life (in this matter, I tend to agree with the Marxist historians; the famously strict sexual mores of the 19th century were created by the needs of the industrial economy, not religious teachings; the secularist anticlerical Thomas Huxley was every bit as repressive as the devoutly religious William Gladstone). 
On top of all that is the brutality that underwrites the prosperity created by industrialism.  This is true even today where both conservatives and liberals (2 sides of the same coin) struggle to assert their ethical integrity in the face of an economy that depends on the wholesale exploitation of nature and human beings.  Both know that their comfort and convenience depends on someone else's misery.  Bourgeois societies reward aggression and predation.  This has been true since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  Indeed, the savagery that lay just under the brittle surface of bourgeois respectability was the bread and butter of novelists from Charles Dickens to Edith Wharton. 
Bohemias began and continue as protests against the constraints of modern life.  They are individual and collective searches for the authentic in a world long shaped by the language of marketing and habits of denial.  At their best, bohemias are the "avant-garde" that forward scouting force that the old military term describes, always pushing the envelope, expanding the world of possibilities for everyone else.  At their worst, bohemias are excuses for sloth and childishness.  Modern art and most modern culture will come out of these marginalized communities beyond the edges of respectability.
Though the artists often derided the bourgeois gentleman delighted to discover that he'd always talked in prose, their bourgeois antagonists were always only one step behind them.  Now, it could be argued, the public has overtaken the artist as events and transformations make everyone a potential outcast.

W.H. Auden wrote the epitaph for bohemias then and now:

They died, unfinished, alone; but now the forbidden,
The hidden, the wild outside were known:
Faithful without faith, they died for the Conscious City
(from Memorial for the City, 1949)

Back to Professor Blanchard mode.


it's margaret said...

Huh --the industrial revolution central to the sexual mores of the 19th century... wow. yeah.

As to the 'bohemians' --I remember once asking of my parents if their friends were hippies. My dad paused and said, "no, they are bohemians!" Opened whole new vistas to this kid that there has always been a counterculture... alive and well, God willing.

Good essay --thank you.

Counterlight said...

My other evidence for sexual mores tied to economics are the contemporary cultures of India and China, among the most prudish societies in the world. They have no ties to Judaeo-Christianity, and their own native cultures were once much more permissive and explicit when it comes to sexuality. See all those swarms of copulating couples all over the 10th century Hindu temples at Khajurao.

Counterlight said...

And just when I think that gentrification has killed off bohemia in New York (by pricing out the middle class that makes bohemias), it pops up like a weed through concrete. While the East Village now is about as "edgy" as Tuckahoe, the real sons and daughters of Allen Ginsburg's "Howl" are scattered throughout the 4 outer boroughs. Who would have ever thought that certain once quiet backwater neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens would become centers of alt rock?

Davis said...

Not to be confused with the BoBos of David Brooks who themselves have moved into more bourgeois surroundings.

it's margaret said...

I lived in Greenpoint for a couple of years.... somehow I can't picture bomenians wandering the streets in Greenpoint! Tell me it ain't so!

Counterlight said...

It IS so. I see scruffy kids with guitars on their backs wandering by all the Polish businesses on Manhattan Avenue. Apparently, the two groups don't seem to mind each other. I can remember the days when no one would rent to you here unless you spoke Polish.
In a way, it is like the old East Village; Polish and other East Europeans living amongst (and making money off of) all the punks, skinheads, neohippies, aspiring actors, writers, artists, etc. It's not quite to the point of rock musicians having kielbasa and eggs at the Veselka at 4AM, but it's getting there.
I lived in the East Village for 13 years, and moving here is like returning to the old neighborhood; and in a way, it is the old neighborhood.

it's margaret said...

I loved living in Greenpoint --on Kent Ave (Church of the Ascension Rectory). And, for a girl from CA, walking down the street and hearing Puerto Rican Spanish, Polish, old Russian families, Hassidic Jews, --I loved it! Eyes wide open....

Sounds like the "system" has remained the same, just the accents changed. Just before we left, Greenpoint was on the verge of being gentrified, because it had great views of the City and was just minutes away from central Manhattan on the GG.... but that was 25 years ago....

Be well there. Sounds like it is still a vibrant place to live.