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Bohemias Lost & Found

Read a lot about bohemia and soon you notice two things. The first is that bohemians, especially young ones, don't like to call themselves bohemians. Ignorant of cultural history and infatuated with the uniqueness of their particular social and formal rebellions, they have less than no need for some fusty old label their unacknowledged forebears didn't like either. The second is that the "real" bohemia, like "Old" England, is always gone--stuck in an irretrievable past just now corrupted or obliterated by modernity and/or commerce. Never has this cliché been more content-free, because never in history have so many neighborhoods and subcultures yoked artistic creation to nonconformist lifestyles. Bohemia isn't gone. But like most things in capitalist modernity, it's always changing.

Accounts of bohemianism as a worldview and bohemias as places to live have long been rare. Until recently, there were only three decent scholarly studies in English: journalist Albert Parry's revelatory Garrets and Pretenders (1933), a chronicle of early American bohemias written before Parry went to college and became a renowned Russia expert; sociologist Cesar Grana's stiff-necked Bohemian Versus Bourgeois (1964), which takes the ruinous tack of homing in on Flaubert, who avoided Paris and hence bohemia his whole life; and historian Jerrold Seigel's definitive Bohemian Paris (1986), its only real flaw Seigel's convenient belief that, never mind existentialism, bohemian Paris ends when it does. That would be 1930, which is also when the best bohemia book ends. Although Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return (1951) sticks to the American aesthetes who migrated to Paris in the wake of the Palmer raids, Prohibition, and Greenwich Village's "pervading atmosphere of middle-agedness," only to come home when the stock market crashed and life got serious, it brims with ideas about the bohemian ethos and tales of bohemian lives.

Beyond those four, the 20th century spawned many colorful popular histories, a few crackpot theoreticians, and more artists' memoirs and bios than anyone will ever read. But since 2000 the literature has picked up markedly, from conservative fifth-columnist David Brooks's spottily researched, snottily written 2000 Bobos in Paradise (somehow the title neologism, an attempt to do something cute with Grana's bohemian-bourgeois polarity, didn't catch on) to intellectual historian Mary Gluck's suggestive, frustrating 2008 Popular Bohemia (which begins with a bang by grounding Parisian bohemia in early melodrama and ends up in the cultural studies ether with Gauguin's amanuensis--at a time when Montmartre had become an entertainment center whose popularity Gluck declines to unpack). Much better are two histories of Greenwich Village: Princeton historian Christine Stansell's American Moderns (2000) and my late Village Voice colleague Ross Wetzsteon's Republic of Dreams (2002).

Because Wetzsteon died in 1998, neither book bears any trace of the other, and they're remarkably complementary. Exemplified by four pre-1920 principals who left no appreciable artistic legacies, Stansell's bohemia is more a sociopolitical site than an artistic one. Running with Jerrold Seigel's big idea that, functionally, bohemia is a laboratory where the bourgeoisie works out new ways of doing things, she only begins by rooting feminism, the union movement, and many other progressive tendencies in the early Village. Her basic thesis is that the Village was the breeding ground of 20th-century American sociability itself: of romantic marriage, cross-ethnic discourse, cross-class empathy, associative as opposed to argumentative conversation.

Organized into biographical chapters with titles like "Mabel Dodge's Salon: 'Oh, How We Were All Intertwined!,'" "Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein: 'The Knife of Love,'" and "Delmore Schwartz: Alien in Residence," Republic of Dreams is more conventional. Its focus is artists and their art. But Wetzsteon knows that many eminent bohemians have proven more enduring as characters than as creators. So he devotes chapters to impecunious poseurs Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould, folds in a dozen or two briefer sketches, and takes an interest in these adventurers' sex lives that some might call prurient and I say provides an essential gauge of their quality of life. Stansell is good on this stuff too--cutting, in fact, on the domestic labor heaped on supposedly independent women and the inequities of free love. But compare Wetzsteon on the same relationships and you'll invariably find more flesh and nuance. Moreover, Wetzsteon was an accomplished critic, and his aesthetic assessments--of O'Neill, Millay, Cummings, Dawn Powell--are as astute as any I've encountered in the literature of bohemia. Lacking the summation he didn't get to before he died and seriously short-changing '30s leftism, Republic of Dreams isn't quite Bohemian Paris. But it's a deeply intelligent and entertaining counterpart.

It's also a better book than Richard Kostelanetz's SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists' Colony (2003) or Richard Lloyd's Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City (2005). But Kostelanetz and Lloyd have something Wetzsteon, Stansell, Seigel, and even Cowley do not--the psychological distance to concoct a credible portrait of a contemporary bohemia. Not that there haven't been such books in the past; I'm sure there are many more than I'm aware of. But these tend to be either works of advocacy like Lawrence Lipton's "inside story of the Beat Generation" The Holy Barbarians (1959), a resource some academic press should reprint, or quickies like John Gruen's haphazard The New Bohemia (1966), whose attempt to dub mid-'60s avant-gardists "the Combine Generation" went nowhere faster than "Bobos." Kostelanetz and Lloyd are more authoritative, more objective--and like Stansell and Wetzsteon, they're complementary.

Lloyd is an academic outsider, Kostelanetz an anti-academic insider. For an academic, Lloyd writes with easy grace, bogging down only in a methodological overview he keeps short; for the author of 50-plus books, Kostelanetz is a sloppy, puffed-up stylist--adverb-happy, using "bovine blood" for "beef blood" and "the reason why" for "the reason," given to clunkers like "the inordinate attentiveness paid by some to people above themselves in a hierarchy as distinct from those below." An urban studies Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Lloyd thinks like Stansell, fascinated by the pomo folkways of Chicago's Wicker Park; a proudly uncategorizable literary-musical-visual artist best known for his criticism, Kostelanetz is more like Wetzsteon, chronicling favored avant-gardists in piecemeal chapters while telling the story of the SoHo he's seen. Lloyd first ventured to Wicker Park to see a band in a bar, and the big local success he describes is Liz Phair, about whom he's not terribly insightful; the editor of two music journalism collections who sticks in a chapter about Sonic Youth and Suicide, Kostelanetz reserves his heart and most of his pages for the recondite and the esoteric. Finally, Lloyd identifies his object of research as a "bohemia," shoring the term up with a brief, sensible, well-informed history, while Kostelanetz insists that the nabe where he bought a surreally cheap coop in 1974 is, or was, an "artists' colony," like "Fire Island, Provincetown, or Woodstock"--none of which was an artists' colony for long, though Woodstock might still be half a bohemia.

Not that this is totally off the wall. As bohemias that are always changing go, SoHo is more an artists' colony than most, so be glad Kostelanetz is the kind of guy who goes to everything and then takes notes on it. There are memorable chapters on Fluxus founder turned real estate mastermind George Maciunas, on quintessential avant-gardist turned totemic art icon Nam June Paik, on children's book illustrator Hannah Tierney flowering into an experimental puppeteer, on the self-photographing Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke, as well as descriptions of shows I'm sorry I missed and performances I'm glad I only read about. In short, he does the art of his bohemia the justice he's convinced it deserves. And he understands it is a place as well.

In SoHo, the decline of small manufacture-inspired zoning laws that for two decades permitted only working artists to live in abandoned factories, few as young as the typical Wicker Park settler. And the north-south length and architectural uniformity of the 30 blocks bordered by Houston, Thompson, Crosby, and Canal is ill suited to bohemian strolling and hanging out. When the carpetbagging stockbrokers and media execs were allowed in, however, this exclusive community was more vulnerable than a mixed-use one would have been. Not only were many artists displaced or outbid, but their institutions--a few bars, restaurants, and performance spaces, many galleries--were priced out of the neighborhood. The gentrification that follows bohemia leaves similar wreckage everywhere--as Lloyd details, there've been real estate battles in Wicker Park for almost as long as there've been bohemians. But in SoHo the effects were devastating. Quickly, Kostelanetz's post-industrial loft haven was transformed into a ritzy enclave. Soon it was as gone as Greenwich Village--maybe goner. So around the time Kostelanetz finished SoHo, he cashed in his coop and moved to Rockaway Beach, where he has even more room for his archives, his artworks, his holograms, his LP collection, and his 15,000 books.

All of which is sad, and none of which means SoHo wasn't a bohemia. Kostelanetz's rationalization for this piece of crankitude is some theory about bohemias harboring "political radicals," natural perhaps in a white guy who cites "disadvantageous race and gender" as barriers to the fame he's due. But I suspect the main reason he believes SoHo is an artists' colony is that bohemias don't meet his exacting aesthetic standards. Read Parry; read Seigel; read almost anyone closely. Inside bohemia as out, artists come in varying shades of ambition. You get Baudelaire, but you also get Henry Murger, the très-petit-bourgeois whose sentimental newspaper sketches Scènes de la Vie de Bohème brought bohemia down to a level Puccini and Rent could comprehend. You get the night-crawling avant-garde M.D. William Carlos Williams, but you also get the night-crawling sonneteer Edna St. Vincent Millay. You get Philip Rahv's anti-Popular Front Partisan Review but you also get Barney Josephson's left-wing cabaret Cafe Society. You get Jackson Pollock and Frank O'Hara but soon also Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. You get thousands of bohemians who excelled as journalists (Parry and Stansell feature many full-timers; Gluck plays up l'art-pour-l'art poet Théophile Gautier; Wetzsteon, obscurantist novelist Djuna Barnes). By the time Kostelanetz came of age in the mid-'60s, popular bohemia was in ascendance, soon to be followed by mass bohemia, a.k.a. hippies. No matter what else was happening in bohemia or rock and roll, the two have overlapped ever since.

Because he doesn't self-define as an aesthete, Lloyd takes these multivalences for granted. For him Wicker Park booster John Cusack is an art hero, while it's conceivable Kostelanetz, who disdains Hollywood, doesn't even know who Cusack is. Lloyd attends plays and openings, acts in a friend's film, and loves him some Liz Phair, but in the end his interest is how art functions in life, not what art it says about life, much less what art says about art. In interviews more redolent of profile journalism than of sociological fieldwork, he skewers the intolerance of several ignoramuses' claims to cultural capital. He accepts the inevitability and even appropriateness of deviance in a capitalism that is always changing, but he hates the emotional costs the normalization of that deviance exacts from individual seekers, like the South Dakota-born kid who tats up to fit in and is shooting heroin 12 pages later. And he's matter-of-factly appalled by the economics of postmodern bohemia's supposedly hedonistic and self-indulgent nonconformity.

Kostelanetz is admirably lucid on the gallery system's winner-take-all social networking scheme and specific about income and wealth among losers and hanging-ons. But he's in it for his interest group. Lloyd surveys the big picture, where the number of Americans who self-defined as artists tripled between 1970 and 1999, where in 2000 more than a third of Chicago artists reported incomes below $25,000 and three-quarters earned less than half their living from their art. He calculates the measly wages of art part-timers providing design and content in the online bubble and the information-driven new economy. He turns over an entertainment-district economy descended from Montmartre and finds that the hip, cool, funky, sharp bartenders and waitstaffs of Wicker Park's booming scene tend toward alcoholism and are embroiled in potlatches where they blow their big-night earnings on huge tips for their colleagues in other locales. And he understands what Kostelanetz does from his end--that in rock and roll and design just as in gallery art there are a few geniuses, hustlers, and genius hustlers who win the lottery and a great many exploited young workers who will eventually quit, teach, or, at best, carve out an income-bearing niche that satisfies their creative urges.

One reason it's kooky for Kostelanetz to deny his bohemianism is that he himself has carved out such a niche--stubbornly promoting his dubious claims to greatness, he's an exemplary bohemian eccentric, with a lot more to show for it than Maxwell Bodenheim. Me, I'm a journalist on the bohemian fringe--scruffy around the edges, making my living off the arts, gaga for a Greenwich Village girl who 37 years ago traded free love for a romantic marriage. I delve into the latest alt-rock rave and blanch, yet continue to derive a major chunk of my musical sustenance from that world. I read Brooks smugly satirizing bobo hegemony and snort even before I've encountered Kostelanetz's forgotten moments or Lloyd's grim statistics. Bohemia isn't gone. But it's more endangered and also more dangerous than the smug think. That's one reason it remains something to care about, and believe in.

Barnes & Noble, Jan. 19, 2009