Where have all the bohemians gone, long time passing?
May 24, 2016 10:58 PM   Subscribe

There used to be bohemians (not avant garde artists, not beats, not hippies). I'd know one if I saw one, but can't seem to bring their essential qualities into focus -- except for a distain for the bourgeoisie. Are they still around? What do we call them now?

I think of them as lasting from the early 20th century to the advent of the Beats. Some were artists, but not all (after WW1, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company, the couple dramatized in "The Danish Girl"). They didn't particularly set out to be different, but cared nothing for bourgeois standards and opinions. They wanted to dress as they pleased, to eat and drink well, to be open to new things, to live life fully.

My ideas are formed from a book, "1913: The Year Before the Storm" by Florian Illies; the stories and memoirs about Paris between the wars, especially Hemingway's "A Movable Feast"; and a photo I have, taken in the late 1940's, of a small group of people floating on a canal in North Seattle, in a flotilla of inner tubes, with wonderful straw hats and drinks in tall glasses, and such wonderful relaxed happy looks on their faces.

So my questions:

1) What makes a bohemian? I do know it's not what you do, it's the attitude with which you do it.

2) Where can I read more about them, particularly first person narratives rather than part of fictional writing?

3) Are they still around, just called something else perhaps?

Perhaps I'm one and don't realize it. Hello? Hello?
posted by kestralwing to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
They are definitely still around. I have known lots. They might be called hippies, or even hipsters, but they are definitely around. I do think you're less likely to find them in the big cities these days, simply because big cities are too expensive.
posted by lunasol at 12:13 AM on May 25, 2016

You should watch Victoria Coren Mitchell's TV programme on the topic. YouTube excerpt.
posted by TheRaven at 12:24 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Hipster" is essentially the modern analogue - the neo-bohemian - but the old concept of "bohemian" you refer to has been significantly problematized in a number of ways, because of the unique ways class, commerce, and lifestyle mercilessly intersect in the 21st century. This 2010 piece "What Was the Hipster?" might answer some questions. And it gets at why this isn't a simple mapping to the concept of bohemianism:
The matrix from which the hipster emerged included the dimension of nineties youth culture, often called alternative or indie, that defined itself by its rejection of consumerism. Yet in an ethnography of Wicker Park, Chicago, in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Lloyd showed how a culture of aspiring artists who worked day jobs in bars and coffee shops could unintentionally provide a milieu for new, late-capitalist commerce in design, marketing, and web development. The neo-bohemian neighborhoods, near to the explosion of new wealth in city financial centers, became amusement districts for a new class of rich young people. The indie bohemians (denigrated as slackers) encountered the flannel-clad proto-businessmen and dot-com paper millionaires (denigrated as yuppies), and something unanticipated came of this friction.

The Lower East Side and Williamsburg in New York, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Silver Lake in L.A., the Inner Mission in San Francisco: This is where the contemporary hipster first flourished. Over the years, there developed such a thing as a hipster style and range of art and finally, by extension, something like a characteristic attitude and Weltanschauung. Fundamentally, however, the hipster continues to be defined by the same tension faced by those early colonizers of Wicker Park. The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.
posted by naju at 12:31 AM on May 25, 2016 [29 favorites]

yeah, that's totally hipsters. Trouble is it's a lot harder to pointedly reject the stifling trappings of modern society when rejecting the stifling trappings of modern society just means you slot into a well-understood and easily sneered at subgroup, e.g., hipsters.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:29 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

From my perspective I think Bohemianism isn't perhaps as defined by a distain for the bourgeoisie as much as being a distinctive part of it, it takes money and class to spend one's days writing poetry and painting on the walls after all - the rest of us would be likely to get sectioned!

I think these days these values have been consumed into a sort of "bourgeois bohemianism" especially in Europe in which these sort of well heeled, well educated, and well connected people seem to spend their time as "artists" "designers" "gallerists" and other "creative" professionals in various "hip" cities; Berlin, London, Copenhagen, Porto, Antwerp, Mexico City etc.

As a working class person living in a particularly unhip place and with a decidedly undesignery lifestyle I'm rather fascinated by these sorts of people too; the ground zero for learning about these sorts of people and their values are lifestyle blogs like FreundvonFruenden.com and coffeeklatch.be.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:54 AM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

In Paris, that'll be bobo (bourgeois-bohème)... pejorative term for well-off middle class French media, cultural and service professionals. I guess an American-UK equivalent might be "cappuccino liberals".

In the Anglo-Saxon world, also: boho chic

Also, The Bohemian Manifesto (2004)
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:40 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is bohemian? is a sort of pointless article that nevertheless brings up something interesting at the end (and unfortunately leaves it entirely unexplored):
Nicholson, author of Among the Bohemians, believes today's bohos retain that original spirit of revolt. "We take it for granted that society is fluid, that informality prevails. On the other hand there's still plenty to reject: there's consumerism.

"In a sense the environment movement could be seen as today's bohemians. There's that sense of sacrifice, there's that sense of purity, there's that sense of a burning mission, of giving up things."
This wouldn't have immediately occurred to me, but it seems like an interesting line of thought to follow.
posted by taz at 2:56 AM on May 25, 2016

Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 . Fantastic read and covers your questions 1 & 2 with a UK slant. On the third question I think the answer is that they don't exist any more, at least not in the 'traditional' sense, except maybe in small pockets, as the social structures that engendered that lifestyle have all but disappeared.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:33 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't agree that hipsters are the new bohemians. My understanding is that hipsters are all about being on the leading edge of trendiness and that is their social currency. Bohemians on the other hand seem to just want to do their own thing and the more their own thing differs from cultural norms the more "bohemian" it is.

tldr: hipster: "I was into _____ before it was cool", bohemian: "whatever floats your boat"
posted by forforf at 4:01 AM on May 25, 2016 [26 favorites]

Agree with forforf, Bohemian and Hipster do not correlate. IMO they are diametrically opposed.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:08 AM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Bohemian Paris: Culture Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life 1830-1930 by Jerrold Seigel is a fascinating book about the original European cultural milieu that this word describes. The author presents an interesting premise: while "Bohemianism" is specifically defined as a rejection of "Bourgeois" values, in practice these social opposites influence and sustain each other. Also, if you like reading anecdotes about old French writers and painters drinking absinthe and acting all non-conformist-y, then you've come to the right place.

In my personal view, this particular kind of cultural mix is a sort of thing defined in the previous century, but that's my semantic definition. Nowadays maybe you could call a literate non-conformist a bohemian, or a hippy, or a beatnik, but that would be using the terminology kinda loosely. And yes, hipsters are something else.
posted by ovvl at 5:41 AM on May 25, 2016

More disparagingly, the term "trustifarian" gets used sometimes to describe people that would qualify in my eyes as bohemian.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:56 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another vote for forforf. I definitely feel affiliated with the spirit of bohemianism, to me it's about self-expression via whatever method works, fluidity of thought and openness to experience and exploration as opposed to identifying with a particular philosophy or advocating for an ascribed doctrine. It's about going with the flow, acting in the moment and allowing the situation to reveal the outcome, rather than imposing a structure to a definite end within a prescribed moral code. All labels chafe, any judgement or pressure, received or perceived, towards 'normative' behaviours or presentation feels deeply constrictive. In essential form it's a state of amoral non-commitment. Colouring over the lines.

From the outside it appears contrarian, immature and immoral. Living like that requires insulation from the consequences of social disapproval, either via a shed-load of ready cash/patronage or an astonishingly resourceful and thick-skinned ability to stand unselfconsciously outside of socially-mandated support infrastructures. It's just considerably harder to eke out a living in a garret these days.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:58 AM on May 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

There's always been a kind of bleedover between the "hipsters" and the kinds of "bohemians" you're talking about, even back when the bohemians were actually from Bohemia. Every group that has a perceived sort of "cool" to them attracts a bunch of hangers-on, people who adopt the trappings but not the full-on lifestyle. So while it's not necessarily in-accurate to say that the hipsters "aren't" bohemians, it's not wholly accurate - because the hipsters of today are probably very much like the wanna-bes of the past.

I would argue that the real full-on live-your-unique-authentic-life, down-with-authority, art-for-art's-sake folk of today would be the various kinds of punks and anarchists.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:37 AM on May 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Aren't we (almost) all bohemians now? According to the early definitions anyway. I don't wear a corset, or have tea at strictly four; I read books in the kitchen and don't have anyone in to do the washing up. I mop the floor, practise a Chopin etude, eat some mango, don an old misshapen cardigan, wear it to walk in the countryside with my kids. I lived in sin with my husband before we were married. I still work! I am a feminist and am bring up my daughter to go to university and have a career. This is all very, very normal stuff but I think people of the turn of the century would find our modern lifestyles nearer to the bohemian than anything else.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 6:48 AM on May 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

The difference is whether or not you'd have still been doing these things in a society that condemned you for doing so. Conformism is always relative to social mores. To me Hipsterism is about code-making, anarchism is about visibly smashing the codes of authoritarian governance, bohemianism is about not understanding why codes are necessary in the first place and being naturally disinclined to pay them much mind. It's harder to live that way in some social set-ups than others.
posted by freya_lamb at 6:56 AM on May 25, 2016 [12 favorites]

I think there is a link between hipsterism and bohemianism but it's definitely not the same thing. Personal theory: People were pretty fascinated by bohemians, and so sometime around the middle of the 20th century - I'd say the hippie counterculture of the 60s was the big turning point - lots of people became interested in being a bohemian, or something like it. Thing is, being an actual bohemian, in the 19th-century-Parisian sense, was something that most people would find pretty unpleasant. You don't have any money, you live in conditions that are often unsanitary and sometimes dangerous, some people love you but more people scorn you. When starving artists are glorified, the starving part somehow always gets left out.

So aspects of bohemian culture - appreciation of art and literature, sexual fluidity, partying - merged with the mainstream consumer culture which, for all its problems, is mostly pretty good at keeping people well-fed and well-housed. Ta-da! The modern hipster, or bourgeois-bohemian.

Two quick observations on this:

-Hipsters/bourgeois-bohemians can come in for lots of criticism, but I don't think there's really anything wrong with them, per se. So long as you are self-aware enough to realize that being a graphic designer or listening obscure music does not make you a revolutionary, it's fine.

-I think there do exist people, even today, who are more like the bohemians of old, at least in spirit - though they may look and act differently. But whoever they are, they've been pretty overwhelmed by the hipster/boho-bourgies.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:54 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

In conclusion: late capitalism eats everything.
posted by praemunire at 8:43 AM on May 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Sure, they still exist. I agree that they are not the same as hipsters, but there's a relation. To me, a bohemian is somebody whose primary output is some sort of art: painting, music, writing, etc. Sure, I guess there's disdain for the bourgeoisie, enough to 'split off' from it, but I'm not sure it's necessary. It's more a matter of there being not much inspiration in the 'typical' middle class working/family lifestyle, so they choose a different one, which fuels their art with inspiration.
posted by destructive cactus at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think that if you're looking for a group of artistically bent individuals who want to live an eclectic, cosmpolitan, alternative lifestyle that is not defined by bourgeois norms, then Burners sound more apropos than hipsters.
posted by bl1nk at 9:36 AM on May 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Chaotic good!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:49 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I clicked your profile and if you haven't run into bohemians you have not been paying attention, I'm related to a couple, although closer to Fairhaven actually I guess. Actually in the space between Fairhaven and downtown, not suburban, not urban; I'm on the other coast and just visit way too irregularly.

(oh gosh I hope that doesn't sound rude, but they are mostly young, too many aging bohemians decide to get a job and hid behind the current uniform of the establishment)

The classic painter in a parisian garret has been priced out due to the popularity of a certain opera and the crazy world we're in but look around the edges of cities where urban renewal is waiting on permits and there are folks doing their thing at the lowest rent findable.
posted by sammyo at 10:20 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

The "bohemians" of the early 20th centuries and earlier are today's "avant garde artists, beatniks, and hippies".

Hipsters, too, can be seen as part of the bohemian tradition, though it's complicated because of the huge social changes* that followed the 1960s in the West. Also things like the ubiquity of cheap consumer goods, people defining themselves more by their stuff than philosophy or social roles, etc have muddied the waters a lot. So you can now have a "hipster" law or business school grad who lives in Williamsburg and is a vegan indie rock enthusiast, which blends a lot of different bohemian/mainstream ideas. Obviously this person wouldn't be "a bohemian" in the traditional sense, but they are culturally part of a subculture that has affinities with previous bohemian cultural movements.

So I'd say we're probably in a "post-bohemian" era of culture, at this point.

* A lot of "bohemian" rejection of the mainstream now is mainstream, and a lot of the ideas typically fought for by bohemian subcultures, like free love, valuing the unique more than the traditional, individualism, and a casual or eccentric aesthetic, have been accepted by the wider culture.
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

They didn't particularly set out to be different, but cared nothing for bourgeois standards and opinions. They wanted to dress as they pleased, to eat and drink well, to be open to new things, to live life fully.

May I suggest a slightly different place to look for people that almost fits your definition? I regard them as bohemian but less the artistic sort, and that's many of today's dirtbags - hardcore backpackers, ski bums, climbers, river rats, surfers. Instead of an artistic life they pursue an outdoor one - with varying degrees of athleticism, so it can range from climbers to people work as fire spotters in the summer and ski all winter. At any rate, they pursue a life outside of the norm with that kind of disdain* you've referenced, and while many are too poor to eat and drink well, they do embrace the kind of lifestyle you're talking about. And you can find them on the edge of any outdoor scene - living on beaches in Hawaii, for example, or tagging their photos with #vanlife as they travel the American Southwest.

If this piques your interest, I'd be happy to suggest a whole range of 1st person narratives, but to start Valley Uprising is a great film about climbing in Yosemite, showcases many of these types doing their things; and Brendan Leonard, an "average" dirtbagger who has a great blog (Semi-rad) about his lifestyle, as well as contributing to another site, Adventure Journal, which follows a lot of of people in the same swim.

And on the artistic note, many of them get into visual mediums - filming, photography - as a way to both pursue and express their lifestyle. The film Valhalla is a good example of those that do so - both of the lifestyle and the artistic expression.

Anyway, just a thought.

*And to be clear, I'm talking less about your "trustifarian" adventurer, and while some actively pursue sponsorship many don't, or it becomes something to pursue once they have a family - I'm talking about your average, normally athletic type who isn't going to make news but is definitely living and pursuing a particular lifestyle - the person living in a 1 bedroom with 6 other people in Vail so they can ski all the time. And I'd draw a line between them and certain adventurer types, although I'd be hard pressed to describe what, exactly, separates them.
posted by barchan at 11:33 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is all very, very normal stuff but I think people of the turn of the century would find our modern lifestyles nearer to the bohemian than anything else.

At this point, there are no more bohemians because the bohemians won.
posted by Sara C. at 11:42 AM on May 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

La Vie Boheme [SLYT]
posted by asphericalcow at 12:26 PM on May 25, 2016

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means, specifically because if there was distinct adherence to a commodified group it would just be called "punks" or "hippies" or "hipsters" (the last of which seems to have been diluted to the point of meaning 'anyone under thirty not dressed in a polo shirt and khakis').

I'd say we intentionally unmarried VHEMT ex-punk quasi-intellectual amaro and mannequin enthusiasts probably still count though. I'd like to think there are a lot of us, but as all the rest of our friends keep doing square shit like growing up I feel less certain.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2016

I'll second ovvl's recommendation of Jerrold Seigel's Bohemian Paris. I heard about the book from this old Bruce Sterling piece:
Professor Seigel's book is especially useful for its thumbnail summary of what might be called the Ten Warning Signs of Bohemianism. According to Seigel, these are:

1. Odd dress.
2. Long hair.
3. Living for the moment.
4. Sexual freedom.
5. Having no stable residence.
6. Radical political enthusiasms.
7. Drink.
8. Drugs.
9. Irregular work patterns.
10. Addiction to nightlife.

As Seigel eloquently demonstrates, these are old qualities. They often seem to be novel and faddish, and are often denounced as horrid, unprecedented and aberrant, but that's because, for some bizarre and poorly explored reason, conventional people are simply unable to pay serious and sustained attention to this kind of behavior. Through some unacknowledged but obviously potent mechanism, industrial society has silently agreed that vast demographic segments of its population will be allowed to live in just this way, blatantly manifesting these highly objectionable attitudes. And yet this activity will never be officially recognized -- it simply isn't "serious." There exists a societal denial-mechanism here, a kind of schism or filter or screen that, to my eye at least, is one of the most intriguing qualities that our society possesses.
William Gibson has played around with these ideas a little, too. I think he once called bohemias "where industrial societies go to dream" -- that is, quasi-autonomous spaces for trying out alternatives to the prevailing norms. Towards the end of this interview, he suggests that the process of commodification has gotten so rapid that there isn't really space for bohemia any more, because the "alternatives" get repackaged and resold before they have time to develop on their own. (There are a number of books from the past 25 years that explore this line of thought, like The Rebel Sell and The Conquest of Cool, but that starts to move away from the topic of bohemianism per se.)

A somewhat more serious look at contemporary bohemia is Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City, by Richard Lloyd. It's kind of an ethnographic look at Wicker Park in Chicago in the 90s, and the intersection of hipster/bohemian lifestyles with gentrification. It's mentioned in the (excellent) "What Was the Hipster?" article naju linked above; there's a more in-depth discussion of the book here.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 8:58 PM on May 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

(Ha, and reviewing the thread I now notice that naju quoted the paragraphs that mention Lloyd's book!)
posted by Gerald Bostock at 8:59 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

May I suggest a slightly different place to look for people that almost fits your definition? I regard them as bohemian but less the artistic sort, and that's many of today's dirtbags - hardcore backpackers, ski bums, climbers, river rats, surfers.
I think that if you're going to draw a parallel between adventuresome dirtbags and a 19th century cultural label/philosophy, then you're probably more looking at alpinists and frontiersmen. There's a strong drive around 'testing yourself against the world' and rejection of/alienation from urban society among both groups that, I think, distinguishes them from the urban social dynamics that mark most Bohemians. I can see the commonalities with regard to individualism and a rejection of consumerism and convention, but I think it's important to distinguish between whether the focus is on artistic creativity or physical/natural experience.
posted by bl1nk at 9:45 AM on May 26, 2016

The modern version of bohemians is the group described by Paul Fussell as "Class X" in his book Class, chapter 9.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:28 PM on May 30, 2016

Many many thanks for all these wonderful answers! Especially the links to books and blogs, but really, it's the individual considered responses that thrill me. Makes me focus on what I think and why --very bohemian, actually, now that I think about it.

(Personal note to sammyo: much as I love living in Bellingham, the weight of self-righteousness overwhelms public bohemians.)
posted by kestralwing at 10:33 PM on May 31, 2016

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