Bohemian Rhapsody

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The battle between bourgeois and bohemian was probably the longest-running vaudeville comedy act in Western history, each thwacking the other with rolled-up newspapers for about 150 years, so maybe it’s just as well that it’s been given the hook. Too many priggish, bloated blowhards denouncing perfectly good artworks and sexual pleasures, and too many bad artists and crackpot theorists denouncing perfectly good mid- dIe-class customs like baths and private property, for too long. Still, the vanishing of a bohemian option in life, nicely symbolized by the thousands of identical, franchised Starbucks stores selling overpriced sugar-and-cream confections in the guise of being coffeehouses selling coffee, is worth regretting. Yes, many bohemians were pretentious, dissolute fools and fakes, as were many of their respectable bourgeois counterparts, but if you walk around Greenwich Village in Manhattan, an upscale, casual professional-class neighborhood like all the other upscale, casual professional- class neighborhoods in New York or Boston or Burlington, Vt., or Santa Barbara, Calif., or anywhere, you can’t help being haunted by the ghosts of Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Sloan, e.e. cummings, and other free spirits who inhabited it before it became a preserve of investment bankers and corporate lawyers and media celebrities, and you would be similarly haunted in San Francisco’s North Beach, London’s Soho, the Latin Quarter and Montmartre in Paris, and wherever else rebels and eccentrics used to congregate. At their best, bohemians formed a kind of aristocracy without the manors and manners, an impoverished subterranean elite with something of the same aristocratic frankness of speech, boldness, playfulness, drunkenness, artifice, love of art, and penchant for ceremonial, symbolic dress (as in “the red vest of Gautier” or bohemian black). Bohemias provided an experimental space for art, literature, sexuality, clothes, and food, and some of the successful experiments made their way into conventional society, which became a little less conventional’.

In fact, whereas upper-middle-class people once aped the patrician upper class in dress and demeanor, today they’re more likely to be trying to give the impression that they are some sort of artist. This is why Picasso, a consummate bohemian, a prolific, experimental, Mediterranean, life-loving Zorba the Spaniard, is the chief saint in the upper-middle.;, class religion of art, venerated in our museum-temples and in the holy writ of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. Dead bohemian artists are sanctified, the most foul-smelling bohemian poets are taught to clean-cut suburban kids in university classes, but bohemias and bohemians themselves have essentially disappeared. The cheap fringe cold- water-flat neighborhoods, the little mom-and-pop Italian restaurants with checkered tablecloths and flickering candles, the seedy bars where struggling young artists and writers gathered to argue and get drunk and fight over women and aesthetics, are no more. Now, in the Village and the other once-bohemian New York neighborhoods that have fallen in succession to the gentrifying onslaught, like SoHo, Tribeca, the East Village, or Williamsburg, a struggling young something-or-other would have to cough up a vast security deposit and prove that he or she is plugged into the corporate-bureaucratic system with income-tax forms and credit checks to get an apartment and work in an office to pay for it, and as a result there are virtually no struggling young artists and writers anymore. Instead we have artists who can’t draw but are skilled in public relations and gallery-museum politics, and writers who graduate from writing seminars and workshops, use the connections they have acquired in them to publish something somewhere, and then start teaching their own writing seminars and workshops. They live among other, nearly identical young professionals, computer programmers, pharmaceutical reps, and sports therapists, in neighborhoods where Dylan Thomas once drank and Joe Gould once ranted, unmindful of the raffish ghosts.

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