Old Bohemias - part 2 of the first chapter of my unpublished book "New Bohemias: Artists, Hipsters & Gentrification"

This is the second section of the first chapter of my as yet unpublished book. The introduction to the chapter is here and the introduction to the book is here.

 Cover from l  Bohemia in London by  Arthur Ransome (1907) .

Cover from l Bohemia in London by Arthur Ransome (1907).

CHANGING PLACES – FROM OLD BOHEMIAS TO NEW BOHEMIAS

OLD BOHEMIAS

The Bohemians first emerged in early-nineteenth century Paris when the city’s lower-class areas became home to an influx of seemingly impoverished artists, writers, journalists, musicians, actors and other creatives.  Observers called them Bohémien – the name given to Roma people living in France who were wrongly believed to have arrived in France in the fifteenth century from Bohemia, a region of what is now the Czech Republic.  The Paris of the Bohemians was a city undergoing immense change: massive demolition and redevelopment on the one hand, civil unrest and revolutionary fervor on the other.  Its population doubled from the start of nineteenth century to 1841, then more than doubled again during the second half of the century.  Many of the city’s slums, known as the Cour des miracles, had already been cleared during the mid-to-late eighteenth century but much of what we consider today to be the iconic landmarks of Paris – the Champs-Élysées, the Étoile, the Avenue de l’Opéra, etc. - resulted from the wholesale demolition of vast swathes of the old city slums during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.  Baron Haussmann was commissioned by Emperor Napoléon III to undertake the “renovation” of Paris – a massive programme of public works that ploughed wide boulevards through medieval streets, placed new squares, fountains, monuments, theatres and parks on top of slums and tunnelled new sewers under the city.  The works began in 1853 and did not end until the late 1920s.

Haussmann was criticised for his brutal approach to modernisation.  For example, his straight, broad boulevards were said by many to be designed to prevent the building of Paris’s famous barricades, easing access for the army to be able control the streets.  But the renovation of Paris can also be read as the precursor to modern gentrification: demolition displaced thousands of people and businesses, newly developed areas witnessed massive rent increases which led to further displacement, and real estate speculation was rife.  Many of those displaced by Haussmann’s programme were forced to relocate to the peripheries of Paris.  Far from pacifying central Paris, then, Haussmann’s massive civil works instead led to social unrest and heightened class conflict.  His legacy was both a contributing factor to the 1871 Paris Commune but also to its rapid demise.

Prior to Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, the old city was teeming with tradespeople and artisans.  Yet it was only after the 1789 revolution that fine art began to be recognised as a distinct form of practice which was only sustainable through upper-class patronage.  The selling of art was, until then, considered vulgar – something no gentleman would indulge in.  The Romantic movement changed this view of art and artists as writers like Victor Hugo and Emile Balzac fashioned what came to be considered as the now familiar, troubled yet autonomous artistic existence.  This image of the struggling professional artist also became, to a large extent, the image of Bohemianism.  The revolution had shattered traditional class distinctions, leading some young bourgeois men to disavow their privileged positions within society and seek to express themselves through art.  However, many Bohemian artists, writers and students were financed, to varying degrees, by their families.  They were middle-class.  They wore outrageous, vintage clothing; their hair and beards long.  They defied social norms and prevailing fashions.  And, although Bohemians were often mocked by the establishment, they became the focus of intense attention, particularly with the publication of novels like Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (1845), Les Miserables (1862) and Trilby (1894).

Novelist Georges Sand is thought to have first coined the term “Bohemian”, although fellow novelist and poet, Henri Murger, claimed that they had existed throughout every epoch, listing figures such as Shakespeare and Homer amongst their ranks.  It is, however, impossible to attempt to ascribe a term that rose to prominence in the nineteenth century to people from previous periods.  Nevertheless, Bohemianism has remained a constant ideal since its Parisian birth.  Indeed, many of today’s Bohemian ideals remain rooted in those that arose in nineteenth-century Paris.  Perhaps none more so than the notion that Bohemianism was, essentially, a bourgeois occupation.  Take, for example, Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme - perhaps the most famous novel depicting Bohemian life.  It ends with the Bohemians returning to their roots.  To their bourgeois lives.  This is what Murger, Hugo and other proponents of La Vie De Boheme did: they returned to the middle-class comforts to which they were accustomed.  “The Bohemian Dream” was, for many, little more than a middle-class folly.  As early as 1825, Eugène Scribe had already identified the typical Bohemian career path as follows: "A beginner in the Fine Arts find himself overwhelmed by poverty and suffering, then the storm abates and the sky clears, and he finishes up wealthy and respected by all”.  Nineteenth-century Bohemia was, at least for some of its more notable figures, nothing but a muddily-flamboyant footstep on the road to wealth and fame.  Akin to middle-class notion of “slumming it” today, nineteenth century Bohemianism was about the self-conscious creation of self-images of non-compliance. 

Bohemianism also spawned the cult of the Flâneur.  In 1939, Walter Benjamin described Paris as the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century”.  He was scathing about the influence of Flâneurs – who “took the form of Bohemia” - in changing the city.  Flâneurs did not only stroll the city’s streets in search of the romanticised ideal of authenticity, he said, they also came in search of markets in the form of Bohemian intermediaries.  Benjamin was riling about Paris’s arcades – new shops for luxury items and the sale of art that sprung up between the 1820s and 1840s.  These glass-topped, steel-spanned passages were the forerunners of modern shopping malls.  They were artificially-lit and meticulously cleaned; pedestrianised palaces to the new world of decadent consumerism.  The Flâneurs relished the novelty of these new temples to the illusions and ambiguities of commodity fetishism.  The seeds of twenty-first century hipster capitalism were sewn by the city’s nineteenth century Flâneurs, who were themselves a commodified (or, perhaps, commodifying) appropriation of Bohemianism.

The word Flâneur means “stroller” or “saunterer” or “loafer”.  They were known for being both inside society and outside it.  They claimed to see things in cities that others would miss.  They were masters of appreciation and taste: urban explorers and street connoisseurs.  They sought individuality from inside the crowd, ironically mimicking standard bourgeois garb to blend in with them, thereby parodying anonymity.  They even took their lead from pet turtles which they, on occasion, walked around Paris’s arcades, opting to adopt a turtle’s pace as they sauntered.  The Flâneurs became an important focus for the writings of the Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire, whose collection of poems Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), was immensely important to Benjamin’s unfinished The Arcades Project (1939).  The Flâneurs not only observed and considered the present, they were also interested in the past.  In this sense, they became, for Benjamin and many others, the ideal vehicle for interpreting modernity and modern culture.  In fact, it can be argued, as Susan Buck-Morss did in 1986, that in today’s consumer society, we are all Flâneurs and prostitutes: “collectors of things” who will knowingly and, for that matter, unknowingly sell ourselves to strangers.  And hipsters, like the Flâneurs, are adept at portraying themselves as experts in “genuine” urban taste.

Like many global cities today, Paris is a paradise for hipsters. Once “seedy” Pigalle, for example, is now being gentrified.  Posh streetwear retailers and upmarket cocktail bars have colonised the area.  Of course, the new hipster establishments ironically retain elements of their “edgy” past lives but their purpose and their clientele are very different today then they were a few years ago.  The hostesses and dancing girls are gone.  In their place is the globally faux-authenticity of hipster capitalism.  The old haunts of Old Bohemia are now firm favourites with hipsters, trendy Parisians and tourists alike.  Haussmann’s renovation of Paris forced people from their homes, businesses and places of work, and, later, de Gaulle decanted the city’s working-class to peripheral social housing projects, but today’s tide of gentrification uses the “soft” displacement of hipster-led social exclusion.  Bobos (bourgeois-bohemians) open artisan boulangeries and fancy little shops that gently usher in a different class of street-savvy middle-class consumer, quietly elbowing out the working-class in areas such as Paris’s ninth and tenth arrondissements.

There is, however, another claim to Bohemia.  Another Old Bohemia that popped-up in London’s Covent Garden in the eighteenth century.  This Old Bohemia is particularly relevant to the stories of today’s New Bohemias, especially those in the UK and USA, because it illustrates not only the rise of Bohemianism but also the roots of unrestricted gentrification and its subsequent cycle of investment, disinvestment and reinvestment.  Whereas the gentrification of Paris epitomises long-term rational urban planning going back at least two hundred years, the history of the gentrification of London is far more chaotic and complex.  It can be said to have its roots in the turbulent history of Covent Garden and neighbouring Grub Street.

Covent Garden lies at the centre of London.  Today it is a mecca for shoppers, tourists and culture-lovers.  Home to the Royal Opera House, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, numerous shops, including what was the world’s biggest Apple store, and a host of historic buildings, Covent Garden was fashionable in the seventeenth century with its Inigo Jones designed piazza and fine terraces but, by the eighteenth century, it had become a notorious red-light zone.  It was a place at once renowned for raucous drinking, violence, poverty and criminality, yet also for vibrant creativity – a live/ work space for many artists, writers, poets and actors.  The area became Georgian London’s creative heart, home to the likes of William Blake, William Hogarth, William Turner, Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fielding.  The claim, made by historian Vic Gatrell, that it was these artists who were “The First Bohemians” (2013) is both compelling and revisionist.  He acknowledges that the term “Bohemian” was coined in Paris in the nineteenth century but he nevertheless makes a strong claim that Covent Garden was at least a proto-Bohemia.  The area is now, of course, one of London’s many gentrified districts.  Yet its history reveals how an area that was initially designed for the city’s wealthier residents quickly fell into disrepute before eventually being gentrified again.

Similarly, Arthur Ransome’s Bohemia in London (1907) documented Bohemias in several parts of the city - in districts such as Soho, Bloomsbury, Hampstead, Fleet Street and Chelsea.  These were places where it was possible, at the turn of the twentieth century, to find cheap lodgings, artists’ studios and unfashionable restaurants.  However, although Ransome was reflecting upon his own early life experiences living a Bohemian existence in London, he, rather like nineteenth century Parisian commentators, concluded that Bohemia was “only a stage in a man’s life” – a stage to be remembered but nevertheless left behind.  Meanwhile, Malcolm Cowley saw Bohemia reflected in the grim hack journalist haunt of Grub Street, in what is now The City of London.  An eminent American writer and editor, he spent his early adult life in Paris and, amongst a lifetime of notable achievements, he later edited and helped secure the publication of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel, On the Road (1957).  Cowley recognised Bohemia as “Grub Street romanticized, doctrinalized, and rendered self-conscious … Grub Street on parade” (1934).  Metaphorical Grub Streets develop in cities where it is possible for people to, often unwillingly, live precariously as artists or writers – to live as an “intellectual proletariat”.  But Bohemias, Cowley claimed, can only develop in capitalist societies when wealthy people are able to protest certain elements of capitalism by imitating “the customs of penniless artists”.

Grub Street was, like neighbouring Covent Garden and Soho, an area beset by poverty, crime and violence – a place of taverns, coffee-houses and brothels.  It had been a notorious place of work for hacks, writers and publishers since the seventeenth century.  It had a long history of economic deprivation and, by the nineteenth century, it was riddled with crime and extreme destitution.  The area then suffered extensive bombing during world war two and was largely rebuilt as the Barbican Estate.  Ironically, the area is now part of the City of London Corporation – described by George Monbiot as ‘the dark heart of Britain’ (2011).  Enormously wealthy, the City of London owns and invests in vast tracts of property and lobbies on behalf of Britain’s banks.  Parliament has no control over the City of London.  It is Britain’s gateway to its tax havens and the centre of UK tax avoidance.

Whereas Grub Street was somehow terribly gritty and real, Bohemia was an imitation of this way of life.  Hipsters, in turn, imitate Bohemians today.  They are self-aware and self-aggrandising.  They are, often, not artists but hipsters gravitate around the places artists frequent.  Parasites, they feed on the creativity of artists.  They make micro-businesses that employ artists and other creatives, enabling artists to make enough of a living to keep making art.  So, whilst it is possible to argue that artists today reproduce (by degrees of imitation) the Bohemian tradition of yesteryear, hipsters reproduce (by clear imitation) the reproduced image of Bohemia, wilfully capitalising upon it.  Today’s artists are, like it or not, classified as the ideal Post-Fordist worker – as part of The Creative Industries.  But, unlike Bohemian artists, they do not tend to value their relative poverty as a form of protest or a mark of superior distinction, hoping instead for opportunities – for art world recognition of one sort or another.  Hipsters, on the other hand, eschew poverty.  They are brand-builders.  Little brands, perhaps, but brands nonetheless.  Hipsters are, like the Bousingots and Viveurs of 19th century French Bohemianism, imitators.  They feed on New Bohemias and on artists.  They are not poor but middle-class.  They are quintessentially small-scale, traditional capitalists.