Bohemians Then and Now

by Philip Brewer on 11 February 2011 3 comments

The bohemian lifestyle keeps being reinvented. Whenever people try to make a go of supporting themselves through their creative endeavors, it appears naturally out of the confluence of poverty and the freedom to ignore social conventions that comes of not having a boss. (See also: 6 Reasons to Become Self-Employed)

Making a living as an artist (including not just visual artists but also writers, musicians, dancers, actors, etc.) is fundamental to bohemianism. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, created a "bohemian index" based on what fraction of the population in an area is earning a living through creative pursuits.

For most artists, most of the time, supporting yourself through your art means poverty. There are occasional "golden ages" of one thing or another during which it's possible for large numbers of artists to make a middle-class living with their art, but they're rare.

Right now we're living in something of, let's call it a "silver age." Largely because of the internet, there are a lot of ways to make a little money from art, writing, music, etc. (especially if by "etc." you include things like web design). Whereas the original bohemians pretty much had to live in a densely populated urban center, because it was only there that an unknown artist had any hope of earning a living, now artists can be location independent.

Still, bohemianism and urbanism are pretty tightly bound. Richard Florida's bohemian index shows that the most bohemian locations are large urban centers (although many large urban areas are not particularly bohemian).

For many people, though, it's the unorthodox lifestyle — the living arrangements, the political and social views — that they think of when they think of bohemians. It's the freedom that appeals.

Of course, the freedom has a broader appeal if it can be achieved without the poverty, and in today's permissive society, it often can be. Often enough, in fact, for New York Times columnist David Brooks to have managed to get a whole book — Bobos in Paradise — out of the phenomenon he called "bourgeois bohemians." The people Brooks is talking about don't live in poverty — in fact, they're quite affluent — but their lifestyle looks somewhat bohemian because they eschew conspicuous consumption. But they actually spend a lot of money. It's voluntary, but it's neither simplicity nor frugality.

As far as I know, no one has a index for what fraction of the population is practicing voluntary simplicity.

What's interesting to me about modern bohemianism is that the directionality can flow in the opposite direction: If you choose to live frugally, you gain much of the freedom that made the original bohemians so distinctive. (Of course, even if the standard of living in each case is about the same, poverty and voluntary simplicity are very different things.)

Instead of a commitment to one's art forcing one into poverty, the voluntary acceptance of a frugal lifestyle enables one to commit to one's art. And, if you have a little capital, the lifestyle choices don't need to seem much like poverty at all.

It's a modern bohemianism.

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Guest's picture

A very interesting viewpoint. It's true also that the web is providing many people - writers, musicians, artists etc - with that very opportunity. I am planning to give up my day job in the next few months based on my internet income, so it will be interesting to watch (self watch that is) the transformation of my wardrobe. Perhaps, it's back to being a hippie for me - we'll see.

Will :)

Philip Brewer's picture

Whether you change your wardrobe is not as important as the fact that it'll be up to you.

Guest's picture
Olivia

Your post got me thinking on what may be a bit of a tangent.

Modern bohemians have a choice. They can put it on or take it off like a garment. They can save for a bohemian future. They can nurture a profitable side hustle. Diversivy. But if you've ever encountered someone completely wrapped up in their art, they have no choice.

My dad once said, "If you can't do anything else, be a sculptor." From the get go, as 4 year old kid drawing animals on scraps of paper, he was wired that way. Sure he could have remained a janitor or mill worker, but really, he couldn't. And the poverty bit you mentioned, is no joke. It's the destitute Mozart on his deathbed, with the Requiem singing in his head, dictating it to Salieri.

That part of bohemianism, that compulsion to create something beautiful or important out of common stuff, really makes that person different. It's not just the exterior oddities. The disheveled appearance, odd hours, or missed meals.

You may have felt that high yourself, when you put words on a page and they come together to sing. Imagine striving for that all the time, unencumbered by a felt need to make a living.

Rarely does business sense combine with that kind of total preoccupation. The old-fashioned-one-track-mind bohemians, in all likelihood will die poor, no matter what kind of technology there is around.