The Bohemian Spirit Among Artists and Intellectuals

bohemian child

Allow me to quote the beginning of the Wikipedia article on Bohemianism before offering my own brief commentary:

“Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits. In this context, Bohemians may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds.

This use of the word bohemian first appeared in the English language in the nineteenth century[1] to describe the non-traditional lifestyles of marginalized and impoverished artists, writers, journalists, musicians, and actors in major European cities. Bohemians were associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, which often were expressed through free love, frugality, and—in some cases—voluntary poverty. A wealthy and privileged, even aristocratic, bohemian circle is sometimes referred to as the haute bohème[2] (“high bohemians”).[3]

The term Bohemianism emerged in France in the early nineteenth century when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower class, gypsy neighborhoods. Bohémien was a common term for the Romani people of France, who had reached Western Europe via Bohemia.[4]

Commentary: Because I “came of age” living in Hollywood, California during the late 60s’ hippie movement and identified with the counter-cultural coffeehouse music and art scene, even while being a middle-class kid attending the university to study philosophy and literature, I continue to feel a lifelong affinity with bohemian counter-cultural sensibility. The truth is that I probably belong to one sub-species of  David Brooks’ hybrid combination of “Bourgeois-Bohemians.” However, this name can be misleading because not all “Bobos” are equally committed to living an  unconventional creative lifestyle and to serving the monetary and commercial interests of the overlords of the capitalist system, much less identifying with the “military-industrial complex.”

Curiously, one can find the free-spirited Bohemian aesthetic and creative sensibility among all the social classes, including the under-class, working class, middle-class and upper-class, because it is not ultimately about social class. It is more an attitude and style of life that can be described as individualistic, even idiosyncratic, independent and unconventional. Some Bohemians are literal wanderers, adventurers and vagabonds, but there are others who traveling and mobility are more a matter of the mind and imagination. Some Bohemians attempt to make a living as “professional” artists, writers, journalists, musicians and actors, while others are happy to regard these as their avocations and hobbies, even while admiring and supporting those who can turn their creative imaginations into ways to make a living.

What appeals to be about the Bohemian spirit? It is certainly not its poverty, voluntary or otherwise. Nor is it the marginal “freak and fringe” status with which both Bohemians and Gypsies have been historically regarded by the conventional bourgeois.

But what does appeal to me and to most people is the eternally youthful love of freedom, playfulness, passion, imagination, creativity and beauty, especially as expressed through music, art, literature, poetry, aesthetic sensibility and colorful clothing. The bohemian counter-cultural lifestyle offers an implicit critique of the bland and lifeless conventional values of the middle-class bourgeois who have become culturally captured by those corporate, commercial, technocratic and utilitarian values that crush the creative and passionate life of the soul.

We live in a society in which it has always been easier to conform to the values of the mass-consumer society than to think for ourselves, question authority, create our own lives and go our own way rather than huddle with the herd.

Just as there are artistic Bohemians, so there are intellectual Bohemians. These are independent scholars and organic intellectuals who do not affiliate with any particular ideological party. These free-thinking intellectuals are often well-read and self-taught, even if that have paid their dues by attending or even teaching at universities. Such individuals often possess a journalistic instinct and a wide-reaching interest in what is going on in the world on many different fronts.They enjoy reading and writing literary essays and cultural criticism. There’s a reason why the first Bohemians were also called Journalists. Here is a “connection” that is often overlooked. Some critics of the media establishment today would say that TV journalists as Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose are solidly ensconced in the Bourgeois middle-class, but they each bring enough independence of mind and critical thinking to their interviews that we listen for “minority reports” that may challenge the distorted assumptions of the mainstream “consensus reality.”

In any case, the Bohemian Spirit, whether in its artistic or intellectual forms, reminds us to question authority, challenge conventions,  think for ourselves and create our own lives where we can be imaginative, intelligent, adventurous and free. Let’s give two cheers for the timeless allure of the Gypsy-Bohemian State of Mind!

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2 thoughts on “The Bohemian Spirit Among Artists and Intellectuals”

  1. RIch,thank you for all your work here. It’s a wonderful outlet for your ideas, wisdom, and musings. I’ve been doing a bit of “bohemian wandering” since I packed up and moved to Zaragoza, Spain to teach English. From an early age I’ve had an inclination toward bohemian life, inspired heavily by musicians and by radical individualists such as Oscar Wilde, Henry Miller, and Henry David Thoreau. I remember a Henry Miller quote that describes perfectly the sense of disillusionment I’ve experienced in early adulthood as I left college and entered into the work world. He talks in an essay about “the wonder and mystery of life, which are stifled in us as we become productive members of society!” Thoreau mentions something similar when he says “the youth gathers his materials to build a bridge to the moon…and the middle aged man, at last, concludes to build a woodshed with them.” In my experience, the pragmatic necessities of “earning a living” are often at odds with the bohemian values of freedom, autonomy, spontaniety, traveling, and self-expression. We simply don’t have time! Although I’m enjoying some “bohemian” freedom abroad, working just 12 hours a week, I fear this isn’t a “realistic” way of living, that eventually I will have to give in, “get serious,” marry, start a family, and get used to what we call the “real world” of economic responsiblity. In your experience is the Bohemian Spirit at odds with the practical demands of work and family life? In what ways, throughout life, have you been able to preserve and cultivate “the wonder and mystery of life” while at the same time being what is called a “productive member of society?”

    1. Great comments, Trevor.
      I hear you. Artists and writers, poets and playrights, artisans and ecologists, travelers and journalists have always identified with the Bomemian Spirit to one degree or another. There are vocations that suit the Bohemian Spirit,but hard work and good luck as well as creativity and persistence seem to play a part in whether one can make a comfortable living while living the bohemian life. Some people manage to be bourgeous bohemians, a delightful oxymoron. Good to hear from you.

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