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Modernism/Modernity 7.3 (2000) 351-378

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Theorizing the Cultural Roots of the Bohemian Artist *

Mary Gluck



The bohemian as a social stereotype first found definition on the pages of Parisian popular magazines sometime around the mid-1840s. 1 Associated with the carefree and impoverished existence of artists on the fringes of middle-class life, the bohemian gained a surprising degree of symbolic importance among his contemporaries. Indeed, he came to be seen as the first embodiment of the artist of modernity and the privileged interpreter of aesthetic truths in contemporary society. 2 Although the social and personal aspects of the bohemian way of life have become clichés, the cultural meanings and implications of the phenomenon remain full of contradiction. 3

These contradictions were already apparent in Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème, a series of amusing vignettes about artistic life in the Latin Quarter that was published serially in Le Corsaire-Satan between 1845 and 1849 and was to serve as a model for all later depictions of the bohemian type. Bohemians, Murger wrote in the 1851 preface to his book, "are not a race of today, they have existed in all climes and ages, and can claim an illustrious descent," from Homer, through Michelangelo, Molière and Shakespeare, all the way to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 4 As legitimate heirs to all great artistic traditions of the past, bohemians were, Murger implied, ahistorical figures, embodying transcendental artistic values. Murger, however, did not stop at this point but proceeded to make a further, seemingly contradictory, claim. [End Page 351] The bohemian was not only the timeless artist but also a quintessentially modern social type whose activities were defined by the new commercial realities of the cultural marketplace. Unlike his romantic predecessors, whom Murger dismissed as "obstinate dreamers," the true bohemian was a successful professional and artistic entrepreneur who had learned to create publicity for his products and to negotiate the cultural marketplace for his own advantage (Sb, 34). Bohemia was, Murger insisted, not a permanent way of life but rather a period of apprenticeship, a transitional phase in the young artist's life that, like any business venture, could lead to financial success and social recognition but also to ruin and bankruptcy. In Murger's words, bohemia was merely a preface before "the Academy, the Hotel de Dieu, or the Morgue" (Sb, 34).

Historians and theorists of bohemianism have tended to perpetuate these seemingly incompatible interpretive frames through which Murger originally explained the meaning of bohemia to his contemporaries. Like Murger, contemporary commentators have oscillated between visions of the bohemian as a creator of transcendental art and as a characteristic product of capitalist modernity. The first position has been argued by literary historians like Matei Calinescu and Gene Bell-Vilada, who have identified bohemians with the invention of l'art pour l'art and a protomodernist aesthetic that would eventually lead to modern abstraction. 5 On the other side, Walter Benjamin has claimed that the true significance of the bohemian lay within the tensions of capitalism, which radicalized the modern artist but also transformed him into a cultural commodity bought and sold in the marketplace. 6 The historian Jerrold Seigel also has seen the bohemian as a product of bourgeois modernity, though he placed the emphasis on the social rather than the economic aspects of his function. For Seigel, the bohemian should be regarded as a liminal figure who acted out the inner contradictions of bourgeois individualism and helped reconcile modern society's opposing needs for social order and self-expression. Pierre Bourdieu, too, has stressed the role of the capitalist marketplace in the emergence of bohemia, but he also has argued that the bohemian found a modus vivendi with capitalism by creating an independent intellectual field and becoming a pioneer of aesthetic autonomy or l'art pour l'art in the modern world. 7

As valuable and suggestive as these visions of the bohemian are in themselves, they fail to provide a fully contextualized, historically specific image of the bohemian. They lack convincing...


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