Many of us who were born during the Vietnam Nam War error I mean era know of the term “bohemian” at the very least from the band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, popular especially during the Late 80s. Then of course there’s the song by Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and also the much ballyhooed Bohemian Grove exclusive club, allegedly frequented by many folks we’d least associate with being bohemian, especially Republican politicians. Another common usage of the term today I gather involves description of some clothing shops, particularly for women.
If you are/were an English major or similar, you might associate the bohemian with the Lost Generation of American writers. “Seeking the bohemian lifestyle and rejecting the values of American materialism, a number of intellectuals, poets, artists and writers fled to France in the post World War I years.” http://www.essortment.com/whatlostgenera_nkj.htm
But we want to try to distill some semblance of an essence of the bohemian, and, of equal importance, to pass along an appreciation of its cultural, or countercultural value.
1. Get a Taste For the Origins of the Bohemian
Bohemia is the name for a region that is now part of the Czech Republic. The main reason why it became the name of a lifestyle is apparently because 19th Century French artists and writers often took Gypsy neighborhoods as subjects of their work, and Gypsies were held to be from Bohemia (in reality they were from many places by then, as one might imagine, ultimately traceable back to India).
The artists and writers lived unconventionally in terms of appearance, mores, habits, and political views – hence the term “bohemian” has come to be associated with overtones that range from clothing styles loosely associated with Gypsies, to the rejection of bourgeois values, to being “artsy” in general, and even to counterculture.
2. The Superficial But Fun Aspect
From my perspective, the bohemian look for women can be variations on themes that resemble gypsies, hippies, flappers, or even the sort of witchy-woman look. Head adornment with scarves and bandannas, wraps, and bangled sorts of jewelry seem prevalent (maybe a little hemp thrown in too). As far as males go, I guess the Gypsy look could hold here too, and perhaps something ranging from hippie to beatnik.
P.S. In my final research for this article, I gathered that there’s a fairly contemporary style for women called “boho-chic”, that’s criticized some for its emphasis on trendiness and fashion, when part of the bohemian attitude is not caring about what’s “in”.
3. Explore The Artistic Aspect
Someone can have the bohemian look all they want, but this only makes them artistic to the extent that they compose it (within a loosely preordained framework) themselves rather than simply purchasing an outfit the way one might select a pre-arranged Halloween costume.
I don’t know that one must fit the narrow definition of artist, but it helps (including poetic writers of prose among artists). Designing one’s life, constructing it rather than living a patterned, boxed-up life (similar to the Halloween costume example) would qualify to me as artistic also, and perhaps even more artistic than painting in oils on the side.
4. Note the Cultural Benefits of Bohemian Artists
While it befits a culture to maintain a certain amount of homogeneity (indeed it almost seems to be part of the definition of culture), it also helps for there to be elements within that continually question and prod the status quo, else a culture become stagnant. Cultures are alive and growing (as we know from the kind of culture spoken of in physiology and biology – to have the nurse “take a culture”, or yeast culture), and growth usually means change.
As such, a culture can thrive on some measure of internal strife or oddity, and also even from countercultural trends within it. This can even serve to clarify what a culture is about, if it has become complacent and forgetful, or it can stretch the bounds of a culture to find its potential mutations and permutations.
This internal dynamism and stretching the horizons of a culture are functions of art and the bohemian type artist. Sometimes the traveler/gypsy aspect of the bohemian can serve to transfer aspects of cultures, one to the other, and strengthen each, not entirely unlike the manner in which exogenous breeding is said to strengthen organisms. Other types of “artists”, however, reflect and even caricature (wittingly or unwittingly) the status quo, and there’s usually some sentimental/nostalgic idealization of the status quo too (see for instance Thomas Kinkade and kitsch in general).
5. See Benefits of the Bohemian Politically
Some of this has been broached in the prior couple of steps, as art is inseparable from politics, even if it’s ostensibly apolitical art. Perhaps paradoxically, the apolitical still reflects the political. This lesson of the relation between art and politics is perhaps a bit foreign to Americans; I know it was foreign to me as a young undergraduate. But once I realized it, being that I was interested in political theory before I was interested in art, it made art mean so much more to me.
In addition to what was said above concerning culture, political benefits of the bohemian include addressing human desires, aspirations, and instincts that may be neglected by the current mode of government or economic system. Perhaps the body is being denied or fetishized instead of celebrated. Perhaps material things are being worshiped at the expense of the intellectual, the sensual, or even the spiritual. Maybe a bland conformism or an aggressive ethnocentrism is squelching human creativity and potential. These are the sorts criticisms of the political bourgeois (something of an antonym of the bohemian) that the bohemian is apt to level.
I think it hits on something real that there’s usually an aspect of the bohemian that’s attractive even to the otherwise most conservative elements of a body politic (recall the introductory remarks on Bohemian Grove). If nothing else, the typical bourgeois, or if that’s too old fashioned a term, the Chamber of Commerce type, may relish playing the bohemian for Halloween or even in sexual role play behind closed doors. This may be a faux bohemianism, but the bohemian drives to say to hell with it all, to be as Paul Gauguin, accountant turned painter run off to Tahiti, are not so faux. After all, isn’t this the sort of thing that the Establishment often does with its money? Run off to the tropics to escape for a couple of weeks, then back to the grind.
6. Notice Related Movements in US History
So ultimately the bohemian, through its revelations of what in humanity a particular society or political regime is failing to recognize, can spur political change that at least partly gives the hitherto neglected its due. Civil liberties and civil rights today owe a certain due to bohemian elements that influenced in one way or another the Suffragettes, yippies, hippies, freedom riders, minority activists, feminists, beatniks, gay rights activists, maybe even the half-bourgeois/half-rebellious flappers, and so many more groups that have helped to enfranchise (literally or otherwise) previously marginalized Americans, to say nothing of impact of the bohemian on other nations. But the work of the bohemian is never done, even if it doesn’t always seem like work.