It used to be that most large, cosmopolitan cities had lower rent areas, where the buildings were quite run down, dotted with little eateries, where you could buy barely acceptable food and sip strong coffee, in tiny cafes, quite cheaply and where none of the wealthy gentry wanted to live, even if forced to at gun point. These areas were generally at the heart of the city, where neglected properties could no longer achieve top-bracket rents, but where there was a lot of bustle and people going about their daily business anyway. Artists, never renowned for their excess cash, would congregate in these low-rent, rundown areas and make an artistic life there. All manner of life, scraping by and struggling to exist, would live together in this ghetto and there, meet each other, inspire each other and ultimately create. We used to call these areas “Bohemia”.
London had its Soho, New York had one too, but also some other precincts were artists could live and work. Amsterdam had its inner city areas where artists congregated and Paris, famously, had Montmartre. Even cities like Sydney had their Kings Cross area. Melbourne was alive with struggling musicians and artists, forming a sort of a scene. The great thing about these aggregations of creative forces was that they tended to cause ideas to spread as movements and for artists to become better, simply because of the company they kept. They could stay up all night, drinking absinthe, with people we now consider to be some of the great masters. Los Angeles had Hollywood. San Francisco had Haight-Ashbury. All over the world, cities not exactly welcomed and encouraged, but at least tolerated, their artistic communities. If you were an artist, there was a way to live a Bohemian life, in whichever Bohemia was relevant to you and you could survive (just).
With the advent of property developers and spiralling property prices, where garrets and rat-infested lofts are now seen as investments and bought by wealthy businessmen, artists have been priced out of these former Bohemias. They just can’t afford to live there. Meanwhile, lured by the Disney-fication of artistic life, rich people moved in, attracted to the myth of the creative ferment that once existed in those places, but which no longer can. Property speculators think they are buying into a lifestyle, where creative, unconventional people provide a vitality and vibrancy to the local area that is supposed to stand in contrast to the ennui and beigeness of suburban living. Unfortunately, they’ve failed to notice that Bohemia has been hollowed out and that the artists can no longer afford to work there. At best, artists might commute in to the former artistic hubs, for day jobs in digital advertising agencies and media companies, but the non-corporate, independent artists no longer have a place there. How could they?
I think it’s sad that these little Bohemias have gone. Artists now live more solitary existences, eking out studio spaces in the most unlikely of places, but no longer in close and regular contact with their colleagues. The interplay of ideas and the arguments are gone. So is the camaraderie. So is the shared experience of obscurity and the occasional brush with fame. Artistic life has become lonely.
Sure, there are still the artsy events, where the glitterati and literati assemble with the paparazzi to pretend there is still a thriving artistic scene, but it’s forced and fake. Gone is the ability to stumble, drunk, into another artist’s studio, call his model a whore, threaten to stab each other and collapse into laughter and hugs, while you both paint, side by side, on different easels, just for the hell of it. The colourful characters in the streets, the grist for so many creative mills, are ghosts. Flamboyance has been snuffed out, as has brooding, intense, philosophically-fervent art. Everything is a commoditised product, these days, with little heart, soul or originality to surprise and delight the senses. Where the quirky and idiosyncratic cafes once stood, there are Starbucks branches and globalised chain stores. The unique and individual character of the place has been sucked out and the characters that inhabited it have fled like refugees and exiles.
Today’s artists drive (second hand) Volkswagens and have mortgages. There is no obvious creative hub and buyers of art don’t even know where to reliably find a choice of work to choose from. It’s all homogenised and packaged. The rebellion has been quelled. Artists and Bohemians are in retreat. Even more recent artistic colonies, like Austin, Texas and Berlin are beginning to be too expensive to attract artists. It’s a funny thing that so many people want to buy a place where the artists are and in so doing, ensure that the prices rise so fast that artists aren’t there anymore, because they can’t be. What remains are overpriced and largely empty properties which are, in reality, cynically renovated slums, with all the limitations of cheaply constructed, poorly designed, old and dilapidated buildings, but all the pretensions of luxury living. The mod cons are a veneer applied to a crumbling core and infrastructure. Essentially, they have turned these places into soulless dormitories, just like the suburban boxes that the owners tried to buy their way out of.
I lament the passing of Bohemia. I wish there were places where artists could gather, work, compete and laugh together. It would be nice to be able to visit such a place, or better, spend some time there as an artist. If you could exchange a painting for a meal and always know that art supplies were just around the corner – that would be heaven. Bumping into potential collaborators over coffee and being able to form a new band in the bar, over ridiculously named and potent cocktails, would be wonderful artistic luxuries. Roundtable, literary outwitting and bullshitting sessions, like those of the legendary Algonquin crowd, just don’t exist anymore.
Maybe Bohemia never was the real world, but the art that came from there was real enough. In fact, some of the finest works ever were the product of Bohemia. No productive artist could withstand living the life of a Bohemian, over the long term. One’s health simply couldn’t withstand it. Yet, the opportunity to live relatively freely, unconstrained by the censure of nosy neighbours and prudes, had a certain attraction. In Bohemia, you could make an artistic stand and create what your heart told you that you should. You weren’t surrounded by hobby artists, all painting variations of the same basically blue, green and brown landscapes or floral still lifes. You didn’t have to care if people could tell what the subject of the painting was, in order to sell a canvas or two.
Will Bohemia ever return? I don’t know. There is a lot of demand for it, from both artists and non-artists alike, but who will fund the re-slumification of already gentrified areas? Perhaps artists will begin to assemble in abandoned suburban shopping malls or out of town retail outlet buildings, constructed hurriedly by long since bankrupted chains. Who knows? Maybe urban planners will find a way to convincingly force or simulate the phenomenon, through some system of weird and brittle cross-subsidies, just to make their cities attractive places to live and work in again. Or maybe nobody really cares.