Bohemia the Prison

Richard Lloyd in his book, Neo-Bohemia, provides a history of the rise of artists, or bohemians, in Chicago’s Wicker Park. I want to look specifically at the 20th century, postindustrial bohemia. The postindustrial bohemia brought in new artists to the city, looking to live and work creatively, but found themselves filling the title of, ‘the starving artist.’ Bohemia in this time period was “the activities of artists and lifestyle eccentrics as they cohere in and around distinct urban districts, while at the the same time claiming that location is beside the point,” as mentioned by Lloyd (50). The artist lifestyle has a ‘look.’ It was making creative work while combining it with the aesthetics of urban culture. Whatever the city was comprised of, fed the look of the bohemian life. This didn’t just include grungy brick buildings, art cafes, and music clubs, but issues that pre-existed before the takeover of bohemians, such as homelessness and drug addictions. Because this was all part of the bohemian aesthetic, issues of the city were seen less as problems and more as commodities.

Bohemians were considered an autonomous group of people, creating their own image and art, but Lloyd makes it very clear, that the appearance of bohemia stemmed from and relied on the prevalent issues of the city. So they weren’t creating their own image. They were taking a preexisting look and making it ‘cool.’ However, this preexisting look homeless_fashionwas not something to be praised, but rather something to be concerned about. “The effect of heroin is not merely sensual; it conditions aesthetic appearance and nurtures a profoundly blasé outlook, the very epitome of a ‘cool’ disposition” (97). While many people on the streets had addictions, the bohemians trivialized these issues by taking drugs and turning them “heroin chic.” There seemed to be no concern about drug addictions because “experimentation with narcotics is also part of the bohemian tradition” (96). If it became part of the cool culture, then the attention would turn away from the problems of addiction. Similarly, homelessness was an issue within Wicker Park, but provided to the aesthetic of the city or as Lloyd puts it, “the exploitative nature of turning a mentally ill street person into a rock ‘n’ roll novelty act” (94).

heroin_chic

Trivializing the issues of addiction.

“The more skinny and fucked up you look, the more everyone thinks you’re fabulous” (97). Unfortunately, this was true. By adopting the problematic culture, physical signs of addiction and homelessness were deemed glamourous. This belittled the problems and situations of many people in the city, yet the people weren’t accepted by actual artists. The homeless and addicts were just decoration for bohemia rather than people living in bohemia.

Even more than that, bohemians had created a prison system for those experiencing these issues. By clustering in a city and glamorizing the use of drugs and calling the dress of the homeless fashionable, they were belittling the issues that surrounded them and made it impossible to escape these issues. If a problem is glamourized, then there wouldn’t be any solutions, just encouragement of the behavior and a lack of resources for those seeking help. This was fine for artists, because they were living a more privileged life in the city, but for those not accepted into the category of bohemian, it was further imprisonment in their problems.

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