Of Bohemian and Bourgeois, or, Can we sell out yet?

A series at NewMusicBox is exploring the ways artists address the tensions of art and commerce in their personal lives. It's a fascinating and candid discussion and I encourage art lovers to check it out.

One paragraph in an article by Bonnie Jones caught my eye. In it, the acclaimed composer pauses in sharing her personal reflections to pose a set of questions.

So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?

These questions do loom large in artists' lives. And history shows that these questions have answers. Time has set art upon a journey that as artists we necessarily join in mid-course. Taking account of the route art taken so far can help us get our bearings and, if necessary, make course corrections.

The admonition against 'selling out' was the brainchild not of 'capitalism' but of artists determined to resist its pressures. It's a signature of the bohemian movement—a cultural beat that still goes on after a century and a half.

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The ideal of the bohemian is to stay true to one's vision, even if doing so obliges the artist to live in poverty (or do some disreputable moonlighting).

The unthinkable alternative: to compromise one's creativity in the manner of the shopkeeper who tailors each creation to the customer. That approach, says the bohemian, marks the bourgeois—the person wedded to convention who values superficial respectability and material comfort over a life of passion, originality and vision.

The bourgeois stands utterly against the creative life, says the bohemian. Creativity requires authenticity. One must be as one is, do as one does, mean what one expresses. The only crime in Bohemia is pretending to be something you're not.

No one can deny the contributions of the movement to the world of art and the world at large. Still, no philosophy is beyond a second guess. If we now must apprehend for questioning the perpetrators of the 'myth' that treats with indifference artists' need to pay the rent, we will find the usual suspects sitting at their usual table in the Café Bohème.

Do we now suspect that the shopkeepers had something to offer the discussion after all? Is it easier today to imagine no hell below us for those artists whose paintings match the sofa? If so, it makes sense to explore our suspicions.

But it doesn't do to blame the bourgeois for the inconvenient ideals of the bohemian. When those ideals were born the bourgeois was just standing nearby, minding the shop.