Corpse of bohemia: mythology and the creative class

In City of Nets,  his great history of Hollywood in the 1940s, author Otto Friedrich tells the story of the time that Errol Flynn and a friend stole a corpse and set it up in an armchair in Billy Wilder’s study late at night. Friedrich then notes ’but we know this story’. Indeed we do, because he has told it in an earlier chapter, but with different personnel. Something appears to have happened but who did it and to whom remains a mystery. This welcome demythologising effect was due to the simple method Friedrich applied to the book: no interviews. The book was written in the 1980s, and he could have done one last tour of the LA bungalows to which the surviving members of the great era of noir had retired, and re-entered the echo chamber. But as he noted, there were now hundreds of memoirs of the time. The stories overlapped, repeated, casual remarks became legend.

Friedrich’s exposure of this circulating tale of corpse-prankery might not be so coincidental, because that is what tales of this era have become in our time – the endless theft and repositioning of the corpse of bohemia and the avant-garde. And this in an era where they have been superseded, but which live off its effects. Such repetition is native to Bohemia as it were – Murger’s Tales of Bohemia, his record of the first post-aristocratic bohemians in the 1830s, was eagerly read by Whistler, Wilde and the Cafe Royal set, who in turn inspired aesthetes through to the 1930s, when the Lost Generation took over, and so on. Read enough memoirs of these eras, and there’s a dizzying effect of sorts, of a village spread across the globe. The same people keep coming through different doors. The effect is illusory to a degree – their lives were far more scattered than the regrouping my memoir makes out – but only to a degree. The plain fact is bohemia was small, because the realm of cultural production was small. So small indeed that it was not considered such at all, was seen as something outside the circuit of production, and thus as a realm of freedom.

Fast forward half a century, and cultural production is at the centre of the economy. The monolith of mass culture has become a terrace of semi-mass cultures, with the needs of each economic/cultural class and educational level catered for by a small army of creatives. Though many are now complaining of the impossibility of making a living, it is worth noting that this sector barely existed even twenty-five years ago, and certainly not forty years earlier. Everyone from authors to Zooey Deschanelesque comedienne/actors exists in a class whose numbers are so large that one can live largely within it. The world that was – where ninety-five, ninety-eight percent of people went into the system of non-cultural production, and may have dreamed wistfully of ‘becoming an author’, or ‘releasing a record’ – is becoming harder to remember.

But for those in the cultural class, that creates a specific set of problems. Such cultural production demands a degree of inspiration, and giving of self, even, or especially, for its tackiest productions such as advertising, PR, branding etc (advertising, indeed, is almost princely, compared to what has come after). But you can’t give off yourself for commodity production in the way that you can simply give of your body in a factory, or of your executional cognition in an office. You simply wouldn’t be able to do effective creative work if you were not directing your imaginative reservoir to the task at hand. And that gets one in a contradictory loop, because what is being committed to has no content in itself, or its content, per se, is not the most important thing about it. That extends quite far up the chain, to people writing, say, computer game scripts. What keeps you going? The idea that you have a kinship with earlier creatives, and, if you’ve got that novel in a drawer, that you might one day join their celebrated ranks? There’s a lot of people, wrestling with some echt-Williamsburg cutely miniaturist novel, who, if they were honest, have some image of themselves taking martinis on the terrace sometime with Gertrude Stein, Papa Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and Lena Dunham.

Which is the main effect now, of endlessly repeated bohemia, a sort of reverse pyramid effect, where the vastly expanded ranks rest on the tales of a few for their sense of what it is they do. No-one’s going to get to be Gertrude and Papa because there were only five hundred or so of those people across a couple of decades, and everyone else was in a workshop banging bits of metal together, and catching a Hollywood movie once or twice a week. Those who do make it through, such as Dunham, are increasingly from backgrounds doubly privileged – her parents are both artists, and prosperous. Such privilege will not promote lack of talent – or not for long anyway – but talent itself is starting to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of success. For those people who enter cultural production with an additional undergirding purpose (such as politics), an increasingly predictable life-arc appears to operate – a widespread, but rarely admitted to, fantasy that there is still some bohemian realm one can get to, followed by the inevitable effect of the mass nature of the creative class, ie massification. Half of The Onion’s satirical items appear to be a grim amusement at this example of the paradox of a society based on individualism, which can be seen everywhere. You are the traffic you complain about when you’re trying to get through it. You are the tourism that is wrecking your dashing travel adventures. You are the cultural overproduction in which your voice is being lost. People keep moving the corpse around. The movie motif of the era is less Les Enfants du Paradis than Weekend at Bernie’s.

The question is what to do about that? The answer is to demythologise it. Not death of bohemia, but death to bohemia. For one thing is certain. Without that mythology, the vast wave of suffocating, purely commodified, zero-degree content, production could not continue, because no-one would be able to stand to do it. Made starkly visible, the giving of oneself becomes intolerable. Everyone in advertising, for example, knows this. The burn-out rate of creatives is one hundred percent, and people simply plan for it in their lives. Maybe the truly radical act now is to destroy dreams of tinsel-and-absinthe, to make visible the corpses as corpses.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. This painted a compellingly dystopian picture, and I was half ready to swallow whatever Rundle prescribed, but found the conclusion a bit ambiguous after so much drama. Would he like all creative production halted? Or some kind of wheat-and-chaff apocalypse to clear out starry-eyed scenesters?

  2. I wonder if there’s something of a straw man being set up here. Guy seems to be suggesting that the myth of bohemia sustains people churning out less than deathless prose and other art forms. I doubt that. What’s more likely to attract people are the two ideas of “expressing yourself” and of having your 15 minutes of fame in this super-connected world.

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