Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Evereybody Epaters Somebody Sometime

with 5 comments

Lorenzo de Medici as a thug.  I say that because it’s true, but also because it at least implies the obvious–thug he might have been, but he was no Stalin.  If an artist willfully screwed up a commision, he might have had him brought up on charges of fraud–which is somsething you could do in the same situation now, at least if you could prove intent–but he wouldn’t have had him whacked. 

The real reason why art in the Renaissance seems to have consisted of so much agreement between artist and patron is that art in the Renaissance was almost univerally commissioned.  Making a living as an artist in fifteenth century Italy meant making your patrons happy, so that they’d commission more pictures, and so that other patrons would also commission pictures.

No Renaissance artist thought of himself as an Artist with a capital A, in the Romantic sense.   If you commissioned a large project from Michaelangelo, Michaelangelo himself would do the big bits (God holding out his finger to touch Adam’s, say) but a lot of the detail work would be done by apprentices and artisans under Michaelangelo’s direction.  You wouldn’t have considered yourself defrauded, and if you had, everybody would have considered you nuts.

But although  Michaelangelo was not much interested in epater-ing the bourgeoisie–and the Medicis where the first and greatest of the bourgeoisie–he was still infamous for the irregularity of his life. 

And only part of that was his homosexuality.  The Renaissance had both a more and a less tolerant attitude towards homosexuality than we do.  On the one hand, they saw it as a mortal sin that would send you straight to hell if you didn’t confess it.  On the other, they thought sex was such a strong drive, in both men and women, that people would nail anything they could get their hands on when the mood took them.  Homosexuality was “normal” in the Renaissance in a way it hasn’t been since precisely because the Renaissance didn’t distinguish it.  Men, women, sheep–it was all sex, and all sex outside a consecrated marriage was mortal sin. 

I suppose Michaelangelo can legitimately be considered to be a genius, but I want to point out here that I’m not equating “genius” and “Bohemian.”  The only people who do are, I think the Bohemians themselves, because they’ve got something to gain from the linkage.

It’s not genius I think we correlate to Bohemian living, but artists as a class.

And I agree with Cheryl on one point especially–the only difference between “white trash” and “Bohemian” is the rhetoric.  And the rhetoric matters less, in the end, than the Bohemians hope it will.  That’s why reading biographies of writers, painters and composers is often so uncomfortably embarrassing.  Here’s this man, or woman, who seems to have this extraordinary insight into the human condition, or who is able to express that condition at its peak of perfection. You go looking to find the way in which he managed to imbue his own life with the things he understood so well, and find that he didn’t imbue it at all.  He lived a mess and died pathetic.  You know dentists who’ve made more sense of their lives.

But although it’s true that there are artists, and great ones, who have not been Bohemian, the fact is that enough of the percentage of the population that is engaged in the arts has been Bohemian so that the correlation has been a stereotype for millennia.

And that phenomenon requires more explanation than it may seem to, especially since it persists even in periods when artists do not see themselves as outside of or in an adversarial position to their societies.

Yes, of course, there are plenty of people who live like Bohemians without the rhetoric.  We call them a number of things–white trash, no-account, useless–but we also tend to recognize the most salient feature of their existence.

By and large, the people who live like this are bone stupid.  They lack insight, foresight, and self-discipline, and by and large they lack the self discipline because they lack the insight and foresight. 

But Bohemians aren’t stupid people.  That’s why they both need to and find it possible to construct rhetoric to defend the lives they lead.  The question remains as to why they should want to live those lives at all. 

Sherlock Holmes was not a Bohemian, but an eccentric.  He pretended to no quarrel with the social and moral customs of his soceity–in fact, he was proud to embody them.  He was successful, and remains so, because he represented the epitome of the Victorian gentleman scientist.  The cocaine never became an addiction, and his deviations from convention never defined, or justified, his life.  

So we’re back, really, to why Bohemians want to be Bohemians, and why so many people who work in the arts embrace Bohemia. 

Which is a more interesting question, to me, than the one that asks why so many of us consider only Bohemians to be ‘real” artists.

Written by janeh

July 24th, 2009 at 5:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Evereybody Epaters Somebody Sometime'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Evereybody Epaters Somebody Sometime'.

  1. Seems to me that what you’re discussing is people, whether they’re calling themselves Bohemian or whether someone else is calling them trash, who don’t care enough about conventional standards to comply with them.

    I’d guess that with artists it’s the exclusive focus on the art – if the kind of artist you see portrayed in books and movies, the person who can’t think of anything else while painting/composing/sculpting so that their house looks like a tornado went through it and their kids are hungry, but Art Will Be Served – really exists.

    With the hermit types like Cheryl’s father’s friend, it’s probably just Not Giving A Damn.

    And really, that’s true for the Artist too – they’re just giving the art as justification. An interesting question is whether it’s a conscious decision or whether the person just does it without thinking.

    It’s amazing to me how many people lack the capability for thinking about their lives outside their own viewpoint.


    24 Jul 09 at 9:59 am

  2. I don’t know if it’s a case of being unable or unwilling to think about their lives outside their own viewpoint. I suspect that for some it is, but not all and maybe not a majority. Some people understand others’ viewpoints, but reject them for one reason or another – moral, political, philosophical, artistic. Only some are different because of a bone-deep selfishness and self-centeredness that makes them dismiss social codes as impositions on their precious selves.

    It takes *work* to conform with social rules – well, more work for some than others, depending on how rigid the society, how well-socialized the individual is as a child into accepting unquestioningly that certain ways of dressing, living and acting are the right ones. And, of course, it depends on the flexibility of the basic personality structure of the individual. This is true even today – I can structure my life in a way that would shock a Victorian, but today I can live a very moderately unusual life. But I know that I’d be dismissed by members of the social groups who put a higher value on conformity in dress, income, consumption and the ‘correct’ responses to all political and social issues than I do. It’s easy to construct your own life in a city than in a country town, although every small town I’ve lived in had one or two accepted odd people. You’re only eccentric if you’re rich! I think my father’s friend just didn’t like people much, something I can sympathize with sometimes. He was apparently intelligent and well-read, well beyond what was expected or needed for his very basic lifestyle. And he didn’t have any desire to convert others to his views violently – a la the Unabomber. He just didn’t like a lot of people around him, and I don’t have any reason to think that was because he didn’t understand them, or couldn’t see their points of view.

    I’ve often though it wouldn’t have taken many changes in my life for me to have ended up as one of the female versions, urban variety – the elderly cat lady living in a really messy run-down place filled with magazines and books, and, of course, cats.

    Actually, I’m not all that far from that, except I am working and have only one cat.


    24 Jul 09 at 10:28 am

  3. Politics in the very broadest sense may be an element here. Of the writers and artists I most admire, few or none match the Bohemian stereotype, and probably even fewer of the writers than the graphic artists or musicians. But my choice of insightful and inspiring writers wouldn’t pass muster in many English departments. If you view mankind differently, you naturally think different writers have shown greater perception.

    I think I’d sort out the writers first. I’m not sure music or the graphic arts reflects beliefs so closely, but it’s inescapable in story-telling.


    24 Jul 09 at 4:09 pm

  4. Mary made an interesting comment “I’d guess that with artists it’s the exclusive focus on the art – if the kind of artist you see portrayed in books and movies, the person who can’t think of anything else while painting/composing/sculpting so that their house looks like a tornado went through it and their kids are hungry, but Art Will Be Served – really exists.”

    I wonder if scientists have that sort of exclusive focus? Pehaps not, university scientists have to teach and supervise grad students, industrial scientists have company bureaucracy. These days science requires teamwork.


    24 Jul 09 at 6:03 pm

  5. I’m not sure the kind of Bohemian (real or faux) artist that Jane is writing about exists outside the NY/East Coast/academic milieu. I read “American Style” magazine which is all about art, craft, artists and collectors. Often, the artists have created environments for themselves which are beautiful and enable their creativity, but are not really essentially any different from those of collectors. These people have raised children, paid taxes and worry about their receding hairlines and their IRAs. Collectors are normally anything *but* Bohemian, since they have the money. Artists rarely have money, but they have lots of friends with whom they can trade.

    I’m not sure why someone with a incisive insight into human nature should be expected to be able to USE that insight to live a somehow extraordinary life. Those are two different skills. Knowing how other people experience life and portraying that in art is so different from putting the experience of others into practice for oneself. Even great geniuses lie to themselves, or have self-esteem problems or poor impulse control.

    So having seen proof of so many artists, really *good* artists who do not fit the Bohemian model, I guess I don’t assume someone who makes art has to follow that path to be good. Maybe you just need to meet more artists, Jane. Ones NOT trying to make the NY art scene.

    As for why stereotypes of artists persist, maybe some writers, movie-makers, etc just use those as shorthand for “oh this person is unconventional, he’s an artist, the worse his house looks the better he must be, the more he suffers for his art.” Bogus, but cheap and easy.


    24 Jul 09 at 11:10 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 237 access attempts in the last 7 days.