At first glance, Paris can be off-putting to the self-conscious outsider, the stranger, the detached critic of globalized consumer society and lover of the exception in a rising tidal wave of cultural homogeneity.
Indeed, it has a Disney quality, the celebrated literary Left Bank but an anthill teeming with tourists, boutique owners, culturally sanitized museums and un-cafes. It appears designed for the lotus-eating locals and globals who reduce life and its manifold pleasures to a robotics of buying and selling, and feel-good guidebook culture . But the heart of an older Paris still beats strongly beneath the anthills and their armies seeking officially administered culture.
Those with a sense of history look simultaneously teary-eyed on this spectacle and wistfully Janus-eyed back on the heyday of Bohemian Paris at the dawn of the 20th century. What was that Paris, so oft-romanticized by contemporary self-declared bohemians and envious wannabes?
In her comparison of bohemian Paris and beatnik, then punk, New York, Jessamin Swearingen writes:
"The term 'bohemian' stems from a region in Czechoslovakia — Bohemia — where the gypsies lived. The French bohemians found themselves mirroring gypsy life." Swearingen refers to a popular book on the Paris Bohemians by Jarrod Siegel, who observes, "The bohemians located themselves in a twilight zone between ingenuity and criminality." The Bohemians eschewed the cultural mainstream, even while they depended on it for patronage.
As Swearingen notes, this phenomenon is not limited to Paris of the belle epoque. It's an ongoing process of conflict and absorption between mainstream and contestatory culture in most market societies.
The bohemians received a fair amount of criticism from the established middle class. Because most participants in the bohemian culture during the late 1800s were artists and writers, the conflict surrounding their lifestyle arose out of the need for artistic output versus the need for societal support. Siegel argues that the conflict of French bohemian identity emerged out of this conflict. He asked, "At what point did personal cultivation cease to be beneficial or acceptable to the society that sponsored it?" (p.11). This aspect of bohemian culture and practice is repeated throughout history.
Indeed, it is. Indie, folk, rock, pop, electro, hip hop, and their connections to poetry 'zines, indymedia, intellectual life, activism and so forth are the legacy of such subcultures like the Paris bohemians. Indie-bohemian subcultures have been constantly commodified throughout the 20th century by corporate coolhunters. Their works have been institutionalized in museums yet quarantined from the everyday by the gatekeepers of aestheticizing official culture. And their spaces of cultural production have been increasingly gentrified, making indie cultures into "civilizers" of ethnic and/or poor areas attractive to part-time bobos. The entire identity of indie cultures depend on their difference from something more popular and widespread, which shall ever risk effacing it through absorption. Some cities have diluted such subcultures to the point that the latter are no longer distinguishable save as part of the latest buzzing global style.