From Boho to Soho

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



We all know
that the bohemian neighborhood, where hipsters and artistes are ogled by the
requisite busloads of bourgeois voyeurs, was not created when The New
York Times
discovered Bedford Ave. a couple of months ago. It didn’t
start with the hipster colonization of the Lower East Side in the 90s, or in
Soho in the 80s, or at the punk clubs, or the hippie East
Village,
or in the abstract expressionists’ Cedar Tavern or the beatniks’ Greenwich
Village. All those boho locales–and the similar ones in cities around the
world–have a direct lineage back to the cabarets and cafes of 19th-century
Paris, where the poets mixed with the poseurs, the flaneurs with the voyeurs,
and the La Boheme lifestyle that’s still the model for arty poverty
was first valorized. It’s no accident that Television and Patti Smith evoked
Verlaine and Rimbaud. (Some of the original bohemians pushed the lineage much
further back, to the student drinking societies of the medieval cities, but
let’s not go there today.)



The history
of bohemia is in fact familiar to most of us, and its successive loci, from
the Left Bank and Montmartre through the Jazz Age to the present, have been
very well documented. But Bernard Gendron, a philosophy prof at the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has an agenda beyond just retelling boho history in
his new book with the cool title Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club
(University of Chicago Press, 388 pages, $20). Gendron wants to examine the
ways that successive bohemias have been the sites where what used to be called
High and Low culture met and interacted in the modern era, ultimately producing
our postmodern age where the very terms High and Low can seem so obsolete. He’s
specifically interested in the ways that hipsters and esthetes have interacted
with and appropriated popular musics, from the "vulgar" cabaret songs
of Paris through swing and bebop to the New York punk rock/new wave/no wave
of the 1970s. How did bebop and the Beatles and Patti Smith all come to be esteemed
as "art"? What role have the bohos played in creating our current
culture, where High and Low have actually changed places in prestige and influence,
so that popular music and pop culture generally have so trumped the old highbrow
art forms in what scholars call "cultural capital"?


It’s
an intriguing if not brand-new line of inquiry. Being a scholar, Gendron thinks
and argues it all through much more clearly than have some previous wayward
and gasbaggy attempts at developing similar theories by pseudo-scholars like
Greil Marcus. Then, too, if you’re not all that interested in the thesis,
you can fall back and just read this book as another handy and lively primer
on boho history.


Gendron
focuses on five points in the bohemian timeline to show how the interactions
of high and popular culture changed. At first, it was the esthetes glomming
onto popular/mass/folk arts and using them for their own ends. Classic examples
include Picasso’s discovery of African masks and Cocteau’s passionate
embrace of African-American jazz. Later, Gendron contends, the balance of power
shifted. Formerly "low" forms of expression no longer passively waited
for the arty types to appropriate and thus legitimize them. Postwar bebop was
the first time that what began as a popular art form aggressively asserted itself
as high, indeed avant-garde, culture. By the time of the Mudd Club, art, rock
and poetry were inextricably commingled in the coolest, most interesting and
prestigious cultural movement of its day.


Although
we tend to think that the eradication of the old High/Low hierarchy is recent,
Gendron argues that the seeds of this postmodernism were present at the very
start of the modern era in mid-1800s France, where the revolutionizing work
of the early modernists (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Corbet, et al.) serendipitously
came along at the same time as an explosive growth in French mass culture. It
took some time for the new esthetes and the new pop culture to interact. The
first bohemian cafes, generally accepted to have appeared in the 1840s, were
enclaves of high, albeit outre and antiestablishment, art. Despite all the flagrant
and scandalous antics of the Jeunes-France movement, the Societe des Buveurs
d’Eau (Society of Water Drinkers) and the like, these early bohos were
as standoffish about mass culture as their stuffy adversaries in the academy
and salons.


By the 1870s,
though, groups of young poets like the Club des Hydropathes were aching to reach
a wider audience beyond their own closed circles. On the Left Bank, something
rather like poetry slams, with longhaired poets leaping on tables to drunkenly
proclaim their work to shocked and titillated cafe patrons, were early forays
of the esthetes into the arena of public performance. This impulse flowered
with the arty colonization of working-class Montmartre, and its cafes and
cabarets, in the 1880s. At clubs like the Chat Noir, poets banged out their
appropriations of working-class street songs on the house piano, creating la
chanson a Montmartre
, effectively the art-rock of its day. Drawing ever
larger crowds, the arty types (and the happy club owners making big bucks off
them) dove headlong into formerly despised forms of commercial entertainment,
culminating in full-fledged and wildly successful cabaret and music hall extravaganzas
at legendary hotspots like the Moulin Rouge. The enormous popular success of
these High/Low mergings even prompted a kind of punk-rock backlash, with angry
young poets giving themselves marvelously punky names like the Jemenfoutistes
(the I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck-ists). And you thought the Sick F*cks were onto
something new.


Paris arty
types went through similar paroxysms of appropriation in the 1910s and 20s when
they discovered jazz and Negritude in general. Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud composed
jazz-influenced music, Picasso mutated the forms of African masks in Les
Demoiselles
, Josephine Baker was made a French superstar and jamming with
"authentic" black jazz men imported from America became such a craze
at Parisian clubs like Le Boeuf sur le Toit that to this day "the expression
faire le boeuf’ is used to mean ‘have a jam session.’"


Here again,
the popular art form played the passive role in this relationship with boho
artistes. But the balance of power shifted after World War II, Gendron argues,
with the emergence of bebop. When it first appeared as a revolt against the
by-then clapped-out swing music, bop was resisted by the old guard (the "moldy
figs"), the highbrow critics and the general press. Ironically, it was
bebop’s revitalization of the New York jazz club scene in the late 40s
that eventually won over the Down Beat critics and the popular press.
Although bop’s limited commercial and critical success lasted only a couple
of years, Gendron contends its self-assertion and then wide acceptance as a
bona fide avant-garde art form hugely influenced the way American highbrows
finally came to canonize all of jazz as an authentic indigenous art in the 1950s–an
esteem it maintains, if only as an historical artifact, to this day.


Gendron
then moves to the curious way the Beatles went from being sniffed at as a bizarre
teenybopper phenomenon to being heralded as high art. Of course, to do this
they had to abandon their teen fans and move on to more "adult" and
"serious" music under the influences of Bob Dylan, George Martin and
LSD. Still, it’s another milepost in Gendron’s thesis, as a once vilified
and "vulgar" music asserted itself and became universally accepted
as both a commercial juggernaut and the defining cultural expression
of its epoch.


Which leads
Gendron to the Mudd Club. His last few chapters lay out a nice, concise history
of punk and new wave and their aftermath. Not incidentally, he reminds the Malcolm
McLaren-philes still among us that the term "punk rock" was coined
in Greg Shaw’s fanzine Who Put the Bomp in 1971, where it was used
for what we now call 60s garage rock. Gendron gives perhaps too much credit
to the writing of the Shaws and Lester Bangses and Dave Marshes for having spurred
the birth of punk rock itself; I’d argue the bands get a little
more credit than the critics. Still, he’s absolutely correct in siting
the birth of punk in America, and specifically in the early-70s New York City
of Television and the Ramones and CBGB, rather than in the Sex Pistols’
mid-70s London, as so many Brits and Britophiles still want to insist. ("New
wave" can legitimately be claimed by the British, and they can have it.)


Gendron
goes over familiar ground in discussing how art and pop came together in Television,
Patti Smith, Talking Heads, James Chance, even the Ramones. As the downtown
music scene spread out both geographically and demographically in the late 70s
and early 80s, it moved from the principally reactionary stance of the Ramones
into both avant-garde art circles (Sonic Youth, say) and commercial viability
(Blondie, B-52s, etc.). Old distinctions were blurred: the scene was rife with
poet-rockers, painter-rockers, hybrids of rock and symphonic minimalism like
the works of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, ironist meta-musical statements
like the Lounge Lizards. The Mudd Club, founded in ’78 as a "disco
for punks," developed into a nexus of everything that was hip and arty
and fashionable, an anti-Studio 54 where punk rock and Bowie and Warhol converged
to be ogled by a new generation of flaneurs and voyeurs. A punk esthetic spread
to performance, to the visual arts, to film, to literature.


In the 80s,
across many genres and media, the coolest art showed punk influences. What the
Lenny Kayes and Joey Ramones had started as a reductionist reaction to the bloated
arena rock of the early 70s grew up to be a monster that devoured the art world.
Rock ’n’ roll, which had begun as lowbrow teenage music, had risen
to highbrow dominance. It was a far cry from those early Parisian bohos assaying
lower-class street songs, but the family lineage, as Gendron makes quite clear,
is direct.


That may
sound like a bit much to claim for punk–and maybe in glossing Gendron’s
last few chapters I’m exaggerating his message. Also, as Gendron concedes
in a coda, much has changed since the early 1980s. The downtown scene is long
dead, no one speaks of rock as a dominant cultural force anymore and to a large
extent all those art forms and commercial influences that came together downtown
back then have since retreated to their own corners. It would be interesting
for others to continue his explorations into the present–the Soho art boom
and bust, the diaspora to Chelsea and Brooklyn, the rise of hiphop and rap as
the next populist music movement to metastasize into an all-pervasive cultural
force–and see how that all affects his thesis. I think his basic premises
would hold up well.


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