Paint something that is open to interpretation and it will, like a Nostradamus quatrain, “predict” the future. A sceptic leaves the Whitney Museum’s Andy Warhol show more rapt with the technical coldness of his work than with its supposed prophecies, which, at the current count, include social media, neoliberalism, the Kardashians and Donald Trump. You would not guess from those clinical silkscreens, devoted to godless fame and consumption, that America would find politicised religion in the 1970s, for example.
Outside, on the borderlands of Chelsea and the Village, you see something else that went unpredicted: the decline of bohemia. Manhattan is too expensive to sustain a modern version of Warhol’s Factory commune. This pricing-out of the offbeat and the creative is the cause of much anguish in London, too. Even Berlin, the only European capital that is poorer than its national average, worries about the flight of its most interesting residents after a recent housing boom.
If this is just a material problem, then it is fixable with rent-controls, zoning laws and other crudities. But do the thought experiment. If pockets of Manhattan went back to Factory-era rents, would they be as raw and as distinctive as they were back then? Unless you can picture it — and I can’t — there must be something more than economics at work.
Bohemian districts have waned because they were too successful in shaping the rest of society. Alternative ways of thinking, dressing and loving once needed the succour of discrete, contiguous neighbourhoods to survive, much less flourish. They now so permeate the mainstream as to blur the line between the two formerly oppositional cultures. It is the height of conservatism, in fact, to carve out special zones for the different, as though the rest of us are still marrying at 20 and serving out our jobs-for-life at General Motors.
In Bobos in Paradise, published in 2000, David Brooks noticed the absorption of bohemian values by bourgeois professionals. They voted against their material interests (that is, for the left). They made much of ethnic minority friends they might once have snubbed. They saw off the suit as the uniform of salaried respectability.
The implications for the urban terrain have taken a longer time to register. Just two generations ago, free spirits needed the tolerant enclaves of big cities to be themselves in. They can now live much the same lives throughout those cities, or out in the suburbs, or beyond. Just as wide acceptance of homosexuality was always going to compromise the size and internal coherence of gay districts, bohemia’s crossover into the mainstream was going to kill the raison d’être of a Greenwich Village or a Haight-Ashbury. The trick is to recognise what is, in the round, a good thing.
I write this as a Bobo with Bobo friends. To look at us, we are standard-issue yuppies: middlebrow, materialistic, some of us of aspirational immigrant stock. Yet we are free to live as louchely as any Bloomsbury maverick, and to do so in Georgetown, or Kew, or Westchester. The impact on the topography of cities could not but be vast.
None of which solves the problem of art-creation, of course, which really does depend on cheap and plentiful space, as well as the nearness of like-minded people. But when urban planners regret the passing of bohemian quarters, they almost never mean the cultural output so much as the atmosphere and texture of those places. The vast majority of residents in 1960s Chelsea or 1880s Montmartre were not artists, just independent-minded people looking for respite from a stiff America or an intolerant Third Republic. Their modern heirs need not cluster for safety in numbers.
Those districts — better thought of as forts or bunkers — took their vitality from the animus of the outside world. In trying to restore them to their former pomp, cities are inadvertently romanticising a less liberal time. They also under-praise the spread of free-living to the blandest exurb.
A truly prophetic Warhol might have named his bohemianism, not his fame, as that which everyone would get a little share of.
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