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You Should Have Been There: Mourning a Lost Bohemian Culture

Nostalgia reoccurs in every generation. It’s one of those forces that kicks in when you least expect it. It’s part of the condition of being tied to culture: you’re always mourning for whatever culture came before you. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, or a musician, you romanticize those who preceded you. As an artist, you’re tied to them and draw you’re inspiration from the past. Soon though, the creators of the future will be looking back on people like you, mythologizing them and romanticizing them into fictions and ghosts of times long gone.

Today, we mourn the culture of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and even the 90s. At the recent Downtown Literary Festival, panelists mourned a lost bohemian literary culture, at two events: “Is the New York Bohemia Dead?” and “You Should Have Been There: Stories of the Best Show Ever.” Writers and musicians talked about the New York music scene of the past. A few blocks away, at the New Museum, an exhibit, New York: 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, looked back 20 years at the art scene in 1993. It would be hard to argue that nostalgia didn’t permeate the walls of the museum, as if the artwork itself were yearning for dead, ideal world.

New York: 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star

It was 1993. Conflict raged in Europe and the Middle East. People were dropping from AIDS left and right. Debates about gun control, health care, and gay rights were taking New York by a storm. And Sonic Youth was about to release their eighth album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. It was a time that most college students today can’t remember.

But the current exhibition at the New Museum attempts to recreate this year in history. New York: 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, is an exhibition that includes five floors full of work created that year. The exhibit, mourning a lost bohemian culture, attempts to cover everything going on that year visually, from painting to photography to film to installation. Seeking to span the spectrum of art from that year, The New Museum is transformed into a more traditional museum, showcasing two-dimensional work.

Larry Clark’s collection of skateboards attests to a counterculture of the 90s. A few floors up, Ann Hamilton’s Tropos, an installation of books crossed out and cut up, works well juxtaposed with Derek Jarman’s film Blue, a sound installation accompanied by an entirely blue screen, his last film before he died from AIDS in 1994.

Other artists experiment with photography, like Steven Pippin in “The Continuing Saga of an Amateur Photographer.” Pippin developed images developed in the 55-minute trip between Victoria and Brighton, by locking himself in the train’s bathroom and developing his images in the bathroom’s toilet. The results are oddly haunting, containing eye-like forms that almost seem to stare back. Another series takes photographs and replaces them with lines about the content of the photograph. An open and honest diary showcases 481 sheets of yellow notebook paper, filled with diary entries with lines like “Can I be so presumptuous? Perhaps such realizations are best left for your own discovery about this piece.”

It’s almost as if the curator has forced artists to collaborate after their death, like on the fifth floor, where a rug installation with photographs on the wall is juxtaposed with a sound installation of “Sail on Sailor” by Kristin Oppenheim. These artists are collaged with their contemporaries and made into what they were not. They are mythologized into an historical account of an art culture now gone. Devon Dileou’s directory boards demonstrate this best, as they detail various exhibitions in the 90s, including their titles, curators, and artists, acting like tombstones memorializing a dead culture.

But it’s not just the contemporary art world that yearns for the past. Today’s writers also mourn a bohemian culture long gone.

“Is the New York Bohemian Dead?”

On April 14, Katie Roiphe (author of The Morning After), Donald Antrium (a novelist), James Atlas (Saul Bellow’s biographer, and Lucas Wittman (editor at Daily Beast) gathered for a panel, “Is the New York Bohemian Dead?” as part of the Downtown Literary Festival.

What is Bohemia? What are these writers yearning for? The panelists described a community, joined together in their opposition to mainstream society. A wild, reckless community, drinking themselves into abandon, sleeping with as many people in one night as possible, too stoned to function in day-to-day society. And of course, living without such luxuries as insurance or a savings account, and subsisting day by day, with no guarantee of what tomorrow will bring.

Susan Sontag once said to a young writer, “People like us don’t have health insurance and a savings account! We’re bohemians! We’re intellectuals!” Yet as James Atlas points out, “Susan Sontag herself had health insurance.” According to Atlas, nothing has changed. “Each generation laments the disappearance of the bohemia before it.” He continued, “We’re all dreaming about… Edna St. Vincent Millay. They in turn looked back to an earlier period when there was a literary period in the late 20th.” With every generation comes a longing for what came before, “We’re about to decry [bohemia’s] absence. We won’t be the first.”

Not only do we mythologize the figures of the past, but they mythologize themselves, Roiphe explained. But maybe sometimes romanticizing something is useful. And why? Because if we don’t, we’re missing something. We’re missing the spark, the passion, the living a life on the edge of ordinary existence.

Atlas reminisced, and perhaps romanticized, a visit to Allen Ginsburg about 20 years ago: “He lived on East 10th street. And to get into his house you had to call about to the third or fourth story window . . .‘Allen!’ or in my case, ‘Mr. Ginsburg!’ Then he’d drop the keys down to the street . . . and there he’d be with his boyfriend . . . and he’d play chance on his tape recorder and was stoned and it was just one of the most tremendous evenings of my life. Today he’d get a genius grant and have a house in the Hamptons. But he was being Allen Ginsburg, and it did had a kind of incredible authenticity to it.”

Wittman says he found bohemian life accidentally, and solitarily. He has never felt part of a bohemian, artistic community, separated off from the rest of society. Williamsburg might be the hot spot for ten years, Bushwick for another ten, while meanwhile, Williamsburg turns into a neighborhood filled with multi million dollar apartments. But artists have nowhere to turn for a real sense of solidarity. Antrium agreed, commenting, “I don’t feel like I’m part of an idea about art, and it’s lonely. . . . there’s been a kind of wrecked dream that’s been going on.”

This could be attributed to economics in the city, or today’s technological world where we can exist alone, yet in a strange way still exist together. Writers in generation’s past were expected to live marginal lives: they had no money, no agents, and creative talent wasn’t a marketable skill.

Antrium concluded that the discussion wouldn’t be happening if as writers, they didn’t feel like something was missing. And what are we missing? The humanities and the arts have been devalued, the panelists agreed. But mostly, today’s writing is missing things like wisdom, maturity, rigor, honesty and clarity, to name a few. Perhaps these are forms of writing that only a bohemian culture can create.

“You Should Have Been There: Stories of the Best Show Ever”

It’s not just the visual art culture and the literary art culture that mourn for what previous generations had. The music culture also cries for the shows of yore. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth spoke at another one of the events at the Downtown Literary Festival: “You Should Have Been There: Stories of the Best Show Ever.” Moore started going to shows in early ‘76. Although Max’s Kansas City interested him, the pictures he saw of CBGB really drew his attention. After running into an intoxicated Joey Ramone on his way to the show, paying an entrance fee of three dollars (an inordinate amount of money at the time) and peeing in a urinal next to Elvis Costello, he got to hear Costello and Richard Hell sing You Gotta Loose. But Moore’s most evocative memory of CBGB’s was the Patti Smith show he saw there in ’76. Moore and his friend were shoved aside by CBGB personnel to make room for William Burroughs, who had his own table and chair in the center of the venue crowded with cats, dogs, and just about anything. Smith sang straight to William. “It was all for William,” said Moore,  “and it was beautiful.“

Patrick Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus hails from Glenrock, New Jersey. His most memorable show was February 15, 2003, at the Roseland ballroom after: Sleater-Kinney, a punk band from Olympia, Washington. “Thank you for protesting the war [in Iraq], and thank you in advance for shaking your ass,” Sleater-Kinney screamed before the show began. Stickles lamented the “dichotomous promise that punk had” as both a political force and a musical culture.

Nikolai Fraiture of The Strokes talked about reading a lot of books like Just Kids or Ghosts of Buildings on Fire depicting the scene in New York in the 70s and 80s. Already, Nikolai began to look back on a time he hadn’t been alive for, a time when Moore was running to shows at CBGBs. Nikolai contrasted the 90s which he said was probably as cool as the 70s and 80s, to now, when New York is more corporate, and trying to get a gig at the show must be hard for a new band. For Nikolai, it was never about the actual show but about the before and after, about being so messed up that he and a Julia Casablancas, also of The Strokes, wandered down 42nd and scaled the wall at the UN. He remembers sneaking into shows, eye-opening shows, magical crazy colors at shows, and mostly one specific Jane Addiction’s show. The Jane’s Addiction show was somewhere in between, a turning point in the New York music scene.

Sonic Youth formed in 1981. The Strokes formed in 1998. And Titus Andronicus formed in 2005. Each band member looked back to a show from a previous generation. Memory has that way of easily turning their shows into stories, making that one the bohemian ideal we’ll always be striving for, the best show ever. Whether or not it was—well, I guess you should have been there.

On the subway ride back from the festival, I’m reliving what that Jane’s Addiction show must have been like, when I look up to find that Nikolai is riding next to me. He’s riding the subway like any other human being in New York. And I think for a moment, that maybe this is our bohemia, this unintentional community of commuters who don’t even know each other exist. This is the only place we come together: on subway rides, walking unintentionally together down the streets. The solitary existence we lead isn’t really so solitary after all. I shuffle the songs on my ipod, and “Last Night” comes on, The Strokes song reminiscing about something of the past. I smile at Nikolai, but I don’t think he notices. And I’m already getting nostalgic for The Strokes, nostalgic for the present. I’m already writing them in to the list of bands I’ll one day remember, and history is standing next to me. The cycle continues, the yearning for the past, and we’re all already remembering and mythologizing the present. You should have been there. Or maybe, you should be here, now.