September 10th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

How Authentic Do You Like Your Bohemianism?

A few times I've made disparaging remarks about old Bourbon Street. Not to pick on somebody while they're down, but I went once, and mostly hated it. As I put it to somebody the other day, it struck me as if Brooklyn, Illinois had been made over by Disney, as if it were "Seedy Neighborhood, USA" at Disneyland. Even the strip clubs seemed tame and touristy. I like my seedy nightlife, well, frankly, a little more seedy, a little less prettied up, a little more raw and authentic, and a lot less artificial than that. But Disneyland isn't the perfect metaphor for it, because this divide goes literally all the way back to the beginning of la vie boheme, the origins of the counter-culture, in the Bohemian neighborhoods of early pre-industrial Paris.

Allow me to over-simplify this for you the way I over-simplify all historical topics I write about; if you want a more complete account see Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris, or read Bruce Sterling's essay, "Return to the Rue Jules Verne," online. But in the beginning came the clothing factories, which weren't like our factories. They were job shops; they took orders from customers, bought raw materials, and then hired the work out to people who took the order and the materials home, sewed them, and dropped them off at the factory to get paid. The factories brought two changes. First, there were the new wealthier upper middle class, the managers and owners of the factories. They had money, they had their own cultural values, they owed less emotional loyalty to the pre-existing noble classes and were looking to assert their own identity. And it was in this context that a group of artists with a new aesthetic, artists who couldn't get their work funded or displayed by the Academé, set up their own galleries and print shops specifically to sell to the middle class.

The middle class got to feel snobbily superior to the elites because they could recognize genius and the elites were just looking for more of the same old, same old. The Impressionist artists got to feel snobbily superior to the artists who were funded by the Academé because they were so brilliant they didn't need government support. It was a very cozy arrangement. But not an especially lucrative one for the artists, because even the most successful painters and print-sellers only barely made enough to keep themselves sort-of-halfway fed. So the Impressionists turned to the poorest neighborhood in Paris, the "bohemian quarter," and rented the worst, cheapest apartments in the city, and spent all the time they could outside their crappy apartments, in the bars and cafés of that neighborhood, cadging food and drinks off of whoever had gotten paid that week.

They were competing for living space with one other group of recent emigrés to the neighborhood, the second change brought by the factories: the grisettes. The grisettes were teenage girls who the factory owners had recruited from all over the countryside, from parents who couldn't feed them during an economic downturn. Since teenaged girls were traditionally taught to sew as a marriageable skill, the grisettes made excellent employees for the factories. And being young, and away from home, they were pretty easily exploited, too, so they didn't make much. So they also needed the cheapest apartments in the city. So a couple of bars and cafés on the Left Bank, that were already filled with unpopular ethnic minorities (mostly gypsies) and with petty criminals, got this explosive influx of teenage girls and starving artists. And to everybody's surprise, they got along swimmingly. The girls thought that the pickpockets, cut-throats, and even more so the artists were just absolutely dreamy, and totally misunderstood. To the guys, the grisettes were young, cute, fresh-faced, sexually available ... and they had jobs. The grisettes were the first groupies; the Impressionists were the first heavy metal or indie-rock guitarists whose girlfriends put out, and bought them groceries, so they could brag that their boyfriend was in a band. The STD rates were horrific.

Pretty soon one of the bars that was affiliated with one of the print shops started bragging, to the middle class patrons of the print shop, that they could see the artists in their native habitat if they came down to the artists' favorite bar, the Black Cat, Le Chat Noir. So a few middle class tourists, and even more than a few poor and middle class journalists, came down to the Bohemian quarter, dropped into the Black Cat, and were delightedly scandalized by what they saw: farm-fresh teenage girls half-dressed, drunk, dancing on the tables for their dirty, disheveled artist boyfriends in a room full of opium addicts, gypsies, and thieves. It was new, it was scandalous, it was scary as all hell. It sold papers! And, as the bar owner had hoped, it brought more tourists, from whom the artists cheerfully bummed drinks, with whom the grisettes flirted to separate them from their money before going back to their artist boyfriends, and whom the pick-pockets and head-knockers cheerfully mugged and robbed.

Hmm, bit of a problem with that last part, if you want the customers who have money to keep coming back. So a guy a couple of blocks away came up with the idea of duplicating Le Chat Noir, only better. There would still be artists hanging out, only instead of in a dark and dismal space, they'd be hanging out in one where the walls would be well-lit for displaying paintings and prints. The grisettes wouldn't be degrading themselves out in the audience and dancing on tables, they'd be turned into costumed professional dancers and be up on stage, mostly away from groping hands. And the thieves and pick-pockets and head-knockers would be kept out. All the ambiance of Le Chat Noir, but none of the danger! And the dancing and the sexy costumes would both be higher quality! The name of the bar, in case you haven't guessed already, was the Red Windmill: le Moulin Rouge. Which thrived, and stole most of the customers away from Le Chat Noir, which tried unsuccessfully to tourist-friendly itself up to match, too little too late, and that's why you've all heard of the Moulin Rouge but probably barely heard of Le Chat Noir.

So, what if you were back then? If you had the money to choose between staying home and reading about the Bohemian life in Paris, going some place safe and accommodating to your needs to see it like the Red Windmill, or going to the Black Cat where the culture was at its most authentic even at some risk to your person, which would you like to think that you would have done?

Poll #567798 How Close to the Edge?

Le Chat Noir or Moulin Rouge?

I would have read about the Bohemian life in the papers, and probably seen La Boheme at the opera house, but never gone down to the Bohemian quarter myself.
I would have read about it, and visited the Moulin Rouge at least once so I could say that I had. I might not have even heard of Le Chat Noir.
I would have frequented the Moulin Rouge, and maybe visited Le Chat Noir once just to compare.
I would have read about it, and visited Le Chat Noir once or twice to see what it was really like, but that's enough.
I would have been a regular at Le Chat Noir, because screw safety, I'd want to be a part of what was going on, not just a tourist.