Growing up in a small beach town in New England, I longed for the camaraderie of those who shared my creative inclinations. I wanted to have friends with whom I could discuss Burroughs, Francis Bacon, and the folk band Death in June. I craved the idea of a circle of artists who partied together and supported each other in their creative endeavors. But what I mostly desired was an exit from a suffocating conformity—and into a culture of idiosyncrasy and personal expression. Predictably, I moved to New York City to pursue just such a life.

What I found in the bohemia of New York, however, confounded my expectations and left me alienated. My youthful naivety hardened into a cynicism as I realized that the artists who populate an urban bohemia are not, as it turns out, peculiar outsiders, each with distinctive outlooks and sensibilities. Instead, they are more often than not the most abject conformists who might reject the traditions of their backgrounds only to reinforce the new ones imposed upon them by academia and bohemia itself.

In their academic backgrounds, positions in the class structure, artistic inclinations, and especially their politics, the bohemians are functionally indistinguishable from one another. They form an in-group dynamic that is more repressive and depressing than any of the tightest cliques in my small-town high school. Bohemians have no problem casting out their friends when they break the social orthodoxies of the in-group.

Despite bohemia’s promises of creative freedom, for instance, how many artists have we seen banished for perceived moral or political transgressions? I will never forget the amount of mud slung at Darja Bajagić by her peers when she presented her work alongside Boyd Rice in 2018. That moment proved to be the final shattering of any lingering idealism I felt concerning bohemia and arts communities.

The early modernist English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis felt similarly alienated from his own bohemia. Born in Canada in 1882, he roamed between Paris, London, and Berlin. During his time in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris—stomping grounds for the likes of Picasso, Henry Miller, Cocteau, Beckett, Modigliani, among many other postwar luminaries—Lewis learned a bitter lesson: that bohemia wasn’t the frenetic incubator of artistic freedom and genius imagined by artists themselves and the wider culture. While the painter Marc Chagall (and others) viewed the neighborhood as nothing less than a “revolution of the eye,” Lewis found it downright unbearable: Montparnasse was as densely packed with philistines as it was with cafés and galleries.

Lewis zoned in on what he called the “bourgeois bohemian” (a coinage often incorrectly credited to New York Times columnist David Brooks): one who has neither vision nor tactile skill but is comfortably middle class enough to venture off to bohemia, live there, and in the worst cases, even prosper in it. The advances in communication that coincided with the rise of industrial capitalism allowed petty-bourgeois nobodies to find modest comfort in bohemia, leeching off any reservoirs of real genius they might encounter.

Lewis, however, didn’t crumble underneath the weight of his depressing observations. Rather, his contempt fueled his genius. His antagonism toward his own bohemia gave him the power of the insider-outsider. In bohemia, Lewis didn’t see the freedom promised by its romanticist mythos. On the contrary, he saw slaves being driven by new masters. The contradiction fueled his contempt, and that contempt, in turn, inspired his artistry.

“Hatred expresses itself like the satisfaction of an appetite,” he wrote.

The words belong to the titular character of Tarr, Lewis’s first novel and a primary modernist text. The novel follows two protagonists. Frederick Tarr is, like the author himself, a more or less successful British artist living in Paris during the Edwardian period. Otto Kreisler, on the other hand, is a destitute German artist living on meek allowances from a rich and disapproving father. Much of the conflict in the story derives from their shared erotic obsession with Anastasya Vatek, a gorgeous Russo-German woman who functions as a kind of archetypal muse or object of artistic male lust. Tarr is very much a modern man, and much of his outlook seems to mirror that of the Vorticist art movement that Lewis helped theorize and was a part of.

Vorticism, as heralded by Lewis and others in a manifesto first published in BLAST magazine in 1914, saw modern life as the chaotic meeting points of line, form, and color, suggesting that the only way to make sense of the chaos of modernity was by giving it form. Tarr, similarly, is aware of the corrosive social effect that modernity has brought upon the West, but doesn’t dwell in it. Instead, he views art as a kind of antidote to the banal horror around him. “Art is identical with the idea of permanence,” says Tarr to Anastasya. “It is a continuity and not an individual spasm.” Tarr carries on an affair with Anastasya, even as he decides to marry and raise the child of Bertha, his long-time fiancé, after she is raped by an enraged Kreisler.

Kreisler, however, is shell-shocked by the changes around him, and the bohemia that he is mired in. As several literary critics have noted over the years, his downfall seems to mirror that of his home country, Germany before the Great War: His romanticist clinging to history and tradition is frustrated by the social turmoil brought about by the rising market system. His erotic obsession with Vatek is rebuffed, and he spirals down a path that leads to rape, murder, and suicide.

What Lewis suggests in the dialectic between Tarr and Kreisler is that, yes, there is a suffocating conformity to modernity that a roving bohemia can’t rectify; on the contrary, bohemia merely replicates, in exaggerated form, the spreading rot. But Tarr is able to transcend it all by giving himself over to modernity, letting it wash over him, and making art in response. Tarr is the Vorticist. Kreisler is the Romanticist. Tarr survives. Kreisler dies.

As the scholar Udith Dematagoda pointed out to me, it’s important to remember that both Kreisler and Tarr represent different facets of Lewis’s social perspective: the side that wants to give up and die for premodernity (Kreisler), and the one that makes the best of the rapid economic, technological, and social changes and tries to understand them (Tarr). But the startling insight in all of his writing is the bare realism of his disposition toward society. Lewis believed that it was incumbent upon the artist to carry this brutal realism. Marshall McLuhan wrote that Lewis once told him that the artist must write a detailed history of the future, because only he is “aware of the nature of the present.”

Then there is the political economy of bohemia. According to its romantic mythology, living the bohemian existence is, somehow, a respite from the alienation that otherwise characterizes free-market societies. To be in bohemia, in this telling (which persists to this day), is to be free of the grind. The wage. The boss. Lewis knew this to be untrue. He knew that there was no escape from modernity. In The Art of Being Ruled, he archly reminded so-called bohemian artists that they were living off the patronage of the industrialist class, and therefore were in no meaningful way outside the larger social processes around them. Bourgeois art, he said, conforms to the tastes of those shaped by the pressure of capital on the individual psyche. Lewis understood earlier than most that liberal democracy rules and controls through the media and mass hypnosis, prefiguring McLuhan’s insights. In other words, Lewis discerned that modernity was all “one thing”: capital, labor, war, and even bohemia were all arms of the same body.

Yet despite his noted contempt for liberal democracy and its subtle tactics of repression, Lewis was no revolutionary. He called revolutionary politics, revolutionary art, and the revolutionary mind “the dullest thing on Earth.” It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that Lewis was seduced by the early ideological formations of fascism and, indeed, wrote an early text on Hitler and Nazism in 1931, covering both more or less favorably. The Nazis seemed to Lewis to address the totalities of contradictions of liberal democracy with a grounded realism that was far more interesting than what he viewed as the moral vanity of the German Communist Party.

Lewis even believed Hitler to be a “man of peace” and thought his brand of nationalism to be an improvement in terms of its scope, legibility, and sophistication over other nationalisms, such as the French monarchist variety, which Lewis had denounced as blindly conservative and “erratically ineffective” in his text on Hitler. He entirely changed his tune later, however, when he witnessed firsthand the extent of the Nazis’ venomous anti-Semitism, after which he denounced the Nazi Party.

At bottom, for Lewis, art was the only meaningful tool for outlining the conditions of the world. Art is understanding. At its best, it can transcend the limitations of the social order. Bohemia is just another lifestyle. Another marketing pitch. You can live in it and enjoy it, sure, just so long as you realize it doesn’t make you special and doesn’t place you outside of your own society. No matter where we are in it, we are in society. It’s how we interpret it, and how we see it, that defines our roles in it. In Wyndham Lewis’ legacy lies, if not a prophecy, then a guide for navigating the modern swamp.

Adam Lehrer is an artist and Compact columnist, based in New York. He blogs at Substack and is the host of the System of Systems podcast.


Get the best of Compact right in your inbox.

Sign up for our free newsletter today.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link.
Sorry, something went wrong. Please try again.