Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I, Bourgeois

So the other night, I was unable to bring myself to attend my martial arts class. I do so try to be a dedicated student, but I was tired, grouchy, overwhelmed; I felt overscheduled, underslept, potently dissatisfied with self, life, work, and recreation.

My solution? Retail therapy.

Now, I rarely engage in retail therapy, mostly because our economic circumstances are such that even acquiring what we need is sometimes a bit of an ordeal. But I was feeling a particular dissatisfaction with my khakis: they're the sort of light tan, generic-looking Old Navy khakis that are the uniform of fashion-indifferent, business-casual office drones everywhere. So I find myself a lovely pair of herringbone-style khakis, made of cotton, but with the weave and texture of herringbone tweed. They're brownish, but neutral enough that they could as easily be worn with cool colors as warm, with a shirt and tie, a jersey, a T-shirt and sport jacket, you name it.

Where did I find these wonder trousers? Well . . . Old Navy. Exactly where I got the bland khakis for which I'd come to feel such contempt, which, in turn, I'd bought because khakis just make it easier not to think about what I'm wearing. And I bought BOTH pairs of pants on my Old Navy card, increasing our debt while maintaining the illusion that I still have that money in my real account. Between the use of credit (hell, the possession of credit) at Old Navy, the matter of sweatshops and regressive labor laws, matters of conformity and mass-production, and the decidedly male, in the ugliest traditional sense, approach to wardrobe, I'm at risk of revocation of license for my three most prized practices: bohemiamism, liberalism, metrosexuality. My God, I'm just a GUY. I had to go by a used corduroy shirt jacket at Value Village for $6.99 just to clean that feeling off (and can I say, my corduroy jacket looks great with the new herringbone khakis, and pretty good with my mechanic-fit jeans . . . also from Old Navy).

Yes, folks, the rejectionist himself is really just an average Joe with a tattoo (hey, I'll get another one soon) and some long-neglected piercings.

Like many artistic sorts, I've long sneered at any values I called "bourgeois", having a certain disdain for the notion that respectability or property were of any real use. I've rejected, on well-documented and fiercely argued grounds, the notion that music should please the ear, that cinema should make us laugh or feel good about ourselves, that law exists to protect people instead of wealth, etc. But it's all something of a sham: I DO want to be respected, and even my most dissonant, dystopian and dysphoric aesthetic indulgences are enjoyed because, for whatever reason, they DO please my ear, make me laugh, and, in some roundabout way, make me feel good about myself. I'd like for my aptitudes and talents to earn me admiration, and I'd like to weave a career therefrom, thus securing my access to what I see as my necessary--or at least highly desirable--material comforts. I want my clothing to be inexpensive and reasonably interchangeable, in the sense of everything sort of matching with everything else, without having to always go the all-black, all-the-time route OR stay aware of which color is "in" this season.

Fact is, most people who use the word "bourgeois" are, in fact, precisely that; the rich have no disdain for materialism, the poor don't spend a lot of time weighing social paradigms and value systems. Inasmuch as "bourgeois" means "middle-class", it's we who are moderately educated, working for just-enough-yet-strangely-too-little, who both know what it means and feel guilty enough about it to criticize it. Sure, there are those among us like myself, who have used our modest means to explore outsider aesthetics and maverick philosophies, sought divergence from mainstream religion and are suspicious of mainstream media. But scratch the surface of these "rebellions", and you'll find that most of their theorists, critics and practitioners are of that same bent. They're what Herman Hesse dubbed "steppenwolves", lone lupine luminaries frustrated with, but inescapably held by, a world where order and civility are the norm. Look at any of history's great rogue philophers--de Sade, Lautreaumont, Sartre--and you'll see a gallery of malcontents fiercely (and knowingly) biting the hand that fed them all, carving out a comfortable niche from which to rail against comfortable niches.

I could equivocate on the matter for days (and you can stop giggling there in the back row). Gustave Flaubert once said that an artist should try to live the quiet, ordered life of the bourgeois individual, that he may be violent and original in his art; I'd proudly bear the banner of that idea were I actually creating any art at the moment. And really, I'm only looking for bargains so I can reinvest my income into my other pursuits; but if I'm being honest, the big problem with my pursuits is that I'm at loathe to sell out on the one hand, while finding it too tiring to study, take classes, work full-time and make art, particularly since I find it wholly necessary for my marriage (that most bourgeois of institutions, in which I've been happily and successfully engaged for a decade now) to spend some portion of every week cuddling on the couch to a DVD (whether it's one of my violent independent horror flicks, an obscure proto-surrealist European oddity from the '20s, or the first season of Scrubs).

In The Steppenwolf, after noting that the disaffected bohemian is, generally, a middle-class phenomenon itself, Hesse goes on to suggest that the bourgeoisie survives solely because of the steppenwolves, that the innovations of the middle-class's most disaffected members allow the system against which they ostensibly rebel to thrive. It does seem to me that a system allergic to the uncivilized appetite for deviance and chaos would need an occasional injection of both to avoid death-by-stasis, that the old mammalian impulses to destroy and dominate help give civilization a needed kick in the ass now and again. But I also think it works both ways: without some definition of civility, we'd never need to invent a clever subversion of such base impulses into aesthetics, theory, kink and/or technology. Without the education our (modest) affluence has bought us, we'd never have become too smart for our own good (or anyone else's), never have so exhausted the mainstream canon as to become disenchanted with it, never have experienced privelige to enough of a degree to become mistrustful of it.

That doesn't mean there aren't still conflicts to deal with. While I think that the far left has been facile in its understanding of sweatshop economics--these jobs are often the only alternative some third world workers have to trying to grow crops in fucking sand--I'd certainly love to know that the dapper herringbone khakis I'm wearing were made by people with health insurance, and that my punk-meets-preppy-with-a-dash-of-hippie aesthetic relied more on creative use of homemade and second-hand items than on any prefab, mass-produced fashion mandate. I'll always want more, and always wish I could do with less. I wish civilization hadn't made cars, phones, and computers necessities instead of luxuries. I'm always shaken by the paradox that I could probably simplify my life if I only had more money right now to pay of my debts, invest in a home infrastructure that allowed me to do more with less--by a sewing machine, a giant spice-rack, a handful of strong, well-made, universally applicable clothing items to replace my vast patchwork of half-formed, invariably "settled-for" approximations of what I need, a vehicle or two. I'm always amused that the people exhorting us to shop with the worker in mind, abandoning price as our primary consideration, are usually a little higher on the economic food chain than the rest of us, and that "voluntary simplicity" so often seems to be by-product of affluence. And I may never fully reconcile myself with the frustrations of the art world, the ways that the mainstream seems to stifle innovation, the way that the underground allows deceptive bursts of success that all other underground artists will attempt in vain to replicate.

But in the end, while I'm not likely to stop using "bourgeois" as a shorthand for everything prosaic and yawnworthy, I should remember that I'm also implicating myself with that word . . . and that maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Stine said...

Gustave Flaubert once said that an artist should try to live the quiet, ordered life of the bourgeois individual, that he may be violent and original in his art; I'd proudly bear the banner of that idea were I actually creating any art at the moment.

- My question is, why does the fact that you aren't presently creating what you see as art, negate the fact that you have worn this banner many times before in the art you've created in the past. Is there a statute of limitations on wearing pithy banners of French metrosexuals(he may not be, but with that name I can't help myself)? Is this banner, these ideas of creating art only a mere fix, and when they go away does your need for them overwhelm you as much as a gut wrenching thirst a heroin addict feels for his next high?

but if I'm being honest, the big problem with my pursuits is that I'm at loathe to sell out on the one hand, while finding it too tiring to study, take classes, work full-time and make art, particularly since I find it wholly necessary for my marriage (that most bourgeois of institutions, in which I've been happily and successfully engaged for a decade now) to spend some portion of every week cuddling on the couch to a DVD (whether it's one of my violent independent horror flicks, an obscure proto-surrealist European oddity from the '20s, or the first season of Scrubs).

- By all means know that I completely appreciate the focus you place on our couch cuddle time, but the only phrase that came to my mind reading this paragraph was "fucking Gemini". I love you, and it must be so tiring.

4:38 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

My question is, why does the fact that you aren't presently creating what you see as art, negate the fact that you have worn this banner many times before in the art you've created in the past.

Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? They say you're only as good as whatever you're doing right now, but . . . I could see a benefit in living an ordered life so that you may violent and original in your thought, so there's still value in accepting one's "bourgeois" nature while harboring and nursing subversive rhetoric and aesthetic theory.

Is this banner, these ideas of creating art only a mere fix, and when they go away does your need for them overwhelm you as much as a gut wrenching thirst a heroin addict feels for his next high?

Um . . . what? I think the answer is yes, but I don't quite understand the question. The art itself is something of a fix that presents a thirst once it's absent, but I don't think one ever stops seeing as an artist.

By all means know that I completely appreciate the focus you place on our couch cuddle time, but the only phrase that came to my mind reading this paragraph was "fucking Gemini". I love you, and it must be so tiring.

I think what I was getting at is that the commercial artist sacrifices the right to be "violent and original" in order to be able to pursue art while engaging in a work week comparable to what normal people work; actually maintaining an aesthetic ethic almost invariably requires living a double life. The fringe artist lives like a superhero; but only the rarest of beings doesn't eventually butt up against the reality that we AREN'T endowed with the superhuman capabilities we seem to require to function in that capacity.

4:59 PM  
Blogger the beige one said...

brilliantly written...I'd been struggling with my own entry along these lines, titled "Vox Populii," which, along with a couple of other reviews, sits in draft mode on the computer. (I may end up using this as inspiration and diving board.)

5:53 PM  
Blogger Stine said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:43 PM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

Live the uncollapsable paradox, my friend. Choices are for suckers - I want both, bake my snarky cake and eat it, too. It's a good thing.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

The thing is, at some point in our lives we reach the age (not always the same in numeric time) where even the most radical amongst us looks around and mutters half-dispairingly, "Damnit! Is it really so WRONG to want an occasional nice pair of pants NOT purchased from a garage sale or charity store?" The answer is, of course, "no."

Fighting the "good fight", however you define that, is a physically and emotionally grueling experience, especially in the face of the incessant social pressures to conform to the mainstream, and there just aren't that many of us who have the stamina to keep it up for decades and decades. It's hard work, necessary work, yes, but still hard, and most of us are going to backslide to a certain extent over time.

So, while critical self-examination is all well-and-good, you also have to contextualize your situation: if you compare your current socio-political/economic circumstances with that of most of your age peers, you'll probably find that you still are maintaining a more radical lifestyle than about 80% of them, which is not so bad on the scale of things.

11:42 AM  
Blogger amandak said...

The real question is...

do the 'wonder trousers' make your ass look good?

'Cause, seriously, who cares where they're from if the ass is happy.

;)

12:15 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Christopher: Well said . . . and/but . . . Radicalism is, itself, already a relative judgment. If you seek what is radical and shun what is bourgeois, then you're still defining yourself in relation to other things, which means you're still a slave. If, on the other hand, you seek what you enjoy, or what strikes you intuitively as being useful, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and THEN measure its radicalism as a matter of providing context, you'll have a more honest relationship with those choices (I think).

In other words, while it may be TRUE that I'm more radical than 80% of the people in my age bracket, it's not necessarily important (though it's admittedly kind of nice to think about). As JJ once pointed out, the true non-conformist does what he wants, even if it's what everyone else is doing.

Amanda - Yeah, my ass looks pretty good in the pants, though they're not particularly "snug" in that region. My clothes still have to pass the kung-fu test (if I can't do kung-fu in my pants, they're too tight/stiff/restrictive . . . and not in a good way, on any count, just so we're clear).

12:55 PM  
Blogger ~A~ said...

I think that you need a cookie and a sewing machine.

Sorry, I'm not feeling very deep and metaphoric at the moment but cookies and a sewing machine make the world less blah.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Jacques Roux said...

I agree, brilliantly stated. And a topic/consideration I've struggled with a great deal in the past, particularly the past three years. Unfortunately, my thoughts and observations are not to terribly divergent from those presented in your essay. In fact, I have finally reconciled myself to that fact that I can NOT have my cake and eat it too. No, I've simply changed the flavor of the cake, and hopefully will be satisfied with the taste once I'm done baking it. Because the fluffy, tasty pastry of art, for art's sake first, and world change second, was just to tough of a recipe for me to pull of, in light of my conflicting bourgeois "needs".

Enjoy the culottes

3:30 PM  
Blogger Tessa said...

A probably way-too-popular book for your rebellious ways. But intriguing, and sheds some light on sweatshops as well as hope for the earth ... "The End of Poverty - Economic Possibilities for our Time" by Jeffrey D. Sachs. If you're interested, I can lend you my copy.

10:24 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Hee, hee. My rebellious ways, indeed.

Yeah, I'll have to check that book out. Of course, with all the books I need to check out, I'd need to go, like, a YEAR without watching any movies (and THAT's not likely). Still, I've wanted, for some time, to figure out what exactly my place is the economony at large (local, national, global), so your recommendation may actually be a good place to start.

10:46 AM  

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