BOHEMIA: An Introduction to Gen-Z’s Identity Crisis

Bohemia no longer represents what it used to; it’s merely a reflection of what it used to be and has assumed a new identity.

By Josh Ilano

Scroll through an Instagram filter list or the Target wishlist of any prospective college freshman—at least once you’ll see the phrase “Bohemian.” At first glance it seems like another annoying millennial co-opted neologism like “cheugy,” but it’s much more than that. Bohemia and its commodified “BoHo” aesthetics have penetrated the identity zeitgeist in ways that sever its head. 

As a fellow Zoomer, I’ve observed that we are attracted to two separate aesthetics in academia: the Metropolitan and the College Town. Either the calm, small town whose prosperity is defined by its proximity to said college [think CSU, Wyoming State, BYU] and then the opposite, the college whose proximity to its city is where the appeal lies [think DePaul, USC, NYU]. For the most part, college has turned into a monolith of identity. It could be for prestige or for research, but what fascinates me is this phenomenon with colleges and their attraction towards Bohemianism. 

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To clarify, beyond the Queen anthem, “A Bohemian is simply an artist or “littérateur” [intellectual] who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art” [1]. Think Vincent Van-Gogh with a canvas  strapped to his back or Ernest Hemingway in some Parisian night-club. It’s a counterculture movement seceding from the qualms of modern society, and with any counter culture we have the gatekeepers of said culture. It’s when members of a culture restrict the consumption of their object of affection by the people in the “out-group”— hence, gatekeeping. I attribute society’s apologia to gatekeeping as a defense mechanism deployed to the underbelly of modern markets. Our modern consumerist culture has turned Bohemian culture into a commodity. Let me repeat that—we’ve turned a culture into a commodity. Bohemians like Van-Gogh have been ultra-romanticized in their ventures that we’ve created an environment that fosters artistic dishonesty (i.e., Phoebe Buffay from the sitcom Friends). A character that is able to rent a New York apartment, with a hundred-thousand dollar appraisal, off of a masseuse’s salary. The only reason we attribute this character to Bohemia is specifically because of her personality; we’ve conflated personality with culture.  We can use a character like this to compare to real-life bohemians like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat whose apartment reflects the authentic fringe to bohemia. It’s Home Goods compared to Goodwill; it’s Whole Foods compared to Trader Joe’s. While Buffay adheres to the lines in which NBC/Universal has decided appropriate, it dilutes the image in totality. Basquiat’s apartment was by necessity, but Buffay’s was for aesthetic. 

Many economic philosophers and theorists have this concept of commodity: that soon all aspects of life, culture, and even art will enter the space of commerce. This very idea carries over to Bohemia. With any fringe culture it’s only a matter of time until we cherry-pick aspects of the subculture to create a bite-sized version of it. Like vinyl to the audiophile or the chemex to the coffee aficionado, social media calls out to the content consumer that you, too, can participate, all you need is the right loose-knit, fat-thread afghan on your blanket ladder. However, this commodified Bohemia differs from the atypical artist. I’m talking about the simplified “Boho Aesthetic” or what I call “Pinterest Bohemia.” The adulterated jewelry accounts and filters. It’s an aesthetic obsessed with eclecticism, but, if anything, it’s eclecticism with a lack of follow through. “Boho” is putting a tie on tarot.  

Things like macrame, self-love quotes in Helvetica, hyper-specific regulations to coffee, VSCO film, or Yerbamate. Objects and activities that are just atypical enough to feel unique but not enough to stick out like a sore thumb. This is the plastic cover that collegiate begging panders to. It’s a simple 1-2-3 of exposed brick, lattes, and Edison bulbs that plagues Millennial Hipsters already; it has just been repackaged for the Zoomer. We’ve turned a culture of art into variables, in which I’ve derived an equation. 

A Kitschy Living Situation + A Niche Obsession (that is not actually niche) = Pinterest Bohemia

Examples Include:  Apartment Lofts + A24 

Van/Bus Life + The Arctic Monkeys 

Nomadic Couch Surfing + Astrology 

This dialectic has made me declare that regardless of rural or metropolitan college aspirations, they will pander the same exact way, they just differ in aesthetic form. This makes sense as perhaps college is the greatest microcosm of Bohemia. Thousands of young people following their dreams, either first broke or completely reliant on parental support. It’s the breeding ground for this culture to thrive, so we are marketed it—marketed a simplified version to decorate our dorms with or idolize in films like Before Sunrise. We rely on vaguely European objects and staples as a fastpass towards originality. 

But what does this say about the consumer? How does this insatiable consumption of these commodities expose our deepest desires?  

Gen Z is in the midst of an identity crisis: a crisis in individuality. Social media has given an entire generation the option to be more than transparent, to be known. We all walk the line between fitting the trendy social norm and finding something unique to define ourselves—and that line is razor-thin. It’s the same reason the binary of the Breakfast Club social archetypes have carried in our culture since the ‘80s regardless of their lacking prevalence. I hypothesize this is why the idea of Bohemia has been on the rise since the late 1800s. It’s college students seeing Hemingway and Van-Gogh and trying to emulate their lives because they interpolate their lives into the ultimate signifier of success. That if we subscribe to this BoHo culture we can be as prominent as they were. 

Since Van-Gogh, the disparity of what has been considered “Bohemia” has deviated so remarkably it touches bastardization. The entire idea of democratizing and commodifying eclecticism or counter-culture in general is antithetical to its thesis. The second you try to enter it into the mainstream it becomes null. Pinterest Bohemia has entered what postmodernists call the hyperreal. In layman’s terms, Bohemia no longer represents what it used to; it’s merely a reflection of what it used to be and has assumed a new identity. The identity which stemmed from cultural revolution has now assimilated into what BoHo is! 

This doesn’t mean that Zoomers or Bohemia have lost all identity. Bohemia will continue to exist, just in different forms of Punk or Nomadic culture, and Zoomers will move on from this just as we did with Musically or Vine. Through this mishmash of culture is how we are able to create movements that linearly transcend the ones before it. It’s the beauty of progressivism. Through this mode of commodity and hyper-individualism we can theorize and search for this new revolution.  Welcome to Gen-Z’s Identity crisis. 

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