Wealth, materialism and spirituality

I am half-way through the reading of Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, and he traces the Bourgeois Boheme (aka bobo) lifestyle back to both the French “bohemian” rejection of bourgeois values in the nineteenth century as well as the American transcendentalist movement of Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. Presumably the intellectual heirs of that movement are the so-called post-materialistic philosophers, who have some influence on the bobo lifestyle.

So we have to figure out what is so despicable about the bourgeois ideal of competing, thriving, and accumulating wealth, and what makes the bohemian lifestyle desirable and praiseworthy. An immediate, naïve answer is that it is cool to be a rebel, even without a cause, but one has to go beyond such adolescent posturing.

Many would concur with Brooks that the original sin of the bourgeoisie against which the bohemians, the transcendentalists, the dandies, and the modern bobos react is its materialism. This brings forward three questions. In what sense is the bourgeoisie materialistic? Why is such materialism contemptible? And in what sense is the attitude of the bohemian crowd a deviation from materialism?

So what makes the traditional bourgeoisie materialistic? This is supposedly because of their excess taste for wealth and social status. If we consider the meaning of those words, we end up with a paradox. For neither wealth nor social status are material things. They are abstractions. It is true that wealth buys you material things, like a yacht or a plane, but the bourgeoisie against which the bohemians were rebelling was also noted for their relatively austere lifestyle. They might have impressive mansions, but while a mansion is a material object what really matters here is the impression. Therefore, we may want to keep in mind that materialism might not be the right word to qualify those bourgeois values. Another dimension that is discussed by Brooks is the fascination of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie for new technologies (railroads, electricity, and so forth), that the bohemians rejected as vulgar and dehumanizing. Again, what is remarkable about new technologies is that they witness human capacity to get rid of the constraints imposed upon us by our material condition, such as gravity. Therefore, fascination for technology hardly qualifies as materialism.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the bohemians reject such lifestyle because they deem it superficial and soulless. They of course have the right to conduct their life as they wish, but there seems to be a presumption that their lives are somewhat more worthy than those of the bourgeois, according to some reasonably accepted scale of values. So what is above technology, wealth, and social status in such a scale of values? Two common buzzwords are “Art” and “Spirituality”.

Spirituality is as elusive a concept as materialism. The origin of the word is religious; spirituality has to do with some invisible world, maybe the inner world, or the outer world. But, surely, spirituality cannot be defined as the absence of something. Not having wealth, not having a high social status, not being invited to cocktail parties, does not make you more spiritual. It can at best make you nihilistic, which does not qualify as spirituality. The claim by bohemians that they forsake a career in business to focus on their spirituality should therefore be evaluated upon the merits of their actions.

We can observe that most bohemians tend to live pretty secular lives, and in many cases are atheists. They are no Ignatius of Loyola, no Teresa of Avila. The French impressionists, for example, are a cliché of bohemian lifestyle. And their paintings were depicting trivial scenes, quite unlike the despised pompiers who were continuing to produce historical and religious paintings. A cornerstone of the bohemian lifestyle is enjoying daily pleasures without restraint, such as nice wine, dinner parties with friends, dancing in a guinguette, and casual sex. All of this seems pretty materialistic to me. More materialistic, in fact, than the life of an uptight WASP industrialist of the early twentieth century, simply because it resembles more the life of animals. In the 1920s, the American “lost generation” replicated the bohemian lifestyle in Paris and elsewhere, and by all accounts this was quite down to earth and unspiritual. In his novels, Hemingway frequently insists on details such as food, wine, and the like, to the point of having been accused of writing tourist guides. Rejecting the corset of bourgeois conventions may make you more relaxed and more “authentic”, but does not qualify as spirituality. What is going on here, is a false belief that if an individual is subject to less tight social control, he will be freer to express himself, and he will naturally express spirituality, as though humans in wilderness were ontologically more spiritual than civilized beings. Over and over again, we observe instead that this reduced level of self-restraint promotes animal instincts, not spirituality. Indeed, wilderness is a pretty materialistic environment, because survival is the main concern.

How about “art”? Here the implicit view is that the old style uptight bourgeois were incapable of appreciating art, stuck that they were in their vulgar and petty pursuits. In contrast, the bohemians, having freed themselves from material constraints, could fully enjoy the beauty of art, and of course many were artists themselves. It is true that the artists can afford the bohemian lifestyle, because their activity is not sensitive to organized interaction with other people.  It would be a disaster if the train driver, the hospital director, the pizza deliverer, the soldier, became bohemians. But the artist is much less bound by schedules and the need to cooperate. That being said, throughout the ages artists were not typically bohemian: think of Rubens, Bach or Tolstoi. Furthermore, just being a bohemian does not make you an artist. At best you are just mimicking some artists, and this hardly qualifies for a badge of moral or aesthetic superiority. Furthermore, the aesthetics are now self-referential. In the past, an artist was in fact an admirably skillful craftsman. The romantics came and popularized the view that an artist is some genious; art was no longer about beauty or skills, but about innovation. The impressionists are considered as superior to the pompiers, not because they are better painters, nor because their paintings are more beautiful, but because they invested a new way of painting. This avant-gardiste posture culminated of course with the Dada movement and Duchamp’s hanging of toilet bowls on exhibition walls. The end result is that there are no longer accepted criteria to define what art is. If anything, it seems that usefulness (a car design does not qualify as art) and popularity (Sinatra is less highly regarded than Duchamp) are at best irrelevant, as is beauty of course. Yet, as there are many things left that are new, uninteresting and useless, it would be suicidal if they were all considered as art. So only a subset of those artefacts qualify as art: those that are coopted by the self-appointed bohemian elite. An additional irony is that the reason why, historically, art is highly regarded, is because of its spiritual dimension. The Sixtine Chapel elicits emotions that may help connect the individual with some invisible, superior, truth. This can hardly be said of most of the Duchamp inspired contemporary art that is valued by hipsters and bohemians. Nothing is more materialistic than a toilet bowl. While the bohemian lifestyle may be more friendly to art, what passes for art nowadays has no external validity and has been stripped of any spirituality. There is therefore no reason to consider it more highly than any other human activity, such as a football match, a good dinner, or cleaning the (now mythical) toilet bowl.

We conclude that the claim of bohemians to moral and aesthetic superiority is largely bogus. The world they are promoting is in fact more materialistic than that of the despised bourgeois industrialists.

PS – I would speculate that the ideas above bear some relationship to Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, which I still have to read.