Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Lucian Freud’s painting merits attention, but his artistic reputation has as much to do with his “bohemian mystique” as with his canvases. So writes Maureen Mullarkey, an exacting observer of contemporary art and diagnostician of its many self-deceptions, in her review of Martin Gaylord’s Man with a Blue Scarf , an as-experienced-by account of the personality and work of Sigmund Freud’s grandson.

For many, Freud’s youthful adventures with criminals and other maladjusted misfits give his artistic vision a special authenticity. His experiences “on the margins” create a “transgressive imagination.” Or so we can easily imagine a contemporary professor”or a noted critic or a major journalist”saying.

The bohemian mystique goes back at least as far as Rousseau, who in many ways invented the transgressive role, and whose clarity about himself sheds light on the lasting appeal of the bohemian ideal.

Rousseau left Geneva as an adolescent, bounced around Italy. A free-thinking woman, Madame de Warens with unorthodox views took him under her wing as a young man, providing Rousseau with an education that after a few years became sensual when he became her lover. As an adult, he established a long-term arrangement with Thérèse Levasseur, a seamstress who served as his servant, lover, and mother of many children, all of whom he turned over to foundling hospitals (which were horrible places for children). Later in life he was fond of wearing bizarre costumes that made him look like an American Indian. In short: unconventional.

Rousseau’s eccentric trajectory is not in itself all that interesting. However, he captured the European imagination because he theorized his life justified his life with a theory. His intellectual reputation was made with the publication in 1750 of the “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” an essay arguing that social and intellectual progress corrupted mankind. He advanced versions of this thesis about the malign influence of culture throughout his many influential works.

According to Rousseau, society is an enemy of the authentic life. Therefore, transgression functions as a fitting weapon in the battle against conformity, and the person at odds with social conventions is a shaman of sorts, a prophet of true humanity who liberates us by revealing to us truths repressed by the artificiality of culture.

Rousseau played his bohemian role well. He maintained an attitude of indifference to social norms, relishing his singularity, proud of his achieved independence. In his Confessions , for example, he promises to tell the unvarnished truth about his life. “Whenever the last trumpet shall sound,” he writes at the outset, “I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.”

In Rousseau’s mind, this act of self-exposure has a purifying effect. As he writes in a challenge to God himself: “Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.”

Here, I think, we approach deepest appeal of the bohemian mystique. Because Rousseau shamelessly reveals his sometimes “vile and despicable” actions, he shows himself to be just that: shame-less, a person free from psychological bondage to the oppressive and corrupting judgments of others. This tell-all freedom functions as a peculiarly modern form of innocence.

Or at least it functions as a gambit to gain the moral authority of innocence, which involves invulnerability to judgment”and to do so without having to be innocent. If I write a memoir that recounts my romances with transgression in the spirit of proud announcement rather than regret, I’m demonstrating my psychological independence from social norms. I’m outwitting the judgments of others by defiantly announcing my own failures.

The difference between St. Augustine’s Confessions and those penned by Rousseau is telling. St. Augustine tells of his transgressions, but he does so in the language of repentance. By contrast, Rousseau simply says, “I did these things, and this is who I am.” The effect is to challenge his readers: who are you to judge me?

Ordinary folks are bourgeois, and few of us go in for full public disclosure. But most of us have participated in the bohemian mystique to one degree or another. I remember my college years. My friends and I often seemed engage in verbal competitions to recount our adventures with drugs, drinking, and skirt chasing.

Others have their little moments of Rousseauian non-conformity. Some relish arriving at an office not wearing a suit and tie, or wearing a suit and tie with sneakers. Others enjoy cultivating a counter-cultural image, by swearing in front of people who don’t swear or watching NC-17 movies. The psychological effect: our proud embrace of transgression gives us a margin of psychological freedom from social norms.

In these and countless other ways the bohemian mystique exercises its charm, allowing those who live fairly conventional and bourgeois lives to say a small, silent, inner “No!” to the “No” of culture. We don’t dress up in odd costumes, and we’re certainly not true bohemians who live on the margins of our prosperous society, but we tend to accept Rousseau’s basic claim: To accept the authority of culture and to internalize its principles and standards of behavior betrays our true selves.

To prevent this treason, we are attracted to symbolic moments of transgression. This helps explain the long-lasting spirit of revolution that has characterized modern art, literature, and architecture, which continues to be encouraged by the critic’s approval.

Few these days take these symbolic moments seriously as political gestures, but the spirit remains culturally important. As Maureen Mullarkey points out, Lucien Freud’s artistic project rejects the abstractions of modern art, and in that sense has a traditional rather than progressive aesthetic dimension. All the more telling, therefore, is Martin Gaylord’s determination to recount Freud’s bohemian credentials. We want our artists to be high priests of transgression.

Rousseau died more than two hundred years ago, but his vision remains remarkably contemporary. It is now difficult to find someone not romanced by the idea that authentic existence requires an adversarial stance toward the status quo . The fact that we rarely achieve this in our own lives”indeed, most people are mostly conventional”does not disprove the dominating power of the bohemian mystique.

Like penitent souls approaching the high altar, we pay homage to transgression when we worship the image of the artist as a bohemian hero.

R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis .

R.R. Reno’s previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.


Maureen Mullarkey’s review of Man With a Blue Scarf , Sitting Pretty .
Her weblog Studio Matters
R.R. Reno’s review of Philip Rieff’s Life Among the Deathworks , The End of Criticism .
His review of that writer’s last book, Philip Rieff’s Charisma .
His reflection on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road , The End of the Road (this is behind the paywall).
Algis Valiunas’ analysis of the Abstract Impressionists’ “grand conception of the artist’s spiritual capacity and visionary role,” Spirit in the Abstract (also behind the paywall).

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles