Jonathan Larson had a bathtub in his kitchen. Before the inception of his masterpiece, "Rent," and his subsequent death, Larson lived what one might consider a typical New York life. He worked at a small stand-alone diner by day and penned rock-musical fantasies by night, sharing his music with a group of nuclear friends and waiting for his first big break. These same friends speak candidly in the documentary, "No Day But Today," recalling times when they barely had a bite to eat between them, the true exemplar of artistry in 1980's New York. And all the while, as they laughed and cried in the tiny confines of Larson's downtown apartment, there was a bathtub in the kitchen.
Now, I've done my fair share of urban living and, even with the inflation in today's increasingly alarming housing market, my friends and I have been able to rent apartments with running water and all of those other charming new-fangled amenities on waitress pay. I am, of course, not accusing Jonathan Larson of being some sort of failed apartment hunter, or worse, a liar. Dude had a bathtub in his kitchen and wrote the first rock musical. His memory deserves a break. But, assuming of course that Larson was able to get by on his meager wages from the SoHo diner where he worked, why would he choose such dire conditions? Were his roommates struggling with their share? Did he stoop well below his means to accommodate other artists who found themselves unable to afford running water and needed a floor to crash on?
These answers and more can be found in, "No Day But Today," which I admit to not having watched since I was 17. This article isn't meant to be a factual retelling of Larson's life (however interesting it is. Seriously, go watch the documentary.) But Jonathan Larson's experience as an artist in the ever delightful Big Apple varies so greatly from my own that I've recently found myself second-guessing my dedication to all of this artsy-fartsy hullabaloo. If I'm not suffering, am I really an artist?
I certainly don't suffer. I live in a gorgeous Washington Heights apartment with a breakfast nook overlooking a courtyard. My college friends and I toast our artistic successes in Lower East Side bars and brunch like Marie Antoinette in Upper West Side eateries. We walk the dogs of elite businessmen in Central Park and babysit the forgotten children of on-air reporters. Not a week goes by that social media fails to tell me of someone getting cast in a new production of "Little Shop," or going on-board an international cruise ship to croon the songs of Elton John to lei-wearing vacationers. We go home at Christmas and regale our families with hilarious stories of homeless New Yorkers breakdancing in the subway and tell them that Rockefeller Center is breathtaking this time of year, and have they seen our new Pinterest board of DIY lipstick ideas? Maybe I'm unintentionally playing into the ever-popular sentiments of the "millennials are so fucking spoiled and have never had to work a day in their life" crowd, but my question remains: what's happened to the "starving artist?"
Before I wax poetic on how spoiled we all are, a history lesson:
The idea of the "starving artist" is often credited to Henri Murger, a Romantic French writer who most famously wrote, "Scenes de la Vie Boheme," the basis for the opera "La Boheme," and, by extension, Larson's iconic musical, "Rent." SDLVB isn't so much a novel as it is a collection of loosely related scenes starring the "water drinkers," Murger's poor, artistic friends. Murger and the Water Drinkers lived in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840's and created a whole slew of important works that should be read by any and all at some point in their lives, but their emulation of the "bohemian lifestyle" is what we're really interested in. To be "Bohemian" is to live life solely in pursuit of beauty and art, which are often considered to be one and the same, and to allow oneself to be shackled by nothing. Work, family, and even sometimes love should not come between the true Bohemian and his "piece de resistance." This idea of free-floating began with Romani gypsies, many of whom emigrated largely from Bohemia to Western Europe earlier in the 1800's.
Now we're getting into a convoluted portion of history that I am neither qualified to nor interested in reporting. What, you wanted some sort of history lesson? Who said history lesson? Me? Shut up.
The idea of being eternally disconnected is almost an impossible concept for someone in this day and age to grasp. Not only are we connected, but modern-day earthlings are essentially plugged in and milked from every direction on an hourly basis, lest they fall behind the times. Between email, text message, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and all of the other loathsome social media platforms, any one person can be reached by more than six different mediums at any given time. (I mean, not Google Plus. Come on. Google Plus is a joke. Get your head out of your ass, Sundar Pichai.) If, God forbid, one doesn't see an email within thirty minutes of it's delivery or get Susie's latest "Floopy just took her first steps" video before one's mother does, one could miss out on an opportunity, or have to listen to one's mother try to recount Floopy's first steps over the phone. We live in a fast paced world. One doesn't theoretically have time to be missing opportunities or spend an hour on the phone with one's mother. By not checking one's phone every five minutes, one could be the last to know. One could be left behind. One could be fucked.
This modern day thought of "being fucked," is possibly the least Bohemian idea in the history of ideas (except for Capitalism; they hate that guy.) Being Bohemian brings with it a sort of maudlin acceptance of your fate, and aren't the most macabre moments in your life some of the most beautiful?
No. Of course they're not. Think back to the last terrible thing that happened to you and then try to explain your thought process at the time of this awful event. Were you strangely touched by the sadness of it? Swept away by it's grotesque stench? Of course you weren't, because it sucked. Modern day artists are less about the suckage and more about the practical, which has lent itself to a whole new artistic movement that we like to call "staying alive."
Millenial artists are aggressive about their art. In 1840's France, Murger and his friends thought that sleeping in an attic and eating a piece of cheese once every three days stripped life of its complexities and offered up an enlightenment akin to the idea of nirvana. They didn't bother keeping day jobs because their art was their only concern. So what if they weren't making a living wage? The baker would toss them a loaf of bread out of respect for their art, and with the barter system somewhat still in place, who needed doubloons? I'm clearly not an expert on seventeenth century currency, but you get my drift.
Artists today have a much more pressing market to contend with than Murger and his squad. Maybe you just finished a gorgeous oil painting, but Floopy just walked up to a chair in Susie's house and slathered it with ketchup, and now it's selling online for $12,500 under the title of "Genius Baby Chair Art." The internet has created a vacuous space full of faux-hipsters and coat-tail riders just ready and waiting to pounce on the newest artistic trend. And chances are that their recreations are half the price of your original.
Now, I know that we're entering a famously grey area: profit. Our community is constantly asking itself if it's okay to make money from something we love doing. If you sell your art, does that alter its integrity? "Come on, real art isn't about the money you make with it. it's about the journey and what you discover about yourself and your surroundings. Go read my blog. Joan Didion changed my life. The New Pornographers wrote Twin Cinema about me. Here's a mocha-choka-latte-yay-ya from the organic coffee shop near my loft."
All comedic self-reflection aside, the point is well-made: millenial artists are constantly tiptoeing across the tight rope we've stretched between Bohemia and Wall Street. To live in 2016 is to live expensively and no amount of budgeting on your Mint app can save you from the day the hammer comes down. Making art is expensive. Seeing art is expensive. Living is expensive. And thanks in large part to all of these new, pesky New York Housing laws, people can't just live naked in attics with a quill and a block of welfare cheese anymore. New Yorkers must now have running water and heat at the very least, and some sources even say that people should be clothed and fed. How spoiled are we? Millennials, am I right?
The "starving artist" archetype has been buried beneath the unmovable debris of the collapsed housing market and no amount of digging can save us from the truth: art is no longer some sort of experience than just happens to us. Art is something that we have to actively seek. Art is something that we throw at people, demanding that they catch it. Art is one of the only things in this expensive wasteland that isn't a decrepit, hateful, pile of shit, and if we have to work our fingers to the bone in some Midtown diner just to afford a drum to bang on, we have to do that. Achieving livability doesn't weaken our art. It strengthens it. And in a land where money talks and bullshit walks, we find ourselves fighting against the rising tide of industry. Industry is a very loud pursuit and a single singer can not be heard above it, but I firmly believe that a choir can. Singers who work day jobs to afford a decent apartment don't make any less of a choir when they stand in a room, and I firmly believe that If we start adding brush strokes to the cacophony, shutter clicks, the balls of feet on hardwood floors, the moan of an oboe, the gunshot of a snare, that we will be heard. And regardless of monetary value, isn't that the point of art? To be heard? To be seen? To happen at all?
So yeah, I don't have a bathtub in my kitchen. I have a bathtub in my bathroom, because that's where the bathtub goes. I like things to be in a practical, usable order so that I can make my art. And Henri Murger would probably not understand my life or the lives of my friends, but art is nothing if not a living breathing thing. It changes, it morphs, it grows, and with a little bit of old-fashioned Millenial pushing, it happens.
I'm not a starving artist. But whether or not the toll is paid in dollars, cheese, or tears, Jonathan Larson, Henri Murger, and the modern community have something very important in common: to achieve true artistry, everyone has to pay. And that's how art happens.