Art is a symptom of the way we live our lives. As the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek noted, art is also the panacea for preventing the symptom from becoming a full blown illness.[i] At the same time it produces a wonderful array of ideas, objects and possibilities.
In order to better understand the historical adaptations of culture and taste we need to turn to the works of Immanuel Kant [1724-1804]. It was Kant who gained the most influence in determining style because he linked it to reason and judgement. Plato, Hume and Kant believed that aesthetics had to portray something pure and beautiful, which led to a lengthy inquiry that was designed to find the ‘essence’ of beauty, otherwise referred to as, the ontology of aesthetics. [ii] In Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique and Judgement  aesthetics were determined in relation to the pleasure people acquired from objects and/or events and this was viewed through the ideal of what appeared exquisite and pleasing to the eye, whereby pleasure and beauty where interchangeable and one could not exist without the other.
Kant’s idea of essence and beauty remained steadfast until the beginning of modernity in the 19th century. Social relations also began to change at this time. The 19th century was the period in which the new sociological and psychological sciences were born. Researchers made attempts to understand the social relations that gave rise to culture and taste in order that undesirable traits might be altered. The working class culture was of particular interest to academics because the working class were the biggest threat to the still young and fragile capitalist class. The European Enlightenment was well established, but it was not without contest. The already bitter divide between the labouring class and the landed gentry was to be mediated by the bourgeoisie.
The whole concept of a class was encapsulated in a pyramid of good and bad taste that rendered Kant’s dictate that pleasure and beauty must coexist highly problematic. The middle class bridged the gap between the very rich and the very poor and this led to ongoing tensions. The working class who were largely uneducated and perceived as uncouth were said to be in need of constant constraints. Small misdemeanours could land someone in jail or in many cases a mental asylum. However, the authoritarian state was no solution to keeping people in line because the lower classes were needed as labour in Europe’s bourgeoning manufacturing economies.
The church stepped in with reforms aimed at taming the spirit of the working classes, which in turn deprived them of their culture. The church provided a visual learning experience, which contained metaphysical and spiritual interpretations of the canons and this contributed to a shift in the values and tastes towards more contemporary forms of aesthetics. As time progressed this change in taste was set in place by growing trends in consumerism. It also led many gifted people into a style that was known as Bohemianism.
Bohemians were a diverse group that rejected the bourgeois values. They deplored the ownership of private property and demonstrated this by not having any permanent abode or affiliations with the acquisition of material wealth. They rejected the strict moral codes preferring to live their lives in freedom. This often led to drug and alcohol use and open sexual relationships. They refused to tie wealth to the pursuit of art and literature, art had to exist for art’s sake, it needed to be pursued regardless of whether it generated income, which generally meant the Bohemians were poor and forced to live on their wits for the sake of art and the contentment it brought with it. Bohemian groups consisted of writers, artists, political and philosopher thinkers as well as intellectuals; people who had much to give a society so divided across class lines.
[i] Slavoj Zizek  Art as Symptom in the Sublime Object of Ideology.
[ii] Immanuel Kant  Ontology of aesthetics in Critique of Pure Reason.
Picture: Octave Tassaert’s The Studio, painted in 1845, when the bohemian began in Paris.