Nicholson’s Principles of Bohemianism

It’s ten days before Christmas, which means lots of UUs have been complaining about the holiday shopping season for more than a month now. But are we really opposed to consumerism,or do we just value other purchases? It’s a fundamental test to our indignation at all the malls and mall Santas we’ve been dealing with since October.

Here are Virginia Nicholson’s criteria for home decorating, which I would describe as the real definition of “anti-consumerism” among UUs today:

“I do not value what money can buy.

If I choose decorations and colours, it is for their beauty, not because they flatter my social status.

My environment reflects the life I’ve led, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve loved.

I’m not afraid of being thought tasteless, because I make my own taste.”  (Nicholson, Virginia,AMong the Boehmians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939, New York: William Morrow, 2002 , p. 103)

What this list lays bare is that Bohemianism is not anti-consumerism, but a different kind of shopping, which can be seen in her chapter topics.  When Bohemians get money, they buy tools for art or writing. Or they buy art and books. They travel and bring back locally-authentic souvenirs. They commission shoes or hats that keep them comfortable, and which they then wear to the point of disintegration.

There is a point of intersection on this list, which is, “My environment reflects the life I’ve led, the places I’ve visited and the people I’ve loved.”  Everyone’s story is authentic to them, especially in what they choose to display at home or wear in public.

What UUs have got to accept is that not everything bought in a mall or box store reflects a capitulation to advertising or peer pressure. Nowadays even at memorial services I see folks dressed in personally expressive outfits, often with a splash of color or even pure white. I love the vivid affirmation of individualism and of eternal joy, both hallmarks of our theologies. And I’ve had to get used to the Christmas Eve fancy dress outfits at the large mainline church near my parents’ home — although I draw the line at the woman who collected the offering in backless black velvet.  Still, these folks are dressed in their best to show that welcoming Jesus is the center of their faith life, and who can object to that? And what about those Easter outfits? I actually bought one a few years ago, and I’ve never really worn it anywhere else. Nor can I bring myself to overuse this sartorial gratitude for the Resurrection, even as I dislike folks who talk about it too much in settings that I don’t consider appropriate.

Consumerism, in my mind, isn’t what we buy or how much we spend.  It certainly isn’t the rational decision to take advantage of Black Friday sales on electronics, even though that reinforces the retail myth that tweaking Black Friday for the new century will cure the ongoing recession. Consumerism is an inner attitude that no one else can judge. No one else can even see it, even by looking at how we shop. It’s not what we buy or where we buy it –but whether we’re following principles once unique to la vie Boheme.



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