Youngish pundits and frustrated coffeehouse denizens have now long bitched about hipsters and their seemingly unending stranglehold on the fading tatters of any decent American bohemian culture. Their reign has been surprisingly sturdy (for our normally faddish society) and rather unsurprisingly joyless. Very little quality art (IMHO) has been produced by this amorphous cult of cool. Quality mustaches, tight pants, and nice bicycles appear to be the primary output (and perhaps moving coffee and beer into more stratified echelons of taste).
But should we blame hipsters for simply desiring perpetual coolness? Or for their iconic traits of snobbishness and pretension (even when repeatedly reinforced by personal experience); or for their most culturally detrimental trait of all: being dilettantes? No. Instead the place for blame is the continuing domination of art and artistic culture by our rampaging corporate overlords. They are the true culprits, lest we forget: the serial appropriators and commodifiers, who remain largely undefeated.
For at least six decades now this rapacious modern form of consumer capitalism has been ceaselessly preying upon every new manifestation and movement in each of the artistic genres, and for what? Merely to move product. This beastly business hydra has grown more vicious and insidious every year (not unlike yes, cancer). To the point where we now toss around phrases like ‘viral marketing’ without irony or the profound sadness it should immediately evoke in any warm heart. In fact, it has become a common artistic goal. Just as: ‘personal branding’ — that voluntary creation of a corporate product out of one’s very self. The vivisection of personal identity. Quite disturbing. Yet it is now a commonplace antidote to honesty and genuineness, brought to you by the power of ubiquitous corporate marketing.
Because who can argue against the amazing accomplishments of advertising? In some ways it’s the most wealthy and successful artform of all time. At least, if you consider propaganda to be art. Certainly Goebbels did.
In the midst of this continual onslaught of inauthentic travesty, transplanted and mutated from its original enlightening purposes simply to be molded and corrupted into the darkness of tyrannical profit — prodded and abused, shamed before the throne of sales — how on earth can we expect an alternative culture to thrive… or even survive?
Perhaps the only way to maintain one’s sanity in this toxic atmosphere is to be perpetually on guard against its corruptive influence: to be always cynical and self-aware, just in case. To keep your most sensitive feelings hidden behind a veneer of contempt and cool-judgement lest the ravenous corporate gods repurpose your tender emotions into a hollow form of saleable branding (at least for any brands you don’t like). One must remain alert for the creeping inauthentic at every turn. Only then can your emotions remain beyond the reach of the system’s domination. Hence, society evolves the hipster: a person who appreciates art, but defensively. An attitude finely crafted for living in our post-sincerity culture.
And it is this protective stance that has ironically subsumed the possibility for any new healthy and beautiful alternative to be born apart from the corporate mainstream. It has created a pretentious wall of fear as a bulwark against inauthenticity. But fresh and wondrous creativity requires a loosening of mental control and an exposure to vulnerability. It needs to repeatedly reignite the cognitive fire of fun and exploration (which already becomes difficult after twenty-two-ish). And above all: it requires a release of self-consciousness.
How very un-hipster.
So in this harsh modern techno-wonderland of constant scrutiny, immediate criticism, angry identity politics, and ever-questionable moral authority — locked inside a desperate and crumbling consumption economy — with all the hazardous emotional amplification of perpetual recording and instantaneous communication which the internet can muster, how can a genuine artistic culture whimsically, happily, and wondrously emerge?
Short answer: it can’t. Because it is stunted by commercial annexation and malnourished by perpetual judgement. Such is the heartbreaking state of alternative art in the 21st century.
Yet there are innumerable individual artists working hard right at this very moment to express themselves — the internet is sopping with them. But they lack unification and the exquisite commingling of influence and thought which can sprout from a supportive and rising subculture. They are mostly lone individual strugglers, shouting out into the overcrowded void: ‘me too! me too!’ — their cries echoing across a wide and cold digital abyss where celebrities rule influence and corporations peddle a transmuted form of our self-expressions back to us.
These desperate souls are struggling uphill, hoping to win their 15 minutes in the popularity lottery. That now familiar story: sudden discovery from nowhere, the shocking loss of anonymity, a faddish burst of selling-out, followed by a rapid return to near-obscurity, with only an eventual last gasp of nostalgia some time later. It’s the pattern of all one-hit wonders. And the corporate ideal: fast and disposable, like plastic. The monolithic news cycle churning on. Everything swapped out weekly. Tossed away for the new and titillating, that next fleeting flash.
How could ever a traditional artistic bohemia survive in such an environment? With the carnivorous cool hunters prowling the landscape, looking for fresh art and new sincerity as grist to be ground in their mill of sale. Urban Outfitters is monitoring you. Coke would like to know your habits. Taco Bell is behind the curtains taking notes. The media companies are just so many frenzied mosquitoes in constant search of new blood.
The entertainment demands of the 21st Century seem (apparently) bottomless. We’ve outsourced much of our serotonin production to the corporations which control music, sports, television, games, movies, and books. And they’ve grown increasingly desperate to produce the most universally acceptable, exportable, franchisable, exciting, boring, money-making pablum possible. Of course that is not new either… yet it continues to worsen.
Various alternative cultures have been attempting to fight it for decades. The beats, hippies, punks, and grunge kids all tried… and eventually lost. But the hipsters have avoided it altogether by never producing anything of substance except a lifestyle based upon fetishizing obscurity and cultivating tasteful disdain. A noncommital and safe appreciation of ironic art and dead artists. No ideals, no demands, no struggle.
Rarely has the modern alternative to pop culture been so self-conscious and crippled. The mainstream has repeatedly beaten down and destroyed a half-century’s worth of attempts to keep art on a worthwhile and genuine path, but now it seems the final scion of those indie movements has adopted the: ‘if you can’t beat‘em, join‘em’ compromise of creative death.
You market yourself in an attempt to transform into a cultural virus…
Or you utterly disdain all attempts at honest expression…
Both herald the demise of inspiration and originality.