Why it’s Important to Start Using the Past Tense when it Comes to Hipsters

Photo Credit: New York Magazine

Last October, Mark Greif published an appraisal of hipster culture in New York Magazine.  Greif is one of the founders of the supposedly-annoying magazine and online journal N+1.  I don’t know enough about it to say whether I like the pubication or not (although characterizations of it as an elitist and pseudo-academic journal lead me to the assumption–if I am to be honest with myself–that I would probably dig it).  But I do think that the conceit of the article–assigning the past tense to consider hipster culture as a historically bound phenomenon–is a useful one.    Opinions of Greif’s role within the hipster universe aside, if the piece had been more descriptive and less overtly condemnatory, I doubt it would have raised the hackles of The Village Voice.  But then again, N+1 proudly characterizes Greif’s work as “Possibly the most divisive publication since the Warren Commission,” and so probably doesn’t mind the attention.  But to me (full disclaimer: I’ve been obsessing recently with how to articulate the sentiment: JESUS CHRIST STOP TALKING ABOUT BROOKLYN ALREADY in a fuller, more developed way) the analysis of the term is often right, and the criticism accurately aimed.

Especially the bold part:

The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skatepunk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twentysomething, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.

This seems right because hipsterism has always seemed hapless when it comes to generating useful countercultural positions.  What strikes me is how frequently I see articles complaining about how we shouldn’t be talking about hipsters–how the term doesn’t matter at all.  And to try to determine whether authors of such pieces even consider the subsequent useful-/lessness of critiques of critiques of hipsters is enough to make my brain explode.  To me the mere existence of the term and the wide application of “hipster” to so many aspects of contemporary urban culture make it fair game for discussion.  But as I think I have already betrayed my stripes in admitting that I agree with the analysis of Greiff’s article–especially in his assertion that hipster culture acts as a means of generating a subset dominant culture rather than resisting it–I think it should be clear that I’m interested in understanding the term for different reasons.

Namely: I think it’s time we stop complaining about how much hipsters should be hated, and start coming up with ways to invigorate contemporary production of art with some of the things that we complain hipsters lack.  Simply: the question that Greif leaves out–“what takes the hipster’s place?”–seems like the kind of question that those searching for a new kind of political or ethical position in art and culture should be asking.

Certainly, understanding the enemy and naming it is useful.  But now let’s say, “Well okay, how do we do better?”  I suspect Greif left this question off the table as a not-so-subtle hint that the folks at N+1 are already doing that kind of work.  Again, I have little familiarity with that publication stands for.  However, a quick perusal of current topics that it explores: MFA vs. NYC, four reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and an article on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest that it might be guilty of a different commonly lamented crime, that of academic bellybutton staring.

Here are some things that I think we should be looking for when trying to answer the question of “what comes next?”….something more useful than “not-trucker-hats.”

  • Where hipsters aim for exclusivity and in-the-knowness, the anti-hipster artist will portray inclusiveness of the ordinary and the common ground of lived experience.
  • Where hipsters are covertly capitalist, the anti hipster artist will constantly insist that capital makes it impossible to divorce art from a system of production and consumption.
  • Where hipsters cherry-pick cultural and historical objects and reinterpret them out of nostalgia for the past, the anti-hipster builds future worlds out of passion for the present.
  • Where hipsters feign a mistrust of the upper classes in hopes of being recognized by them, the anti-hipster artist makes work that resists the widening of the gap between the underclasses and the upper classes.
  • Where hipsters declare their constant attainment of the authentic, the anti hipster artist will strive for depictions of the ineffable true.
  • Where hipsters eschew politics, the anti-hipster artist will criticize the political

This is getting kind of loony and more than a little shrill…but art movements have started from empty phrases and declarations before…………

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