Hipsters being savaged by a former hipster seems – oh, I don’t know, about right…?
No one who is a thinking person doubts that our culture is in trouble. Whatever forces have taken us down a road where knowledge of reality television shows is considered social capital are, I think we can all agree, malevolent.
In a recent essay in The New Statesman (and republished in The New Republic), British novelist and intellectual Will Self savages his generation’s acquiescence in failing to overcome being what he calls “the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditization of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action…of capitalism’s blitzkrieg.” His critique (written in a classic snarky style) continues with an indictment of what he sees as a completely delusional group of “artists” – :
we’re the twats who sat there saying that there was no distinction between high and popular culture, and that adverts should be considered as an art form; we’re the idiots who scrumped the golden apples from the Tree of Jobs until our bellies swelled and we jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes—slurry we claimed was “cultural criticism.”
Self’s anger seems to have been sparked by two events: his stay at a boutique motel in Los Angeles where he was forced to listen to Massive Attack played at a ridiculous volume during breakfast and, in what Self sees as equally provoking, the hotel’s “faux rustic” decor: “The decor is suggestive of some deconstructed Midwestern idyll, what with old farming implements nailed up against one exterior wall, yards of gingham hanging from assorted rails, and plenty of rough-hewn yet varnished wood.”
Self argues that the triumph of this self-deluded – and self-congratulatory – critical revisionism embraced by hipsterdom is an existential stance that argues for “an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavor” – and that can’t tell the difference between art and interior decorating: “Nowadays someone who sticks old agricultural implements on the wall of a Los Angeles motel regards himself as on a par with Michelangelo.”
Self’s critique is, as you can see, vigorous and tough-minded. It’s also rather narrow and self-absorbed, albeit in a well-intentioned way. A little exploration of that narrowness shows where he falls short in his consideration of cultural/critical forces that might have affected his generation’s (Gen-X) cultural values.
The shift he bewails – that “assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavor” – can be traced back to a number of sources – the French, who successfully sold critiquing and analyzing movies as serious intellectual inquiry; Wilfred Mellers, who introduced talking about rock music as serious art; and, in America at least, Ronald Reagan, whose gutting of the FCC’s regulations on television’s social and cultural obligations allowed the medium to exchange shows like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts for the likes of Toddlers in Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Gen Xers, those born roughly between 1961-81, were affected at much younger ages by these cultural shifts than Baby Boomers: indeed, Boomers are largely responsible for some of these shifts, especially the legitimization of “cultural criticism,” a form of critical inquiry mostly interested in justifying watching large amounts of (insert type of television programming here) or reading volume after volume of (insert favorite genre fiction here) or listening to loads of (insert favorite genre of pop music here) and writing and delivering Marxist or Feminist or Deconstructionist or (insert latest critical school approach here) based “scholarship” on the same.
Perhaps, as was sometimes argued during the culture wars that raged in college/university liberal studies programs 40 years ago, there was nothing new to say about Shakespeare or Rembrandt or Beethoven or Plato and their ilk. Perhaps the inmates took over the asylum, as more conservative voices have argued. The results, though, we have seen – entire generations now no longer see the value of any form of cultural endeavor, particularly that quaint form of said endeavor called “arts appreciation.” Instead, celebration of celebrity, wealth, and self-interest rule the thinking of a large part of our society.
For those creaky enough (as I am) to have been firmly grounded in “arts appreciation,” one of the, to use a term most certainly associated with our “improvement” of liberal education, “takeaways” of having read Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale,” contemplated Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or listened to (and really attended to) Vaughn William’s “Adagio for Strings” is that all these works call into question our interest in money, fame, self and push us to contemplate more profound issues of being human. They help us understand that there is a difference between “The Pietà” and a plow.
Maybe this is what Will Self is railing about in his essay, maybe not. But both he and I agree that there’s something wrong with our intellectual and aesthetic culture that can be described best by a term from the very computer technology that he accuses of making hipster culture possible:
Garbage in – garbage out….