Hipster culture is dead. Was it ever alive?
Just because someone looks like a hipster, smells like a hipster, and walks like a hipster, it doesn't make him a hipster. That's the message that n+1 co-founder Mark Greif delivers in the new bookWhat Was The Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation (excerpt available on New York Magazine's website), whose title puts the hipster in the past. The book arrives at a time when many voices in the cultural sphere are observing the death throes of the vaguely subcultural movement, but Greif, a longtime critic of hipsterdom, argues that hipsters have been on the decline since 2003.
The excerpt is well worth reading for the useful historical context it provides about where the hipster came from in the first place, for its analysis of race and class in hipster culture, and for its look at the legacy of hipster art. According to Greif, the contemporary hipster "emerged by 1999, enjoyed a narrow but robust first phase until 2003, and then seemed about to dissipate into the primordial subcultural soup, only to undergo a reorganization and creeping spread from 2004 to the present."
The original hipster was marked by "nostalgia for suburban whiteness" and fetishization of the
"violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class 'white-trash... [T]he most uncanny thing about the turn-of-the-millennium white hipsters is that symbolically, in their styles and attitudes, they seemed to announce that whiteness and capital were flowing back into the formerly impoverished city. They wore what they were in economic and structural terms—because for reasons mysterious to the participants, those things suddenly seemed “cool” for an urban setting.\n
However, by 2003 the hipster archetype began to morph with "the beginning of the Iraq invasion, and a pivot in the national mood from post-9/11 mourning to patriotic aggression and violence. The wifebeater-wearer’s machismo no longer felt subversive," thus the emergence of the "green" hipster and the proliferation of bands with animal-themed names.
It's nice to get a good history of the hipster at the moment the movement is supposedly dying (even though elements have been absorbed into the mainstream). But what does the hipster movement have to show for itself? What works of art will it pass on? Greif says, not much:
Of course, there are artists of hipster-related sensibility who remain artists. In the neighborhoods, though, there was a feeling throughout the last decade that the traditional arts were of little interest to hipsters because their consumer culture substituted a range of narcissistic handicrafts similar enough to sterilize the originals. One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.\n
Click here to read the full excerpt.