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The ever present spectre of urban expression…a wall surface in Brooklyn

Most compelling article I’ve read in a while: What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, by the editors of n+1.

The history of hipsterdom is rich and nuanced, and its current “apotheosis” is told with a superb eye for detail and those often subtle but telling clues. Even so, the penumbra is everywhere in New York City and particularly Brooklyn. Tracing back the source of these social norms (in a manner that reminds me of Greil Marcus’ amazing book, Lipstick Traces) makes for fascinating reading.

Here’s just a few snippets. (You can buy the small book here or read an excerpt at New York magazine.)

***
In the nineties, it had become commonplace to assume that one could no longer say heartfelt, sincere things outright, because all genuine utterance would be stolen and repeated as advertising. Whatever anguish this caused seemed gone in the artifacts of the early aughts. The ironic games were weightless. The emotional expressions suggested therapy culture, but hipster art often kitschified—or at least made playful—the weightiest tragedies, whether personal or historical: orphans and cancer for Eggers, the Holocaust and 9/11 for Jonathan Safran Foer.

***
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.did not produce artists, but tattoo artists. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts.

***
True countercultures may wax and wane in numbers, but a level of youth hostility to the American official compromise has been continuous since World War II. Over the past decade, hipsters have mixed with particular elements of anarchist, free, vegan, environmentalist, punk, and even anti-capitalist communities. One glimpses behind them the bike messengers, straight-edge skaters, Lesbian Avengers, freegans, enviro-anarchists, and interracial hip-hoppers who live as they please, with a spiritual middle finger always raised.

VIETNAM WAR PROTEST
April 15, 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War, San Francisco (API). This is a chapter from my account of the story.

I can’t sit by and let the 40 year anniversary of Woodstock come and go without taking a moment to reconnect with my own memories of those days. You know, the ones that have been named with an innocuous number, “The 60’s,” as if to sidestep any claim to an ideological legacy. There’s the movie, Taking Woodstock, and the nostalgia it has stirred up. And with the return of Mad Men and its time line that is edging ever closer to the cultural breakdown (or more aptly, breakout?) that will dismantle the world where Don Draper and his minions now live, I am thinking about that time more than I have in a long time.

How sobering to see that in all these various retellings, each of us believes our personal account is a meaningful piece in the larger-than-life mosaic that was a world wide cultural revolution. Like the war that preceded this era by 20 years, every tribe and nation was pulled into a new ideological force field. And like my father’s generation where some went east and some went west, they all returned home with their fragmented account of the war, their stories playing out the differences dictated by where they were seated. (They did after all refer to the various battle fronts as “theaters”.)

My favorite 60’s retelling in cinematic form is the 6 hour splendor of Best of Youth, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana. An experience unlike any other, this Italian version of those years (and the ones that followed) parallels many aspects of my own youth spent growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. But there are many nation-specific differences that make this version feel unique and fresh.

Similarly, a review in the Sunday Times Book Review of Jenny Diski’s The Sixties highlights the differences between the English version of that period and the American one. As reviewer Elsa Dixler points out:

For an American reader, this difference is striking. The civil rights and black power movements were crucial in shaping the politics of the American ’60s, providing moral energy and lessons in organizing. Diski barely mentions them. The American antiwar movement, fueled by college students at risk of being drafted, understandably had a much smaller counterpart in Britain.

But what rises to the surface through all of these splintered accounts is the set of issues that were unleashed around new definitions of freedom, individualism, self expression, identity, what is possible. As Dixler points out, those issues morphed as time moved on, sometimes with unforeseen consequences:

The biggest of Diski’s big ideas is that “liberation and libertarianism were not at all one and the same thing,” that “perhaps our own careless thinking” gave a “rhetorical foothold” to the “new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit” of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s “founding statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’ could easily be derived from the ‘self at the center’ ” of the ’60s. “Unwittingly we might have been sweeping the path in readiness for the radical right.”

You see what she’s after: “freedom,” a crucial term in both eras, changes meaning from “unconstrained exploration of possibility” to “unfettered capitalism.” And it’s certainly true that many of the ’60s young grew up and, for all sorts of reasons, became yuppies. But the governments of Reagan and Thatcher had such deep economic and philosophical roots, and appealed so consciously to people made uncomfortable by the changes of the 1960s, that it seems misleading to read much into the shared vocabulary.

Sobering thoughts.