“It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist—the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry) , if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”1 —Norman Mailer
Portlandia, the television series, inveigles us to believe that the city it is seated in is filled with a quirky, gentle and benign subculture known as hipsters. In fact, the unstated motto of Portland is “Keep Portland Weird,” as if weirdness were both definable and something worth striving for as an end game. On a weekly basis my journeys across this city bring me into contact with a wide range of people considered hipsters. The parlance of our time defines hipsters as tattooed individuals who favor nostalgia, reuse and a general disillusionment with effete modernism. They may carry iPhones but they wear vintage dresses from the 1950’s or the plaid shirts of a lumberjack culture they would surely not share political views with. These basic tendencies fracture and fragment into many sub-subcultures that put variant twists on being a hipster.
I quote Mailer here from the late 1950’s when another original hipster subculture born of Hot Jazz and Bebop in the early 40’s became the play toy of the emergent suburban middle-class white culture as hip hop and rap would latter become in the 1980’s. This co-opting of other cultures into subcultures carries on in American middle-class culture today because it is a shield against the reality of class warfare and deep-seated desire to identify with the Lacanian other, the “I” that is not us now and will never be realized but always idealized and sought after. Hipsters are in effect, the fine point on the now embedded dynamics of American class. The desire to identify both with the exotic and with a nostalgic bucolic past is a result of the failure of the myth of the melting pot. Next to the idea that anyone can become a millionaire sold under the American brand, the great melting pot is paramount to American mythology. It is the poem— so much a fiction now it is laughable—at the base of the Statue of Liberty;
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”2
It is this “Mother of Exiles” that echoes in the subcultures of America today and in many ways is a telling testament to the lack of liberty we now live under. If we are all exiles than we are all indeed members of a special collective of individuals who share a uniqueness by being rejected. It is the quintessential argument of acceptance that our differences indeed make us united. Yet nothing could be further from the reality of our current dynamic. Hipsterism, therefore becomes a longing for something that actually never was in order to psychologically cope with the overwhelming oppression of state, of class, and of race in America.
Mailer’s essay is prescient in describing what would become a deep poison within our society by defining the hipster as a “philosophical psychopath.” The identification with an Other, a truly repressed minority in America, African Americans (or Negros as they were referred to in the 1950’s) allows white middle class Americans to simultaneously subjugate further black culture in the form of the backhanded compliment of appropriation. This hipster dynamic Mailer speaks of then, is symbolically represented in the art world today. Panem et circenses (bread and circuses) is precisely where we’re at and the trickle down culture of elitist praise for the dead-end cynical production of Jeff Koons is the romantic opining for a lost age of handlebar mustaches and square beards represented in the middle class hipster culture omnipresent in Portland, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles Silver Lake district.
Charles Bukowski wrote, “I tell you/such fine/music/waits/in the/shadows/of/hell.”3 The operative word is shadows. In the bright light of hell awaits Jeff Koons, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Bieber’s chrome Fisker shapes some psychotic crossover with Koons’ inflatable reflective Balloon Dog (Orange). The Fisker car a lark that attempted to feed the desire, much like hipsters on a smaller scale, of the entitled to dull the guilt of excess by being sustainable, shows it’s follow in fire and reflectivity. Koon’s fire is born in the excess of auction, with Balloon Dog (Orange) churlishly attaining the highest price ever paid at auction for a living artist’s work, $58.4 million. Our movies, music, books and art are all measured by their blockbuster appeal, and by that I mean monetary value, as if fungibility were the only true measure of creative genius. It’s ironic that the shiniest object is the most culturally corrosive.
I have been confused since I arrived three and half years ago in Portland, why the art scene here is so desperately adolescent and weak. The city is rich with mixology, foodies and a vibrant music scene. It has a thriving sense of design and appreciation for it but when it comes to fine art, the landscape is almost unanimously barren. There is a small gallery scene here, the Portland Art Museum, Disjecta and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and yes, the Francis Bacon triptych of Lucien Freud hung on a wall here for three months, but collectively both the work shown and the work produced in this city is fraught with the same nostalgia found in its fashion, or lack thereof. The art is often abjectly postmodern but referencing movements in postmodernism nearly twenty years old. If not postmodern, it is design-heavy, laden with obvious nods to sarcasm and irony that render it ineffectual and largely powerless. There are hints of light in the darkness here, mainly from photography, but overall Portland is not an art destination. The emphasis here is on craft, not a new epistemology. Craft of course fits in nicely with the hipster aesthetic of backyard chickens, old typewriters and wood cases for iPhones. It’s grounded, tactile and comforting in its service and therefore reassuring of middle class white values while giving a gentle, safe access to aesthetic exploration.
I think this is so, not just because of hipsterism, or any lack of intellectual curiosity per se, but because of its inherent whiteness. Indeed Portland is the fifth whitest city in America, with a near equal balance between the suburbs and the inner city. That makes Portland even more unusual if you look at the the four cities more white than Portland. Those cities all achieve their ranking due to the heavy balance on white suburbanites. Even if the idea of the melting pot were true, the opportunity to achieve it here would be scarce given the lack of ethnic diversity. I think there is a deep importance that should be placed on exposure to other cultures, and indeed exposure to exotic experiences. The joke in Portlandia that this city is the land of the 1890’s is true in so much as the fact we embrace a longing for a past that never was to create a now that denies practical responsibility for the future. One cannot make great art by focusing solely on the past. Great art comes from looking intently, without a filter at the present and foretelling the future.
Hipsterism is an intellectual psycopathy as Mailer correctly called it way back in 1957. It is intent on knowing and little focused on discovery. The random assessments of technology, using both laptops and typewriters, vinyl and MP3’s, and bicycles and cars, force a mashup that is more aligned with political impotence and indecision than forging one’s own distinct path. Being a hipster is a louche act that requires little dedication to the expectations of a real subculture. Piercings and tattoos are becoming more and more aligned with the prêt-à-porter behavior of solid middle class white America. So ubiquitous are tattoos in Portland that you notice their absence more than their abject presence. There is no radical alternative being offered up here, just an endless cycle of cultural regurgitation and appropriation that fractures the city’s capacity for metaphysical expansion. The most prevalent and somewhat disturbing evidence of hipster nostalgia’s dangerous underpinnings can be witnessed at the local professional soccer team’s stadium. Portland Timbers matches quickly reveal the potential for fascism, not just from the political right, as it is often assumed, but from the left as well. The northerly section of the stadium is filled with what Portlanders refer to as the Timbers Army. Chants and songs are song unendingly for the duration of the entire soccer match, punctuated by a double armed salute that could only be described as a double Hitlergruß, or Nazi salute. During the National Anthem, Timbers scarves are waved with a swishing sound made during each pause between song stanzas. Finally, and the most awkward of visual displays at the matches is the use of a chainsaw wielding lumberjack mascot, Timber Joey (formerly Timber Jim, now retired). Timber Joey, born in the right-wing timber country of Philomath, Oregon runs the sidelines during the match wielding a revving four foot long chainsaw. When the Timbers score a goal, Timber Joey cuts a slab from the “victory log” and holds it up to the crowd as if the head of the vanquished.
On the surface, we see subcultures like hipsters as platonic gestures that will fade with time and provide no real threat to our way of life or cultural integrity. Unfortunately, the hipsterism that is so prevalent here in Portland, and elsewhere is a worrisome nod to a disconnect with the reality of our very real twenty-first century problems. Climate change is altering the planet in a way not seen since the birth of agriculture 14,000 years ago. It is and will irreparably alter our way of life and yet here we are waxing nostalgic in a wink wink, nod nod way for the mashup of modernity and the Edwardian era. There was another time this happened and the result was the death of 40 million people worldwide.
As a final point of clarification and an important distinction; I enjoy living in Portland and have some dear friends here. My criticism of the culture here is meant to be illustrative not demeaning to the good people who live and work here. We all fall prey, especially in today’s complex world, to confusion and longing for clarity that will help us to sort through the enormity of the problems we face in our world. This sometimes results in a kind of cultural retreat before the call to arms. I assert that constructive criticism is important to advancing society and encouraging dialogue, not succumbing to illusion and fear. My hope, in this inaugural post to Faheem’s blog and the acceptance of his generous offer to contribute is not met with derision but rather contemplation of what might otherwise be taken for a phase in our culture. I welcome your comments and feedback.
1 The White Negro, (1957) http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-white-negro-fall-1957
2 Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, graven on a tabletwithin the pedestal on which the statue stands
3 Charles Bukowski, The Last Night of the Earth Poems, “the eagle of the heart—”, Black Sparrow Press, 1992.