New Bohemias: Artists, Hipsters & Gentrification - an introduction to an unpublished book

I began writing a book about artists and hipsters and gentrification. It's a follow on from my article in the Guardian titled Hipsters and artists are the gentrifying foot soldiers of capitalism. The book remains unwritten although this is the introduction to the book proposal.

I will publish the first chapter, "Changing places – from Old Bohemias to New Bohemias", in 6 instalments beginning with the chapter introduction this afternoon then the following subsections one a day from tomorrow onwards: "Old Bohemias"; "Hipsters - Gentrification's Leeches and Parasites"; "New Bohemias"; "Gentrification"; and, finally, "Revenge of the Middle-Classes".

 Plate from  New Grub Street,  George Gissing, 1891.

Plate from New Grub Street, George Gissing, 1891.

NEW BOHEMIAS: ARTISTS, HIPSTERS AND GENTRIFICATION

INTRODUCTION

“The hipster is a capitalist.”  So said Matt Hancock, the then minister for UK digital and culture.  A standout soundbite from Hancock’s buzzword-laden keynote speech at the Creative Industries Federation meet and greet event in 2016.  His audience were, of course, UK culture’s great and good.  The setting was the British Film Institute.  Creative industries “leaders” lapped up his speech which, as well as lauding micro-enterprising hipsters, also depicted James Bond delivering a post-Brexit “global calling card” – UK cultural capital – from his Aston Martin, bizarrely named-checked King Canute, and heralded “Uber-style dynamic pricing” for arts and cultural organisations.

This capitalist fantasy left me infuriated, so I wrote a piece in The Guardian in response.  The response went viral.  Many of the thousands of people who commented on the paper’s website, Facebook and Twitter were not part of the art world, yet they were interested – very interested.  It seemed that the short article had ignited a debate about artists and hipsters and gentrification that had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time.  The debate was global.  As a member of the art world – albeit a rather controversial and non-conformist one – I was surprised yet intrigued about why my writing had struck such a raw nerve.  Predictably, many of the art world were horrified and dismissive.  This polarisation of perspectives led me to think about the many histories of the link between art, gentrification and property development; between artists, bohemians and hipster-entrepreneurs.  How we got from the grim Bohemias of the past to the false Bohemias – or “New Bohemias” – of the present is a long and fascinating story that hasn’t really been told before.  So, I decided to write a book.

The creative industries is a late twentieth-early twenty-first century paradigm.  It is also paradoxical: creativity and freedom lashed to the mast of the “good” ship Capital.  Yet, subjugating art and creativity to neoliberal capitalism requires total conformity and control, and these constraints kill freedom and creativity.  Financial capital subjugates cultural capital and both these forms in turn capture social and human capital.  Artists, craftspeople and other creative endeavours are transformed into “The Creative Class” – often touted as the saviours of Western economies.  Of course, cultural capital has always been Britain’s soft power weapon of choice; the perfect accompaniment to a, let’s politely say, “proudly robust”, heritage of rampant jingoism that has long served to justify our lust for colonialism and imperialism in all its forms.  Hancock recognised this, and the fact that the hipster epitomises both the old and the new.  The creative industries has become the perfectly preened vision of 21st century conservativism: privileged yet precarious – the ideal post-Brexit hangover cure.

The hipster may be a capitalist, although aren’t we all nowadays?  But the hipster is also ethical, sustainable and highly mobile.  Retro, beautifully reconditioned fixed wheel bikes with 70s steel frames and state of the art aero wheels are their trusty steeds.  With carefully coiffed beards and retro haircuts, they dwell in craft beer drinking dens, pop-up shops, tattoo parlours, and restaurants selling cereal.  The hipster is so very carefully considered: everything stylised; everything thought through.

When I visited my then newly opened, “traditional barber” I got a little insight into the world of the hipster.  The thirtysomething owner “crafted” each haircut as a “unique experience”. Reclaimed barbering implements and blades hung on hidden magnetic pads beneath salvage yard beams; faux “hunting lodge” panelling was lit by wireless mood lighting; customers sat on “re-engineered” 1920s barbering chairs; hidden state-of-the-art speakers played tech-house from what appeared to be a vintage iPhone dock.

I asked the hipster owner and his beard-nurturing hipster customer (a tattooist from across the road) how they described themselves.  “Socialists,” they replied, quickly adding that they were not looking “to build empires”, just to “make a living”.  They had both left safe jobs working for the state and local government respectively.  This led me to wonder about suggestions that the hipster may represent some form of reincarnated frontiersman/woman or pioneer.  In many ways, I think they do.  Their styling certainly harks back to the mid-to-late 19th century; to the British colonialists and the western frontiers.  These people want to earn a reasonable living, independently, by “crafting” and “creating”.  They, like the original pioneers, are explorers and artists and they are capitalists.  Yet they are also often linked to Bohemianism, but then so is art.

Unlike the colonising pioneer of the past, however, the hipster is postmodern, post-industrial, and post-Fordist.  It is little wonder, then, that Hancock fetishised the hipster as both an ideal actor in his post-Brexit creative industries fantasy and an exemplar of small-scale, micro-enterprise: a capitalist.  An article in the Evening Standard suggested that the minister’s comments might surprise many hipsters, who pride themselves in “breaking away from the mainstream economy with independent-minded and ethical ideas and work practices”.  But isn’t this an exact description of the kind of small-scale capitalist “innovation” that Hancock envisaged as driving the core of Britain’s much-hoped-for creative industries revolution; itself a coded form of cultural imperialism?

The trouble is that this model of art as part-cultural civiliser, part-economic driver, part-social cohesion improver is deeply problematic.  The UK government, like so many others around the globe, believe that knocking-up more glass-fronted “cultural quarters” will bring multiple benefits to everyone: “The lesson is clear: make an area interesting and you attract interesting people to work there.”  You see, for Hancock, “cultural rebirth, connectivity, and economic revival go hand in hand”.  And, of course, the hipster seems to personify these neoliberal ideals.  However, whereas the minister said he was keen to avoid the state adopting a “top-down” and “prescriptive approach”, the state is actually doing exactly that, along with the support of capitalist bodies, like the Orwellian-sounding Creative Industries Federation.

It is the establishment that now sees the hipster as the embodiment of autonomous, small-scale capitalist expansionism.  But it is not just the hipster cast in this role.  Artists are the neoliberal state’s troops.  Artists make the first move into post-industrial, post-welfare state wastelands like brownfield sites and council housing estates and sow the seeds of cultural capital.  They attract hipsters before, eventually, being displaced by them and their new middle-class neighbours.  Both the artists and (some) of the hipsters – the ones who haven’t “settled” yet – will move on, exploring, breaking away (again), developing new potential sites for capital “investment”.  And so the cycle of gentrification starts over again.

Global governments know this. Investors know this. The creative industries (in all their many increasingly homogeneous guises) know this.  They believe in miracles because they create them.  Hipsters are just the latest stylisation that fits perfectly with the rediscovery of the (economic) value of place.  And, just like the gentrifying slogan, “Cupcakes are muffins that believed in miracles”, it would seem that for governments and the Creative Class, hipsters are people who believe in miracles.  For now, at least.

New Bohemias explores how artists and Bohemians miraculously morphed into the Creative Class and New Bohemias.  It traces Bohemianism back to its roots in the grim streets of Paris and in London but suggests that the people of these Bohemias, these slums were middle-class poverty tourists and well-to-do artists who wanted to live amongst “real people” – the working-classes.  The book looks at the stratospheric rise of hipsters and hipster capitalism, positioning their entrepreneurial talents as little more than parasitic exploitation.  However, the real focus of this book is in providing a thought-provokingly hard-hitting look at the parallel worlds of art and property; of wealth and power.  It looks at how art has assisted capital in the creation of Creative Cities, Creative Industries and the Creative Class but it also investigates how artists have attempted to oppose the colonisation of creativity and working-class lives.  It examines how gentrification and Creative Class colonialism is a form of middle-class revenge – “revanchism”.  The marriage of art and property leads to the recent phenomena of “artwashing” – a subject that I am at the forefront of research on.  Artwashing is therefore explored in the book in relation to how it simultaneously facilitates and masks gentrification and social cleansing.  It is also the weapon of choice for aspiring New Bohemias.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, gentrification, like the creative industries and capitalism in general, is actually state-led; meticulously planned and executed with the help of global, transnational corporate interests and secretive offshore private investors.  New Bohemias examines this complex web of vested interests and situates the role of art, artists and hipsters within it.  The book concludes by asking if the next phase of capitalism dispense with neoliberalism and, in so doing, completely remove (or at least significantly undermine) the need for New Bohemias and the Creative Class?  It looks at the rise of Donald Trump from gentrifying property mogul to President of the United States of America.  It also explores his links to the art world.

New Bohemias is about much more than artists, hipsters and gentrification.  The book is an investigation into the multifarious and interconnected networks of late- and post-capitalism.  It exposes how art is an essential part of neoliberalism, operating on almost every level of the political and social spectrums.  The book is ultimately about understanding how governments, corporate interests and powerful, wealthy individuals are exploiting land, property and human rights and how they use art to hide their activities.  The results are startling and of interest to readers who would not usually explore the art world or the planning systems or political systems.  My article in The Guardian touched a nerve and piqued people’s interests globally.  This book will be written in a similar acerbic style that is both interesting and accessible.  From “flat white economies” to cleaned-up red-light zones, public funding to mining natural resources and offshore tax havens, New Bohemias opens the lid on Pandora’s Box to reveal the murky world of art, property, financial investment and gentrification.