This is the third section of the first chapter of my as yet unpublished book. See previous posts for earlier sections…
CHANGING PLACES – FROM OLD BOHEMIAS TO NEW BOHEMIAS
HIPSTERS: GENTRIFICATION’S LEECHES AND PARASITES
Today’s hipsters were once only to be found in enclaves such as Paris’ third arrondissement, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, London’s Shoreditch and Hackney, as well as other parts of cities like Stockholm, Berlin, etc. But the cult of the hipster quickly spread exponentially. They claim to seek authenticity. They aim to produce and consume alternative things in alternative ways. They crave the unique. This is, of course, a narrative – a fairy tale. Tech-savvy, hipsters “source” or, failing that, recreate, all things vintage, organic, fair trade. The hipster is best considered as a postmodern mélange: part-Bohemian, part-Flâneur, part-bourgeois entrepreneur, and part-anything-from-the-past-and-rebranded-cool. All and yet none of the above. A figure that always denies itself and its existence, yet immediately contradicts its self-denial by the self-consciously fashionable way it styles itself. Authentically inauthentic, Hipsters are the Old-New Bohemians. In other words, they are neither.
Hipsters are most likely to associate themselves with the Beat Generation of the 1950s and 1960s rather than older Bohemians. The Beats were creative, defiant and non-conformist. Poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac moved to New York’s Greenwich Village which became the heart of the Beat Generation scene (although San Francisco was another important location). Greenwich Village was not a New Bohemia when the Beats arrived. It had been widely regarded as a Bohemian enclave since the mid-nineteenth century when it became a haven for artists from across the USA. Later, Greenwich Village became the epicentre for journalist and writer Jane Jacobs’s activism which opposed urban renewal. Unsurprisingly, the area is now one of the most expensive places to live in the USA.
The Beats were frequently referred to as Bohemians but their own inspiration was more closely linked to the British and American nineteenth century Romantic and early twentieth century Modernist literary movements as well as to French Surrealism. The Beats were eventually undermined and appropriated by the beatniks and, later, by the hippies. However, whilst hipsters may often cite the Beats as their progenitors, it is more productive to consider their roots in terms of a lineage extending from the Old Bohemians and Flâneurs as well as from the birth of capitalism. The Beats were nihilistic, hedonistic, heavy drug users and relatively apolitical, whereas hipsters are often (but not always) much less so. And, while the Beats rejected materialism and hated capitalism, hipsters clearly do not.
Most disconcertingly, the word hipster originates in the 1940s as a term used to describe African-American Jazz aficionados – a term opposed to white domination. However, it wasn’t long before what Norman Mailer called “The White Negro” (1957) invaded and co-opted the predominantly black world of the jazz hipster. Today’s hipsters are predominantly white and their stylistic preferences, whilst ostensibly “global”, primarily hark back to white, Western histories. When the history of the hipster is considered in this way and, given the role of hipsters in gentrification, displacement and social cleansing, the hipster becomes something altogether more sinister: co-opting and colonising; Western; white.
The very nature and meaning of being a hipster has changed in recent years. The once relatively small counter-cultural clique is now a global phenomenon and a transnational brand. This has, in turn, led to hipsters being commonly scorned. Ironically, it was labelling and branding which killed the hipster – apparently, if The Guardian is to be believed. 2014 was, so the newspaper claims, the year of “peak beard”. This remarkable claim led Will Self, several months later, to accuse hipsters of being “talentless … dickheads” (2014). Perhaps Self has a point, however. Trend forecaster Chris Sanderson went as far as to divide hipsters into two groups: “proto-hipsters” – effectively the avant-garde of hipsterdom; and “new hipsters” – the followers and mimickers (2014). Yet, to the uninitiated, it can often be difficult to tell these two generations apart. It is clear, however, that we have not yet reached peak hipster. Rather, the style has become part of the mainstream; entirely inauthentic. To be a hipster today is about belonging to a highly-stylised group – a brand, of sorts. It is a uniform. It is not about being unique.
Hipsterism is commercial. Its “flat white economy” was touted by the fiercely neoliberal ex-advisor to ex-Chancellor George Osborne, Douglas McWilliams, as a portent of future UK prosperity (2015). It is driven by the tech sector and the creative industries. Art has been forced into this unholy alliance by successive incarnations of Conservative ministers for arts and culture, who parrot demands for art to go digital; to get online. By September 2016, Tory minister for digital and culture, Matt Hancock, cheerfully quipped that “The hipster is a capitalist.” He was talking to the UK art world. For him, it seemed that hipsters epitomised a perfectly preened vision of 21st century, micro-enterprising Conservativism. Hancock believed that knocking-up more glass-fronted “cultural quarters” would 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.
Living in between traditional middle-class gentrifiers and artists, hipsters are parasitic and exploitative. Themselves often middle-class, their aspirations are contradictory, their motives highly suspect, their stories and images falsely constructed. Mocking, ironic and self-conscious, hipsters are a global brand. Their micro-businesses are the epitome of neoliberalism: hyper-local yet hyper-global; creative yet destructive; unique yet homogenous. They claim to be the New Bohemians but they’re actually nothing of the sort. They are, like many of those involved in the previous waves of Bohemianism, young middle-class people looking to make names for themselves, disavowing one status-quo in favour of building what appears to be their own … but isn’t. Today’s hipsters are tomorrow’s respectable middle-classes. Their own micro-businesses may upscale to become bigger businesses. They may give it up and follow their parents’ footsteps. They may become respectable. Their world is about fashion; about living as a “micro-brand”. This is not the case for lower-income people facing displacement from gentrification, nor for the homogenous gentrifiers – the middle-class, nor for the artists, nor for the small, local businesses and shops that the hipsters undermine and uproot.
In fact, hipsters act much like property developers – here today, gone tomorrow, they profit from gentrification’s meanwhile places. Hipsters are, like financial investors and property developers and, for that matter, like the larger corporate businesses they claim to loathe, capitalists. Exchanging business suits for vintage shirts, quiffs for man-buns, clean shaves for frontiersman barbering, and sportscars for fixed-wheel bikes, these trendy middle-class bobos like nothing better than to hide their capitalism. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. And, like the beasts in Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves (1984), whereas traditional capitalists are hairy on the outside, hipsters are hairy on the inside. The worst kind of wolves, of which grandmother warned: “when they bite you, they drag you with them to Hell!” And Hipster Hell is the New Bohemia – a grotesque parody where poverty, artists and artisan breads collide.
At the borders of the privileged, elitist, superficial and fiercely policed playground of today’s art world lurk the New Bohemias and New Bohemians, just waiting to be “discovered”. And this art world is wrapped, cloak-like, around its bastard siblings, the property world and the economic world. The New Bohemians are precarity’s perfectly imperfect role models. They are flexible, adaptable, creative, seemingly unique – authentic. And it is just such characteristics that make them such a pliable vanguard for the Creative Class and gentrification. The New Bohemians, unlike the Old Bohemians are out-and-out capitalists. The Creative Class is a capitalist class. Bigger PR and advertising agencies, tech companies, music companies and musicians, new media-makers, architects and, of course, arts organisations and established artists, when moulded together en-masse, become the stalwarts of the Creative Industries but they are also its forerunners – its colonising pioneers. Their venture capital and crowdfunded start-ups cluster micro-enterprises in and around New Bohemias, hoovering up any authenticity in the name of taste, urban living and individualistic style. They are joined in this aesthetic feeding frenzy by legions of tattooists, pop-up foodie stops, fancy bread bakers, posh tea and coffee places, up-cyclers, micro-brewers – the list is almost infinite. And it is the arrival of the hipsters, bobos and fashionistas that signals the end for a city’s marginalised people and its peripheral places, not the struggling artists. They convert creativity into commerce.
Hipster capitalism is not “underground”, nor is it subversive. Rather, it is an integral part of capitalism – global capitalism. A “cool” façade for conventional commerce, hipster capitalism serves up rebellion in an overpriced avocado shell; consumer fashion rebranded as “taste”. Hipster capitalists are, then, part of the twenty-first century petite bourgeoisie. They generate profit by aestheticising anything and everything. Hipster capitalism is also conservative – backward looking. But an ironic wink to the artisans and street-sellers of yesteryear or a mercurial nod at the need to “make a living” cannot hide entrepreneurialism. Hipster thrift is little different from Victorian thrift. This is unsurprising because hipster capitalism delights in fusing the old and the new, for it knows this well-travelled road leads to profit. It produces not only financial capital but also cultural capital, exploiting and profiting from neoliberal austerity agendas and creative industries strategies alike.