24 February 2012

Same Difference (i)

There are several different ways to explain "The Hipster Thing" as some here at CalArts have called it. One is as a contrived expression of supreme coolness: "I'm soooo cool that I still look cool in the most uncool clothes and grooming conceivable." Another is as an honest aesthetic predilection for said clothes and grooming instantiated in a particularly overbearing way. A third would be as having become the default universal identifier of "artists" to each other, a secret handshake of sorts, except that it's, you know, not a secret or a handshake. A fourth would be the naive, accidental (and, as I might self-interestedly argue, authentic) way of actually being just this uncool and actually owning a wardrobe just this tattered, yet being so comfortable-verging-on-narcissistic in your own skin (as well as oblivious to and/or generally contemptuous of the judgment of others) that you just don't give a fuck, and hence are so uncool that you can pass for cool based on novelty alone.

Does the contemporary popularity of these various modes of appearance not make it all too clear that their pioneers, who initially more truly viewed them as anti-fashions, and at that most of all for their supposed inability to be Capitalistically co-opted or gain bourgeois acceptance, and could more reasonably in their historical moment than in ours expect them to succeed as such, in fact failed miserably at all of this? To be sure, most all of the intentional fashions one sees at CalArts are retro in some respect; this is, yes, a thoroughly postmodern situation by which there seems to be little or no discernible present-day instance of Fashion beyond this mere potpourri of previous styles, each clearly identifiable by decade (and probably ultimately by year if you've payed more attention to pop culture than I have).

The common denominator, of course, between the pathways to Hipsterism given above is difference. Artists are different. We are both alienated and entitled. Our childhoods and adolescence, despite reflecting the bourgeois privilege of our upper-middle class families, were traumatic. In Kindergarten, making art was fun and everyone did it; by fourth grade, it was perfunctory; by seventh grade, peculiar; and by high school, it was downright dangerous. By college, even the master teachers and intellectuals we had escaped to, who supposedly had our best interests in mind and were being remunerated accordingly, had begun imposing stylistic restrictions, railing against the philosophies we had built our lives around, and prodding us to expunge the last traces of the adolescent naivete which had been our artistic inner flame if it threatened to prevent us from earning a living through our work. Art was no longer either a proper vocation or even a timely diversion. Difference, once a mere value-neutral distinction between two things, had in fact become a question of normalcy and pathology, and the moment we had realized we couldn't do anything else was the precise moment we realized this change had occurred.

Or was it (gasp...) the other way around?

It might come as a surprise to some that as an artist myself, I curse my own difference every day. If I am in any respect rebellious, complicated, difficult, unapproachable, this is because my sense of ethics tells me that the alternative is bad news, not because I do not have the same hopes, dreams and desires as a normal, healthy human being. Fitting in is only unattractive to me because of what it would mean under the present political, economic, social and cultural circumstances; all else being equal, I cannot sit here and say I wouldn't take it if I thought I could have it.

This is, needless to say, not the prevailing attitude I detect here at CalArts. More specifically, it is the opposite attitude. I think that the "present conditions," so to speak (all of them, everywhere, now), besides being difficult and unfortunate, also create a desperate need to distinguish oneself in any way possible. In that sense, it is no longer different to be different; rather, it is what everyone seems to want...and yet more acutely now that everyone seems to want it. I fear, above all, that art is little else to these children besides just another way to achieve this; that it is, really, no more genuine than the ridiculous outfits they wear, and serves no greater purpose in their lives.

And how could it be? What else here is authentic enough to so much as permit other authenticities to exist anywhere around it? What better exemplification of the folly of the academic art world than to bring together all of the "different" kids, find that they are all the same, and then watch them writhe aimlessly trying to recover their difference, or failing that, to create it from thin air? It is an unfortunate symptom of the overall condition of our culture that art has become more or less an inherently alienating act. Be this dynamic as it may somewhat inescapable, we nonetheless acquiesce to it at our own peril.