Generation Sell – critique of hipster culture by critic William Deresiewicz

New York Times graphic by Josh Cochran and Mike Perry

William Deresiewicz is an essayist, book critic and former professor of  English at Columbia and Yale. He recently gave an entertaining but eviscerating talk at Creative Mornings in Portland on the topic of hipsters and the social meaning of the hipster aesthetic. It was based on his article “Generation Sell” in the New York Times.

Comparing hipsters to previous youth movements like the 60s and punk, Deresiewicz looks at each movement and identifies its general emotional tone and its dominant social form. If for the hippies the dominant feeling tone was love and the social form was a communal utopia, what was the feeling tone and social form for the hipster movement? He concludes that for hipsters the dominant feeling projected is “post-emotional” in a group setting with a faux countercultural appearance. And to his own surprise the dominant social form turned out to be the small business. This is the idea that you can save the world or at least distance yourself from its structures through ventures like ethical small artisanal food businesses, or in his words “by selling hipster pickles to your parents.” As Deresiewicz says, though:

“The ethos of do-it-yourself social engagement goes along with a withdrawal from politics, which is inherently a sphere of two things that that millennials say they hate: conflict and large institutions. … Unless we engage with politics, what starts at the edges stays at the edges. … Against the immense power of coordinated wealth, the Walmarts, the Goldman Sachses, the Koch brothers, the small business model does not amount to very much. I don’t think you can change the system by just working within it or by dropping out of it. You can only change it by confronting it directly.”

As for the idea that the hipster generation or millennials are creative, Deresiewicz points out that this “creativity” is married to technology and entrepreneurialism, it’s disengaged from politics or the social, and it therefore has nothing to do with the historical avant garde or any sort of truly critical creative mode. (Of course, that can also be said of a lot of art, which I think is why he’s trying to reanimate the idea of the avant-garde.)

“Artists and salespeople are fundamentally different kinds of people. It’s the nature of being an artist to be be consumed always with doubt. That’s what fuels your exploration. It’s the nature of being a salesperson to suppress all doubt and to speak in explanation points. Now these functions have to coexist in the same person.”

We’re not going to fix the world by selling. What we have … is a loss of the avant garde, or art that offers resistance to its audience. And not just art. If you make people uncomfortable, then they’re not going to want to buy, in either sense, what you’re selling them. For a long time we haven’t had any avant garde.”

I was delighted when I saw this video, especially considering it took place in Portland. It is nice to have some backup. The past fifteen years of this flatlined, generic pseudo-counterculturalism and Maker Faires while Rome burns have been more than a little frustrating.

Private enterprise is not going to fix this. We need to reinstate the idea of the public and start to think bigger than microbreweries and organic vegetable chips.

We also need less naivete in local politics. It’s amazing to see how many youth-based political groups in Vancouver are backing or working with the neoliberal greenwashing party in power here, Vision Vancouver. What in the actual hell!

Note: critiques of hipsters and hipsterism seem to be accumulating… both good and bad. For critiques that seem as bad as what they’re critiquing, see this.

(Please also see Settler & pioneer “heritage hipster” styles in the age of Idle No More, Chinatown gentrification, &c.)


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9 Responses to “Generation Sell – critique of hipster culture by critic William Deresiewicz”

  1. andrea Says:

    Hear, hear! Here!

  2. Erica W. Says:

    That was great, thank you for posting it. I’d never heard Deresiewicz speak before. One of the books I’ve read recently that has provoked a lot of thoughts/conclusions along similar lines is “How to be Idle” by Tom Hodgkinson.

    I’m in that same generation as both Hodgkinson and Deresiewicz – mid 40’s — not a boomer and not a hipster, and am not comfortable with either generation/model of living. I have disliked the commodification inherent in hipster towns/enclaves (you can tell a place is a hipster place because of the shops) and this talk really helped me put a finer point on why that bothers me.

    I waiver between embracing Hodgkinson’s idea of dropping out of political life completely (you’ll never change the system, so just get off the grid and sit and think) and Deresiewicz’s idea of confronting the system to make changes (or to get it to enforce the laws that exist). I know that small groups of citizens can absolutely make local changes and do get involved in my own city, but I despair of ever being able to make a larger political/systemic impact.

    Lots to think about — and good to know others are out there thinking about the same things.

  3. Erica W. Says:

    Apropos of above, here’s Hodgkinson’s latest article for the Independent:

  4. LB Says:

    Thanks Erica. Interesting article. Key line: “My efforts to avoid conventional employment have led to being overwhelmed with unconventional employment.”

  5. Luke Says:

    While I see where this is coming from I’m not sure I see the current artisan/small business/counter culture-lite thing as much of a historical anomoly as these people do, a good comparison might be something like the bloomsbury group in England, artists: yes, certainly but business people as well, none of independent means so they wrote and printed books, designed patterns and furniture within the ethos of the group.

    They were also apolitical, while they may have been pacifists and enviormentalists of a sort they never agitated as a group. Other examples may be the pre-war French avant garde of the art noveau and deco eras, people like Eileen gray with strongly artistic influences but very much tied to bourgeois commerce for her commissions and livelyhood through her furniture shop or even tolouse lautrec whose finest work has turned out to be his commercial posters.

    The other thing I question is the idea that artists are not salesmen, this is new and possibly brief phenomenon, what are modern artists today if not at least to some extent (and in others like damien hirst a great extant) marketeers of their work, which is frequently not even touched by them but worked on by an army of assistants, art was considered a craft for much longer than it was considered a seperate esoteric calling.

  6. LB Says:

    Hi Luke, I think one of the elements that bothers Deresiewicz is that hipster culture trades on appearing countercultural but is not only not countercultural, it’s passively entrepreneurial. That would be a major distinction with Bloombury and a number of other groups you mentioned. I’d also say that in terms of intellectual fashionableness, Deresiewicz is swimming against the current by trying to re-mobilize the idea of the (artistic or otherwise) avant-garde. Or any kind of opposition to “the large actors,” which hipsters have conveniently mocked as a naive stance. Because they hate conflict. I guess I’d also point out that hipsters aren’t “artists,” though the groups may overlap a little on a Venn diagram.

  7. kathy Says:

    This is really great. I have your blog on my google reader and I always enjoy the kinda of critique you put up.

    This reminds me a lot of my thoughts on living in a city amongst people I went to school with who studied art history. It seems that there is this pervasive coolness to studying a cultural thing, but also a close close cultural tie to really consumer driven thoughts and activities. My friends work with rich people in development and hunt for designer bags for princesses of other countries in order to get their artwork. At the same time they talk about how selfless they are to work at a non profit.

    I liked how he talked about avoiding conflict. I keep running into the statement “that is so depressing” in relation to works of art in the realm of Felix Gonzales Torres or work that speaks to pressing social issues. It feels like people recite historical information to get brownie points or feel like they are using their university education but true political viewpoints are far too abrasive.

    At the same time, universities pump out tons and tons of MFA candidate artists in the USA. These people are supposed to be top creative artists in their fields. The students are either incredibly well off financially or toppling with debt and many have the same highschool-university-MFA program experiences of peers and despite all the professionalism and career moves, one could argue that there are not too many interesting things happening within these droves of graduates. Sometimes I feel bad for not pursuing an additional degree and then I read an interview with Ai WeiWei or Duchamp or any number of artists with a slower (at least compared to the MFA timeline) but incredibly strong artistic and radically political activities. This video hit on some issues worth thinking about within the art school institution as well.

  8. LB Says:

    Kathy, that’s so great – I just love “My friends work with rich people in development and hunt for designer bags for princesses of other countries in order to get their artwork. At the same time they talk about how selfless they are to work at a non profit.” And “true political viewpoints are far too abrasive.” I’d add that one does not have to be politically overt or simplistically political in one’s artwork – that’s what artists always think when one starts talking about how depoliticized everything is, and they get very edgy (quite rightly, actually). But artists occupy a unique location in society and can, in their personal lives if not always their work, function as social observer and even conscience. After all their job is to point out the elephant in the room, or make evident what we’re all blindly taking for granted (at our community peril), or reminding us all of what we’ve conveniently forgotten, or however you want to put it. All of this – and it clearly includes politics and justice – is inherent to the artist’s job as we have conceived it in the 20th C and beyond. A hatred of conflict and of even commenting on the actions of large institutions (govt, banks) is not consistent with this role. Unless artists are now just decorators.

  9. Polly Says:

    Kathy, I have a similar feeling post-artistic education.

    It really rang true that its not even perceived possible to “sell out” anymore. Beyonce can endorse Mc Donalds, Iggy Pop can sell car insurance (I want to forgive him I really do…) We are so saturated with commercial ideals that we seem to have forgotten how to be rebellious…

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